Way back in 1637, French philosopher Rene Descartes coined the famous French phrase Je pense, donc je suis which translates in English as I think, therefore I am. On the surface, it seems innocuous enough, but I’ve recently come to understand how profound this statement really is. The scientific evidence is very clear: our thoughts and our thinking literally create our reality and impact how we experience the world along with the outcomes we experience in our life.

The world is the world, reality is reality. Yet we know that we experience the same reality very differently from others, even among those close to us. How we experience our world seems to be a function of perception and interpretation. Perception and interpretation in turn is a function of our subconscious mind and our stored memories and experiences.

So, the question becomes: Is there a way we can shape and train our perceptions and interpretations to create a better life experience for ourselves?

I recently read a book that tells us we have significant power to create a more positive and enjoyable life by being mindful of our expectations. The author, Dave Robson, is a science writer specializing in psychology and neuroscience. The book is called The Expectation Effect.

I’m sure we’ve all heard of the placebo effect. This is the improvement in the condition of an ill patient that occurs when the patient believes they have received a treatment, when in fact they were deceived. They received a treatment, but it was inert. Nevertheless, their condition improved. The placebo they were given created an expectation they would get better, and they did. Of course, the placebo effect is not 100%, but it is real, and it is exceedingly well documented and researched. It certainly points out how our expectations (in this case “I will get better”) can be transformative for our reality.

Mr. Robson references solid scientific research and studies that reveal how our attitudes and beliefs (our thoughts, our thinking, and particularly our expectations) can have significant consequences, both positive and negative, for all aspects of our lives. I believe this may be something most of us intuitively know, but we fail to apply it in our own lives.

If you have a child or friend who says something like “I’ll never be able to do it” or “I know I’m going to fail”, how would you typically respond? Most of us will encourage them to change their expectation because we know that the chances of success, when we expect to fail, is greatly reduced.

An interesting example Mr. Robson details is your expectations after you’ve experienced a night of poor sleep. (Not chronic sleep problems, just a one-off, disturbed night.) Will you assume you will be in a bad mood, fatigued and not able to function well? Will it ruin your day? Or will you focus on the sleep you did get and have a normal day? Mr. Robson details the research that clearly tells us that what we will actually experience is almost completely a result of our expectations. Fascinating!

In other examples, like tasks of remembering names or finding our way, he details how negative performance expectations (I’m not good at remembering names; I’m not good at finding my way) can create anxiety about our abilities, which creates mental distraction, which can turn off that area of our brain’s processing, which in turn reduces our mental capacity. Not a good formula for success. And if we assume we won’t be good at it, we may not even try, which naturally precludes a poor outcome.

This book makes me think of how much we can unconsciously undermine our lives by failing to notice or manage our negative expectations. It’s not usually deliberate. It is well documented that humans have an evolutionarily obtained bias towards the negative. Our brains and body are always obsessed with our survival, so we unconsciously try to predict the future based on stored experiences and current information. The problem is that stored experiences are often no longer relevant, and current information is limited; neither account for our adaptability, learning, or changing circumstances. Therefore, our default predictions (expectations) aren’t necessarily anchored in reality, or most importantly, our best interests.

So how do we go about truly changing what we may believe or what we expect of ourselves?

Dr. Jim Loehr is a renowned performance psychologist, and he has some straightforward but powerful advice: write it down.

Dr. Loehr says, “We finally concluded that your handwriting probably had the greatest impact on neurological functioning in which these neural networks were formed and changed, than anything else we could do. Something is happening in moving the muscles of your hand that actually create a greater imprint that is much more likely to be sustained.”

In practical terms, Dr Loehr advises, this means creating a story that works for you and writing it out by hand. Then each day, he advises, re-write it from memory, reading out loud the previous version and the new version. He says you can also record your new story on your phone and play it to yourself – essentially self-coaching. This reinforces those powerful new neural networks in the brain. Using our previous example of remembering names, your new story might read like this: “I am confident remembering names and I really enjoy remembering people’s names because it feels great. If I forget a name, I will politely ask for a reminder and be happy this lapse is behind me. I’m excited about honing my skills for remembering names and getting better and better over time. I am smart and I know I can remember names quite well.” The idea is to build a running narrative with yourself that builds confidence and builds belief. After years of research, data collection and practice, Dr. Loehr says his clients have experienced “astonishing success” at changing their stories about themselves.

With the volume of scientific evidence in The Expectation Effect, it’s clear that our expectations are profoundly impactful on our lives. But the good news is we can change our stories. Obviously, adjusting our expectations will not solve all our problems. And we need to be mindful of what psychology calls the paradox of expectations. Unrealistic expectations can create unnecessary stress and pressure. And failing our expectations can potentially generate self-sabotaging thoughts. Nevertheless, this book has certainly influenced me to notice my expectations that may be undermining me, and with gentle self-compassion, make a dedicated effort to switch them into more positive and self-supportive territory.

Based on the scientific evidence, perhaps it would make more sense if Rene Descartes had said: Je serai comme je pense. I will be the way I think.

  1. What are 3 positive expectations that you can verbalize out loud to start every day?
  2. What expectations (beliefs) about yourself are you currently holding that may actually be opinions, and not facts, and can therefore be adjusted
  3. What single expectation can you pick that is important to you (to change) and for which you are willing to implement Dr. Loehr’s methodology?

Wishing you success with creating awareness around your expectations, and the results those expectations are facilitating in your life.

With loving kindness,
Coach Billy