January 15, 2004
Assumptions That
Shape Our Life

The Stunning Effect of
Expectations on Our
Vitality and Success
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Once a few years ago I was scheduled to speak at a weekend conference in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Expecting this retreat to be unusually challenging, I felt stressed about it, and, with other responsibilities on my plate just then, I was uneasy about taking the time away.

I was anxious as well about the ten-hour drive this trip required. To ease the travel burden, I left on Thursday evening and drove to South Hill, Virginia, where I spent the night in a motel. However, my anxiety about the conference, and a noisy room, resulted in a poor night’s sleep. I left South Hill on Friday morning fatigued, wondering how I would ever muster the energy for the remaining seven-hour drive, then run at full steam for the strenuous weekend ahead. I struggled to stay awake that whole trip, and was forced to stop and nap at one point.

Through sheer effort of will I finally made it to the retreat center, and was on stage speaking shortly after that. Between speaking and counseling, I ran myself ragged that weekend, sleeping minimally Friday and Saturday nights. The conference went well, however, and when I pulled away at 2:00 Sunday afternoon I felt encouraged, and much relieved my responsibilities were over.

At this point what did I do? Check in to the nearest hotel and sleep for two days?

Not exactly.

I drove back to Maryland--straight--arriving home about midnight.

No nap this time--just one breeze through a McDonald’s drive-through, and a couple of gas stops. The extreme fatigue I had suffered on my trip south never set in on the way home, and I felt energetic for much of that drive.

It might seem illogical that I enjoyed this sudden gust of energy, when I felt bone-tired on Friday, then by Sunday had even more reason to be exhausted. But, of course, you’re chuckling, because you’ve had this experience many times: You’ve dragged through a difficult workweek, sleeping poorly from the stress, wondering how you’ll ever make it to the end of the workday Friday. By midweek you can only imagine that after work Friday, you’ll go straight to bed and sleep through till noon Saturday. But at 5:00 p.m. Friday you feel strangely revived. By 5:30 you’re off to the gym for a vigorous workout, then out to dinner with friends, and chatting till 1:00 a.m. You bound out of bed at 7:30 Saturday morning to begin a remodeling project you’ve been longing to tackle; then go hiking with the kids Saturday afternoon; then a party Saturday evening, lasting into the small hours. Never during this time does your energy seriously lag, because the joy of what you’re doing carries you along.

We go through these episodes of fatigue and sudden rejuvenation often. Most of us are quite aware that we’re capable of catching a “second wind,” and we may be amazed and amused at just how dramatically our strength can revive for what we really want to do. Seldom, though, do we think clearly about this process, and consider its broader implications for our life.

When we do examine it carefully, we invariably find that our energy, both physically and emotionally, is profoundly affected by our expectations--day-in and day-out. On that Friday driving south, for instance, I simply assumed that a lousy night’s sleep meant sure fatigue during a long drive to an event I regretted scheduling. With hindsight, it’s obvious this assumption had more to do with the tiredness I felt than the loss of sleep itself--for otherwise the rush of energy I experienced on Sunday makes no sense. And that burst of steam also sprang from an expectation--the belief that I could draw on reserve energy for a ten-hour drive home and do just fine. In both instances, assumptions about my capabilities strongly influenced how energetic I felt.

Yet these were default assumptions in both cases, not outlooks I had carefully thought through and consciously chosen to embrace. In the same way, most of us go through life scarcely realizing how greatly certain underlying suppositions, largely unconscious, are affecting our vitality.

Premature Cognitive Commitments

Psychologists term these default expectations “premature cognitive commitments.” In her exceptional book, Mindfulness, Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer talks in detail about these preset mental attitudes and how they affect not only our energy, but our health, well-being and destiny in dramatic ways. Each of us, Langer points out, carries certain deeply embedded convictions about our possibilities in life. We don’t view them as “convictions,” however--as beliefs we have purposely chosen to hold--but as truths about our existence, as obvious as the sun’s dependable rising in the morning. Rarely do we question them or examine them or consider how they might be influencing us.

Yet influence us they do. Our health, energy, happiness, accomplishments, and success with people are far more affected by premature cognitive commitments than by our native abilities in these areas.

In some cases the effect is positive. Former president Ronald Reagan simply assumed that everyone he encountered would like him; this belief was part of the fabric of his personality. The results were intriguing, in that even his enemies were attracted to him socially. His arch-nemesis in Congress, Democratic leader Thomas “Tip” O’Neil, commented that while he hated Reagan’s policies, on the personal level, “I find it impossible to dislike the guy.”

