The Third Kind of Expectation

I wrote a post last year on two different kinds of expectations: anticipations and entitlements. I realized sometime later that there is a third, very important kind of expectation. I’ve spent a lot of good time trying to find a good name for them but haven’t, so I’m just calling them “the third kind of expectation”. On reflection, while this is unwieldy, it is an absolutely fantastic name by the sparkly pink purple ball thing criterion.

First, a recap on the other two kinds of expectations in my model: anticipations and entitlements. An anticipation is an expectation in the predictive sense: what you think will happen, whether implicitly or explicitly. An entitlement is what you think should happen, whether implicitly or explicitly. If your anticipation is broken, you feel surprised or confused. If your entitlement is broken, you feel indignant or outraged.

I made the claim in my previous article that entitlements are in general problematic, both because they create interpersonal problems and because they’re a kind of rationalization.

But isn’t entitlement okay when…?

Since then, some people have pointed out to me that there’s an important role that entitlements play. Or more precisely, situations where an angry response may make sense. What if someone breaks a promise? Or oversteps a boundary? It’s widely believed that an experience of passionate intensity like anger is an appropriate response to having one’s boundaries violated.

I continue to think entitlements aren’t helpful, and that what you’re mostly looking for in these situations are more shaped like this third kind of expectation.

The difference is primarily a matter of whether or not the angry person feels a sense that the violation should not have happened—that they deserved something else. These stances inhabit a belief that the past is somehow wrong, which… first of all, doesn’t make any sense, because it’s already happened. Moreover, they have a quality of closedness to them, being unwilling to let in information about why the other person might have done what they did.

What’s left when that confusion and closedness are removed, though?

A painful and beautiful response. I’ve watched a friend of mine realize how messed up his childhood was, and he got angry at how let down he was by his parents. And there was a purity to his experience, and his expression, because he wasn’t trying to deny or negate what had happened, or trying to oversimplify the situation and find a counterfactual “somehow” in which the trauma had never happened. He was just feeling the full depth of what had happened. Letting it the reality of it, and feeling angry.

He hadn’t been able to feel angry at the time, because—like many people experiencing abuse—he had made sense of the experience in part by assuming that somehow he deserved it.

You don’t have to hold “I deserved something other than this” to feel angry. But you do have to not hold “I did deserve this.”

These are different. Contradiction isn’t simple negation. “I deserve X” is different than “I don’t deserve not-X”, because the latter is compatible with “I don’t deserve anything. Nobody deserves anything. ‘Deserving’ is broken.” A view of things that is beyond rights and entitlements.

I expect I’ll write a blog post specifically breaking down “deserving” at some point, but for now I’m going to move on.

The point about this third type of expectation isn’t about whether or not you deserve something, it’s about whether or not you can reasonably ask it of someone, or something.

A “something” example would be if you bought a product that was advertised as doing a particular thing. You can expect, in this third sense, that it will do this thing. It may be that you also have an entitlement here, to eg a refund if the product was flawed. “Satisfaction guaranteed.” Implicitly, you can also reasonably ask of the company that made the product why it didn’t work when you tried it.

a graphic illustrating the 3 kinds of expectations. The text is a summary of what's already in this blog post. Anticipations are illustrated with an image of dominoes falling, entitlements have a justice-scales symbol, and the third kind of expectation has a graphic symbolizing "commitment" from a previous post of mine.

Commitments: a basis for the third kind of expectation

When two people get married, they make a set of vows to each other. These represent a contract that they’re making with each other, or in other words, a basis for each partner having an expectation_3 that the other partner will act in a certain way. In this sense, each partner can expect this behavior from each other—even if the vows are pretty bold and the people don’t anticipate that their partner will be able to achieve that level of performance consistently (particularly at the beginning). It’s still a standard that they can hold each other to. They’re answerable to each other, and to that.

I was counselling two friends on their relationship some time ago, and was present while they had a profound and connective conversation about the quality of relating that they each wanted in their relationship.

A few weeks later, I was talking to one of them about the utter absence of that level of performance on their partner’s part. She was upset, and was wondering if that upsetness had an entitled quality. It was this conversation that first prompted me to realize that there had to be a third kind of expectation.

It made sense for her to ask that of him: there was a shared basis on which that was wanted by both of them. This wasn’t someone who was lost in an abstract concept of what a (good) relationship should be, trying to fit that shape onto their relationship and generating entitlements in the process. This was someone who was genuinely confused: you said you wanted this, but then you disappeared.

This concept, of a third kind of expectation, is very closely related with my article on Common-Knowledge Self-Commitments. If you’re making commitments to yourself, that are being held by others, then you’re establishing a basis for this third kind of expectation. You’re making yourself answerable for that level of performance; equivalently, you’re giving someone a sense of what they can ask of you.

When one’s commitment to one’s commitments is unclear

The most basic form of feedback that having common-knowledge self-commitments is intended to produce is of the form: “Hey, you’re committed to doing X, and I observe you not doing X… I thought you’d want to know that.” This happening is a win for common-knowledge self-commitments.

But sometimes, someone has a thought of the form, “Person said they were committed to doing X, but they’re not doing X, and… I kind of think they maybe don’t want to know, because I kind of think maybe they’re not actually committed…”

What then?

