Anticipation and Realization: Can Expecting Disappointment Reduce Your Pain?


My mother used to say, “Anticipation is greater than realization.” She uttered the phrase more than once, always unprompted. It was as if she were giving me a warning about the disappointments of life, the hoped-for moments that wouldn’t fulfill my expectation of them. Certainly, she was speaking of her own pain-filled history. Her strategy was not to predict too much good from events and especially from people, for fear of adding to the list of letdowns. In doing therapy I heard many others tell me they adopted a similar defense, the better to buttress themselves against the world’s assaults. Simply put, don’t get your hopes up, they would say. Otherwise you will be ripe for dismay.

I am no blind optimist, but I think mom was wrong. First, I’m not sure you can effectively steel yourself against all the blows of life. If Death is an opponent with an undefeated record, Life is sometimes your best friend and at others your worst enemy. He will lift you up and tear you down. Even in a lucky life like mine “there will be blood.” But since I like the heady experience of those times life lifts you off your feet, I must pay the cost of admission to the airport. These are the terms of the contract we accept by taking our first breath. We do well, if we can, to bounce back when defeated, since the future may hold more glorious and unexpected flights.

Secondly, many of the injuries we suffer are impossible to anticipate except in an abstract way: we know people will leave, we expect occasional betrayal, we recognize nobody wins every game, on and on. Only a fortune-teller knows exactly how and when. Thus, in a moment of pain, we are taken by surprise despite our preparation. Moreover, we risk wasting our days in a state of general worry or dullness, bypassing every chance for love, kindness, and accomplishment. Expecting disappointment rarely reduces the hurt, but the strategy guarantees little possibility of joy.

My most memorable experiences were impossible to fully forecast. A trivial example: as a kid I looked forward to attending a NY Yankees baseball night game against the Chicago White Sox on May 18, 1956. I couldn’t wait until my Uncle Sam took me. The thrill I imagined weeks in advance was amplified a thousand fold when the mighty Mickey Mantle hit one home run batting right-handed and another left-handed, a feat rarer than pitching a no-hit game. I can still picture the port side clout, as if carried by a rising tide, the ball aglow in the arc lights until the spheroid struck the right field upper deck of old Comiskey Park. But for the impediment of the rafters I thought it would reach the moon.

I have been moved to tears by music, by the birth of my children, and amazed that I could move many of my high school classmates to tears by a speech given at one of our class reunions. A crackling physical electricity of athletic performance passed through my body on one occasion — a sensation I never knew possible. I’ve enjoyed luck in love and friendship as well as heartbreak and betrayal. A business partner and friend stole tens of thousands of dollars from our enterprise. My parents are both long dead. A lifetime of movies, books, conversations and observations did not prepare me for these sensations and emotions when the moment arrived. Life is about taking action and being surprised and being grateful despite the fact there is no free lunch.

Some hunker down in their shelter of straw thinking the big bad wolves will thereby be held off. I’m here to tell you I know of no fool-proof defense against injury and no Teflon-infused clothing to deflect the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” What we are offered is a life of imagination and fear and effortfully summoned courage and friendship and tears and laughter and loss and taking chances: in other words, of winning and losing. If you think otherwise, well, you haven’t been paying attention.

Sample the menu of life. Not all the dishes are tasty, but even some of those you don’t like are informative, and knowledge is usually desirable. Don’t make the highlights of your life the things you buy for yourself. Do make some of those highlights the gifts (of all kinds) you give to others.

The best events cannot be anticipated. And don’t glut yourself: a gourmet meal should be a special treat, not a routine pattern of diminishing novelty. The greatest art, music, and literature become old if revisited daily. I wouldn’t want to attend a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony even once in three years. Celebrate the rare occasion. Become an enemy of routine. Do look forward to some things, be they goals worth working for, a date with your sweetie, a trip, or a once a year get-together with old friends. Anticipation has magic, as we note in the lives of children every Christmas. Don’t become like the worker in a candy factory who grows tired of chocolate by eating too much.

The world is not your oyster, but there are some good bites. No one gets out alive, yet brave souls seize the day. On a fine afternoon your bite will feel like more than enough. You might even uncover a pearl.

The top image is called In Anticipation by Albert von Keller. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

10 thoughts on “Anticipation and Realization: Can Expecting Disappointment Reduce Your Pain?

  1. What a beautiful post and very true and yes that is a defence that I’ve used strongly in life but trying to minimise. It takes so long when you’ve been taught through childhood experience that life is very unsafe and risky business to turn down the hypervigilance and realise that there is also blue skies and flowers and sunsets. I haven’t quite got to the giddy heights yet, I still find them problematic, but the quiet joys and beauty in life are good and just try to see the best in people and life. Thanks for the encouragement to keep working on it Gerald.


  2. Dr. Stein, loved the painting you used for this post and chuckled in empathy with your observation: “A crackling physical electricity of athletic performance passed through my body on one occasion — a sensation I never knew possible.” 🙂

    I consider myself a pragmatic optimist, with a heavy dose of humor. I recently told my therapist, “My life may be f*&ked, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have fun.” Humor has saved me.

    Believe it or not, I actually got the psychiatrist, nurse, etc. to crack up before I was put under for ECT recently when the male nurse mentioned my psychiatrist loved hockey. From the bed, I asked, “You guys don’t break out in fist fights when I’m out, do you?” 🙂 (ECT has been shown to show improvement in PTSD, but it was my depression that got it approved. Next I want to investigate stellate ganglion block for the PTSD.)

    Anyway, I have a friend who lives by the “never expect anything good” philosophy, and I wonder how he even gets out of bed every day. Thank you for such a great essay to ponder.

    All my best to you, Dr. S. 🙂



    • drgeraldstein

      Thanks for the update, Harry. Sorry you had to get ECT, but I’ve seen those with Major Depression obtain considerable benefit. Yes, humor is essential and sometimes life saving. Thanks, Harry.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful analysis of life’s reality if one cares to participate. Thank you very much.


  4. Thanks for another great post, Dr. Stein. I agree with you when you say: “Life is about taking action and being surprised and being grateful despite the fact there is no free lunch.” In a world of financial insecurity and uncertainty, I’ve had to learn that the hard way.


  5. Dr. Stein,
    I have been reading your blog for about a year now. During this time I have been seeing a therapist for depression. Right now I am dealing with a very strong depressive episode in conjunction with some burnout at work. I just wanted to say that this post moved me to tears. Thank you for sharing this powerful message.


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