At the other extreme, premature cognitive commitments too often work against us. A childhood friend, whom I considered brilliant when we were kids, in his mid-forties confessed to me that he had lived beneath his potential for much of his life. In sixth grade, he explained, his teacher belittled his work in such a way that it left him convinced he was incapable of academic learning. That conviction, which he carried throughout his teenage years and into adulthood, caused him to avoid challenging courses in junior high and high school, to stay away from college, and to settle for a job that didn’t tap his capabilities well. Only now was he beginning to revisit that assumption, and to realize just how greatly it had restricted his choices.

When we look carefully at our own life--at those areas where things go well for us, and at those where they don’t--we so often find that certain expectations are affecting our behavior and its outcomes far more than we’ve realized. It helps us greatly to gain a better understanding of these assumptions, especially of those that hinder us unfairly. The good news is that we can change these expectations into ones that reflect the potential God truly has given us, and his bigger picture for our life. The results that we enjoy from such “paradigm shifts” can be astonishing, and life-changing in the most genuine sense.

Becoming fully aware of our default assumptions can take work, reflection and determination, and the help of a counselor or trusted friend can be invaluable in the process. Yet the task is typically not Herculean either. If our negative expectations spring from a traumatic past experience, to be sure, the task of uncovering repressed memories may be painful, and may require special help. This is the extreme case, though.

Most often, our premature cognitive commitments--even our most negative ones--result simply from faulty thinking. They are perspectives we’ve adapted--for whatever reasons--because they made sense at one time, and we’ve held onto them mindlessly ever since. Pinpointing them doesn’t require extended psychotherapy, nor is it necessary to understand when or why we latched on to them. All we need to understand is how our thinking is off the mark, and how it is hurting our life.

Far from being a painful undertaking, it’s usually gratifying to discover these points where we’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot. We’re more than happy to let go of assumptions that are defeating us, once we understand where our thinking is skewed.

Identifying our premature cognitive commitments is half the battle; the other half is reshaping our unduly pessimistic expectations into positive ones. We need to become strongly convinced that certain options are feasible for us, to the point that these convictions are inherent in our thinking. Let’s look at how we can meet this challenge in several areas where premature cognitive commitments most obviously affect us.

Fatigue and Burnout

As suggested by my experience driving south, and many you’ve undoubtedly had, we often don’t understand our capacity for energy well. We may be convinced that we have to feel tired, even horribly fatigued, given certain circumstances. Yet the exhaustion we feel on such occasions may have more to do with our expectations than our physical state.

We may fear that we don’t have the strength to carry out an unpleasant but necessary responsibility. Yet we should look carefully at our expectations. How do we know that this task will tax us beyond our limits? Have there been times when we’ve found surprising vitality for something equally challenging that we wanted to do? If so, then we have that same capacity for energy now. Reminding ourselves that this is true may not bring a sudden, dramatic change in how we feel. Yet this insight can give us an extra edge and the courage to persevere, since we realize we’re not likely to collapse or fall apart if we do. And with time and practice, by making a habit of thinking through challenges in this way, we can see our general vitality increase--as our expectations come more into line with our actual potential for energy.

A related issue has to do with “burnout.” It has become popular in recent years (may I say, fashionable?) to speak of being burned out when we’re highly stressed. The graphic imagery brought to mind by the term--a light bulb’s filament’s suddenly popping, or an engine’s grinding to a halt from lack of oil--implies a dire condition: something has snapped within us; we’re completely overextended, incapable of continuing, and in need of substantial rest to regain our strength.

There’s no question that we can reach a point of frustration or exhaustion in a role where our effectiveness is seriously hindered, and we need a break. But are we truly burned out? We are usually far more capable of resilience than the term suggests.

The assumption that we’re capable of burning out is a powerful premature cognitive commitment that can leave us susceptible to thinking we’re depleted beyond hope, when we may simply be tired and need a good night’s sleep. This belief may also lead us to overreact in unfortunate ways; we may abandon an activity or goal that benefits us, when it would be to our advantage to stick with it.

A look at our past experience can show just how illusory this belief often is. Who among us who attended college, for instance, didn’t reach a point toward the end of a semester when we felt so exhausted by our course work that we just wanted to quit? We wondered how we could possibly marshal the strength to complete our final projects and take our exams. Who, though, regrets pushing himself a little harder to get through this period? And did we collapse once the semester was over? Of course not--we felt ready to take on the world!