Well, speaking as someone who has made many bold commitments and several times failed to act committed… I can tell you!

A few years ago, I started talking about being committed to taking responsibility for humanity’s survival and thrival. Several years later, I still hadn’t really done anything towards that end in particular, but I was still talking about it. And some of my friends were kind enough to sharply call me out on this. Essentially what they were communicating was something to the effect of “It doesn’t feel like you’re on the team [of people actually working on this] so we can’t actually give you feedback or advice as a member of the team, but you keep saying you’re on the team. Cut it out.

There was a fierce anger to this, and reasonably so! Not only was I not doing what I was committed to, I was undermining the meaning of such a commitment by continuing to assert that I was committed. Such a cancer does not a viable superorganism make.

In response to this intervention—this challenge—I started seriously reflecting and doing internal work to align my sense of priorities, and I think that I’m now much more pointed towards this, not just hypothetically. Would probably be worth checking in with other people again too.

My other major stated commitment is to a new kind of post-judgment, post-blame, post-entitlement mindset. This commitment is also primarily known within the context of a group of people who are similarly committed. And sometimes I’ve done things that have called my commitment to this into question.

It’s not merely failing at the thing itself: everyone who has joined the project in the time I’ve known it has had hundreds of judgments, blames, etc come up over the years, as we’re learning this new way of thinking. This is expected (in the anticipation sense).

It’s… something else. Something that’s subtle and hard to point at—I know this because I’ve tried, twice, to write directly about it. Text that would have gone right here, but was instead scrapped, due to being misleading or confused.

At any rate, the point is that there have been a few times when Jean (who is spearheading this whole post-judgment project) has had some sense that she can’t rely on my commitment to it.

As with the previous example, giving feedback about this isn’t easy or smooth, because the very nature of the situation is that the would-be giver of feedback is speaking to someone with unclear commitments, and therefore the speaker needs to figure out how to frame the message so that it can land clearly in an unclear landscape.

With Jean, and me, this has included a fierce protectiveness on her part for the integrity of the work as she sees it. It’s not anger, per se, but it has a similar kind of passionate, care-driven energy.

And that energy invites me to embody my own sense of caring for the integrity of the work, while simultaneously recognizing the threat that my ambivalence would be if it were to continue operating in relation to the project. This creates a challenge in balancing

  • my sense of desire to be part of the project, with
  • my sense of desire to protect it from myself

This challenge isn’t a problem, however—it’s something I necessarily need to lean into, in order to create an integrated commitment/desire to doing this work.

These conversations have been immensely challenging to experience and to integrate, and they’ve been really valuable, for me individually and for the system as a whole. I, and the system, are still in the process of integrating the most recent (and most intense) conversation of this nature, and me writing and sharing this blog post is part of that. I have a sense now that I can anticipate more consistent alignment on my part, but in order for others to anticipate that, they’ll need to build a new sense based on experiences of me.

And these conversations were made possible by this third type of expectation. If someone in Jean’s position had anticipated from the outset that I would operate out of this new mindset 100% of the time, that would have been naïve and inaccurate: if it were that easy, we’d be done already. If someone had felt entitled to me operating out of this new mindset 100% of the time, that would actually make it much harder to give clear feedback, because now it’s about them and their entitlement, not about my performance. That would get in the way.

Summary: 3 kinds of expectations

My original concept for this post didn’t foresee the intense section above. But writing is one way that I make sense of my experiences, and so it doesn’t surprise me that it made its way in there. I think that those help to powerfully illustrate the concept, although it’s important to remember that it can show up in much less extreme situations.

I intend for this article to act as a reference for this model, so in service of that, here’s a summary:

The simplest kind of expectation is an anticipation: what you think will happen. If it doesn’t, you get surprised or confused. This leads to a feeling of curiosity and possibly an investigation into why things happened differently from expected.

Another common kind of expectation is an entitlement: what you think should happen. If it doesn’t, you get indignant or outraged. This leads to judgment and potentially punishment (or threat of punishment). (Sometimes that is self-blame and self-punishment)

Then there’s the third kind of expectation: what you can ask of someone, based on what they’ve committed to or promised. What they’re answerable to. If something unexpected happens, you feel awareness, and possibly also passion or even anger to the extent that the commitment matters to you. This leads to an inquiry into the nature of the commitment, and feedback based on your experience.

a graphic illustrating the 3 kinds of expectations. The text is a summary of what's already in this blog post. Anticipations are illustrated with an image of dominoes falling, entitlements have a justice-scales symbol, and the third kind of expectation has a graphic symbolizing "commitment" from a previous post of mine.

Just because someone promises you something doesn’t make you entitled to it, in any moral sense. I mean, go ahead and feel entitled if you want. I’m just making the case that the majority of the value of entitlement is actually contained in the third form of expectation, and once you have that, you can let go of entitlement.

If you’re encountering a challenge disambiguating these in your own experience, that’s okay! The distinction is tricky, because it’s based on shifting some assumptions that have underpinned a lot of language and thinking for centuries if not millenia.

If you’re encountering a challenge disambiguating these conceptually, then comment below and I’ll try to explain it more clearly 🙂

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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