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Expectations vs. Agreements: What’s the Difference, and How Can it Improve Your Life?

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Today I’m going to discuss a distinction I like to make between two words — “expectation” and “agreement” — and how it relates to your journey toward a better life.

First, let’s talk about expectations.

An expectation is when you have a strong belief that something will happen. Expectation lives inside of you, and it’s based on your view of the world and your life experiences. The way things have happened in the past enables you to make certain assumptions about what to expect in the future.

Expectations aren’t inherently bad, as they allow you to let go of the need to pay attention to everything going on around you. There are many things in life that you can reasonably expect to happen based on the way things are: the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, the tides cycling from high to low to high to low each day in the oceans, the availability of enough oxygen in the air that you can breathe and survive.

Where things can start to go bad is when you have expectations about other people or about yourself.

When you have expectations related to what another person is going to say or do, and then they don’t do it, that can trigger a number of negative things — judgment, frustration, misunderstanding, anger — that are capable of driving a wedge in the relationship.

The same thing happens when you place certain expectations upon yourself. This can happen with pretty much anything in your life.

When you take something on — like the Whole Life Challenge, for example — you may have an expectation about the result you’re going to get from it. Then, once you’re three weeks in and nothing is changing, you may get those same feelings of self-judgment, frustration or anger.

This scenario is even worse because it can contain feelings of both guilt (the feeling that you’ve done something inherently bad or wrong) and shame (the feeling that you are inherently bad or wrong).

But I’ve got some really good news about all of this: It’s completely avoidable.

You see, expectations happen in the world of assumptions, and assumptions occur when you take something for granted — when you haven’t created or built agreement around the result you want to produce.

Take something like a red light. You have an expectation that cars will stop at a red light… but you have that expectation because of the agreement we’ve all made when we get our driver’s licenses: to abide by the laws, and to stop at red lights. Without the agreement, red lights wouldn’t work.

In relationships with other people — work colleagues, friends, your kids, your spouse — it’s very much the same. Because everyone sees the world slightly differently, one person’s interpretation of something can be very different than someone else’s.

Let me give you a recent example that happened with me. My son said he wanted to leave for his soccer game at 1:15. Without thinking about it, my brain interpreted that to mean, okay Andy, get ready starting at 1:15. As a result, we left about seven minutes later than he wanted to. And he was disappointed and upset. Rightfully so.

Without really knowing what he was doing in the car, he asked me if I could start getting ready 10 minutes before the time we have to leave next time. And I agreed. He took the thing that didn’t work — his expectation based on the request to leave at 1:15 — and he created an agreement with me so that next time, he could get what he wanted, something that was clearly stated and agreed upon by both of us.

Agreements dissolve assumptions and expectations. They make relationships work — at least when two (or more) people are committed to keeping their agreements.

But they require advance thought and consideration. What do you want? How do you want it? By when? In what form? The more details you can think about and include in the agreement, the less likely that there will be any frustration or misinterpretation.

Now, the same thing goes with you… internally.

I’m talking about the expectations and assumptions you make about yourself and your life. You know, the expectations you have to be at a certain place in your career by now, to be in a loving relationship, to have the body you’ve always wanted, to be a success… to be the best version of yourself ever.

We all fall short of these expectations. They’re often left unsaid but are part of the internal self-dialogue we have every day with ourselves. We’re never living up to our expectations.

And where does that lead us? Right into the world of self-judgment, misunderstanding, frustration and anger.

While you’ll never succeed at eliminating this process — it seems to be part of the human condition — the best strategy to deal with it, one area at a time, is to make agreements with yourself that you’re willing to live up to.

What do I mean?

You’ll never be able to live up to the endless stream of expectations you have for yourself, but if you want to stay out of the land of judgment, you can create specific agreements with yourself: to show up, to take the small actions, to be present, to make that phone call, to shut off your phone at dinner.

When you’ve taken the time to think about the actions that will lead to the results you want, and you make an agreement with yourself (or with a coach, a friend, or something like the Whole Life Challenge where you’re accountable), it really becomes simple.

Live up to your agreement. See what happens. If it doesn’t give you the result you want, make a course correction.

All the other stuff — the self-judgment, the misunderstanding, the frustration, the anger caused by unfulfilled expectations — you can leave behind.

So here’s what to do:

  1. Pick one area of your life and make a list of the things that aren’t working for you. These are things that cause strife, anger, frustration or judgment, and they may or may not involve other people.
  2. Identify the expectations you have that are causing your frustration and write them down. What did you expect that you are not getting, either from yourself or from others?
  3. See if you can craft an agreement you’d be willing to make that would give you more of what you want (provided that you and anyone else involved live up to it).
  4. For the agreements that are yours alone: Write them out.
  5. For the agreements that involve others: Propose them, and see what happens.

Agreements have the ability to transform your life and relationships, but it’s a process. Don’t expect overnight results. Keep at it, and use the frustrations you have as cues to help you see your expectations more clearly.

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Andy Petranek
Andy is what you’d call a modern day Renaissance Man: a former professional trumpeter who attended the Eastman School of Music; a snowboarder, mountain biker, surfer, kayaker, outrigger paddler, mountaineer, and former Marine (Gulf War veteran); a professionally sponsored adventure racer; and the oldest participant to qualify for and participate in the CrossFit Games at the age of 43.

Andy is a certified CHEK Practitioner and holistic lifestyle coach. He holds a spectrum of certifications from CrossFit and is also a Vivobarefoot certified running coach. He has trained as a Zen buddhist and graduated with a Master’s degree in spiritual psychology from the University of Santa Monica.

Andy founded CrossFit LA one of the first and most successful CrossFit training centers in the world and the first to be featured in national media. He is the co-founder of the Whole Life Challenge, Inc, currently its president, and is also a consultant and life/business coach. Andy lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Julia, and son, Dashel.