Of course, part of what gets us through the difficult final stretch of a college semester is knowing that the burden isn’t endless, and that we’ll enjoy a break before long. When we’re feeling highly stressed in other situations, the solution may be to give ourselves a respite, or to plan one to look forward to soon. The belief that we’re burned out, though, may lead us to think that we need a major break, when in fact a brief one may serve us just as well.

Consider Elijah’s experience in 1 Kings 19:1-8. Following one eventful day that included a horrific showdown with the prophets of Baal, intense praying for rain, and a twenty-mile jog to Ahab’s palace, Elijah is understandably depleted beyond normal human limits. A veiled threat on his life from Queen Jezebel plunges the normally faith-buoyed prophet into suicidal depression. He leaves his servant behind and wanders a day’s journey into the desert, where he collapses under the shade of a broom tree, asking God to take his life. He then falls asleep. After some time, perhaps a night’s rest, an angel awakens him with food. Elijah eats, falls asleep again, then awakens once more to a fresh meal, again prepared by the angel. After just two or three days of solitude, sleep and good nourishment, Elijah finds his strength restored. “And he arose . . . and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God” (v. 8).

Elijah begins this episode convinced that he is stressed beyond all hope and healing. Yet it takes only a short retreat to revive his strength. His experience is good to keep in mind when we think we’re at the end of our tether. We may indeed need some rest and refreshment. But a few days of quiet by the lake may benefit us as greatly as a three-month cruise.

If you’re carrying the belief that life’s challenges can easily burn you out, that expectation is certain to defeat you. Work at revising that conviction. Assume instead that you’re capable of tiring, but not immeasurably so. Remind yourself that Christ has made you resilient, and that it’s his nature to renew your strength and give you fresh heart for what he wants you to do. Focusing on these positive factors will help you to keep times of stress and fatigue in better perspective.

Issues of Health and Aging

Just as our expectations affect our energy, they influence our health in many ways. Most of us are generally aware that this is true; we recognize that a “placebo effect” occurs in medicine, for instance. Yet we tend to think of it as something other people experience. It can be surprising to discover just how susceptible to it we are personally.

In order to avoid stomach upset, I’ve developed the habit of chewing an antacid tablet before taking Advil for a headache. Then I chew a piece of gum to get rid of the antacid’s taste. At least twice this past year I performed this initial ritual, then absent-mindedly forgot to take the Advil--yet my headache still went away. My body responded positively to action it associated with vanquishing the pain, even though I never took the pain medicine itself. (If you’ve ever swallowed a pain-killer in caplet form, then felt relief within minutes, you’ve had this identical experience, for it takes the pill about thirty minutes to metabolize!)

The discovery that we have a particular illness or physical problem brings with it the knowledge that certain symptoms may follow. We may experience them for reasons that are purely health-related. Yet our expectations can--and typically do--influence our perception of symptoms, and may lead us to place limitations on ourselves unnecessarily.

Legendary golfer Babe Didrikson Zaharias contracted cancer at age 42, then underwent a colostomy. Six weeks following her surgery she won the Beaumont Open of 1953, then won five more pro tour events the following year. Never mind that the cancer had spread throughout her body during this time; her doctor hadn’t informed her that the disease had fully metastasized, nor that she was supposed to be dead by the time she won the competitions in 1954.

Hers is a fascinating example of how the true restraints of an illness or physical problem vary greatly from person to person, and of how one’s experience can defy conventional wisdom. The lesson for each of us is to be cautious in how we think about our limitations. We should be slow to conclude that any limitation we imagine we have is genuine, apart from convincing proof.

The power of suggestion has such a radical effect on our health and physical well-being that we need to take special care to embrace positive expectations in this area. Several steps can help:

Focus on God as a healer. Scripture never guarantees that God will heal every infirmity we experience. God denied Paul’s request to remove the thorn in his side, and refused to grant David’s plea to spare the life of the son that Bathsheba bore to him. Still, we find an overwhelming emphasis on God’s healing in Scripture--as though biblical writers are saying that healing is the norm, not the exception, when we ask for it. This focus on healing comes across in many ways. Most prayers for healing in the Bible were granted; Jesus never denied a single request for healing during his earthly ministry, and spent more time healing physical and emotional problems than he did teaching; Paul himself performed impressive healing miracles; Psalm 103 declares that God heals all our diseases and renews our youth “like the eagle’s;” and James notes that the prayer of faith will heal the sick person (Jas 5:15).

