Expectations, Beliefs and Discipline:Two Experiments, Two Challenges

By Arnold Siegel

Expectations and beliefs are a fact of life; however, they may not be thoughtfully promulgated. Odds are, our expectations and beliefs exist by virtue of blind force, cultural impress, fantasy or gamble. They may bear little relationship to how the world works or to the control we have over ourselves and circumstances. Yet unfulfilled, they are insidiously harmful, motivate irresponsibility and blame, and lead to gripes, excuses, spite and self-antagonism, alienation, retreat.

For the sake of experiment, try this challenge. For a period of time you designate, be willing to consider my assertion that an important number of your beliefs and expectations may not be based on carefully considered gathered intelligence and native intelligence; you simply have them. Be willing to take responsibility for disappointed expectations.

What do I mean by “take responsibility?” For the sake of this experiment, take the point of view that your expectations are your responsibility. When they do not materialize, try to locate where you were cause in the matter. This does not mean that you must pretend to have control over circumstances beyond your reach. Rather, by locating where you were unrealistic and failed to formulate your expectations properly, acknowledge the part your presumptions, suppositions, wishful thinking, naïveté, decisions, judgments, nonfeasance and actions played in the matter.

On paper, this experiment may seem remedial. But before you begin it, think about how often you experience discontent and disappointment. You live in a free country and are already more privileged than the majority of the world’s inhabitants. Although life is not fair and yes, some people may have more stuff than you do, you’re not someone who has been excluded from all of life’s opportunities and pleasures. Certainly no one else feels sorry for you. Yet disappointment and discontent dog your experience of life. So, once again, for the sake of experiment, try this challenge.

For the sake of experiment, try another challenge. This one is related to self-control, self-management and self-discipline.

As adults, we tend to think we are already self-directed, autonomous and rational. Certainly, when we talk to ourselves, we can “make sense” of practically everything we do. Yet we are also nature’s experiment, beneficiaries of chemically induced feelings that emerge in just the way that they do (rather than by executive decision). Close to home and familiar, this primal authority is immediate and compelling.

In other words, beneath the polish of rational explanation is an unruly mass of chemicals. Many of our choices, decisions, motivations, priorities, advances, retreats, etc., with respect to our carefully conceived objectives are “authorized” by the immediacy of feelings. While some of our feelings seem to move us toward accomplishing our civilized objectives, some seem to hinder accomplishment. This means we must learn to impose order on this aspect of immediacy—harness or temper feelings that are counterproductive (given our objectives).

Feelings are generally tempered by means of discipline; initially by the discipline our early caretakers impose upon us. To the extent we didn’t acquire this discipline, it is now up to us as adults to impose it upon ourselves.

Discipline is acquired incrementally, systematically, repetitively, in due course and over time. However, most of us have countless unverified reasons why we are somehow superior to the rest of us who must learn or acquire incrementally . . . in due course and over time. Therefore, putting our unrealistic notions to the test of reality in order to learn the practical truth about our own actual embodied competencies can be a useful learning endeavor. It can also be empowering; we seem to have more confidence, optimism and equanimity when our self-descriptions are accurate, when the powers we ascribe to ourselves have actually been tested.

If you would like to find out for yourself just how much competence you have at discipline, please set up a 28 or 30-day discipline project and “keep score” marking your progress. Please choose an activity at which you have historically failed or at which you are incompetent.

Example: Regarding your fitness program, did you do what you said you would do when you said you would do it? Please be very specific with the details: What will you do? When will you do it? Where will you do it? How will you do it?

Why be so seemingly remedial? Well, most of the time we are successful with our primary institutional roles. However, on playing fields where we do not “fit” so comfortably or where there is no structured program for accomplishment, our successes may be fewer. In order to succeed, we must “discipline” ourselves by turning ourselves over to or inserting ourselves into a structure or program that will yield accomplishment, and we may have to go to the drawing board many times. There’s no reason to believe that even well-conceived structures will not have to be redesigned and redesigned as we face inertia, criticism, novelty, complexity, disappointment, ambivalence, breakdowns, obstacles, stumbling blocks.