In both its examples and teaching, Scripture gives far more attention to God’s healing than to the case when he refrains from healing for a special purpose. What this pattern suggests is that we should feel tremendous freedom to pray continually and hopefully for God’s healing of the physical problems we experience. We should put the burden of proof on God to show us if his intent is not to heal us, and we should simply accept a physical problem as his will. Thus, Paul felt great liberty to continue praying earnestly for God to remove the thorn from his side until God clearly told him it must remain (2 Cor 12:7-10).

An inclination toward expecting God’s healing and empowering of us physically will contribute significantly to our health and vitality, and will enhance the freedom we feel to seek his help.

Choose optimistic doctors. Few exercise the power of suggestion more powerfully in our lives than doctors and other medical professionals. Who among us hasn’t at some time feared we were experiencing the symptoms of a certain illness, only to find them disappear soon after a physician told us they were of no concern?

If we’re less fortunate, we’ve felt like we were handed a death sentence when a doctor with poor communication skills informed us that we had a serious condition. Such was the case with a close friend of mine, who a year ago was told in ominous tones by a urologist that he had advanced prostate cancer, two years to live, and no meaningful alternatives for treatment. For about a month he lived with this conclusion, deeply depressed. Then he decided to seek further evaluation. Other specialists saw his condition more hopefully and insisted there was plenty he could do to fight it. He pursued the most aggressive treatment available. Today he is free of all symptoms, and doctors working with him are offering a much more optimistic prognosis than he was initially given.

We may not be able to change how suggestible we are around medical personnel. But we can choose which ones we consult with, and thus, the “suggestions” to which we’re exposed. To the fullest extent possible, we should employ doctors and specialists who not only are clearly competent but optimistic in how they view our condition, and who have a knack for inspiring us to stay hopeful. And we should never accept any doctor’s gloomy forecast without seeking further opinions.

Stay optimistic about aging. It’s just as important to choose doctors, friends and associates who are optimistic about our possibilities in later years. Countless studies have shown that elderly people who continue to assume responsibility for their needs, have interesting work to do, and believe they are needed, are better offThey enjoy better health and vitality, and live longer, than those who don’t enjoy these advantages. Many studies have shown, too, that long-held notions about certain areas of potential having to decline in later age are simply erroneous, or grossly exaggerated. Our expectations greatly affect how productive we remain into our senior years, and thus how meaningful life continues to be for us.

One elderly woman I know has no immediate family living to care for her--a fact that has often discouraged her. Yet she also has no one telling her that she’s too old to be doing certain tasks, and that she must slow down and let others do more for her. What she has instead is a large number of younger friends in the ethnic community of which she is a part, who look up to her as a matriarchal figure and greatly respect her. She continues to live by herself in the same large home she has occupied for fifty years in Chevy Chase--and unbelievably resourcefully, on $10,000 annual income. Cataracts did force her to relinquish her driver’s license two years ago. Following recent cataract surgery, however, she took her driver’s test, passed, and is a road warrior once again.

Edwina is 95.

Examples like hers are immensely inspiring, for they encourage us not to sell our possibilities short as we age. They remind us too of the importance of having those around us who continue to believe in us as life moves on.

Success and Failure

Of course, we need this sort of positive reinforcement throughout our lives, and in all of our important pursuits. Our success or failure at every point where we seek to follow a dream, accomplish a goal or be productive, is to a large extent a product of our expectations.

Some of us are natural optimists. Just as Ronald Reagan expected others to like him, we assume that we’ll inevitably succeed in certain endeavors, and our expectations enhance the positive results we often experience.

But most of us have to work at being optimistic. Like my friend who from sixth grade on assumed that he couldn’t be educated, we may be carrying expectations throughout our life that are deeply hindering our potential. How can we identify and relinquish these hurtful convictions? The best step we can take is to focus, not on uncovering our blind spots per se, but on better understanding the potential God truly has given us. He has endowed us each with certain natural abilities. He also inspires each of us uniquely--to enjoy certain work, and to accomplish certain objectives with our life. As our insight grows into how God has gifted and motivated us, we’ll invariably discover those points where negative assumptions have been defeating us.

We should seek the best help available in this process of discovering our potential. We live in a fortunate era, when well-conceived vocational tests can help us fine-tune our understanding--both of our native ability and of the motivational tendencies that are most central to our personality. Competent vocational counseling is also widely available. We ought to avail ourselves of such resources to the fullest extent that we need them.

As we come to better understand our potential, we should set goals that reflect the gifts and interests that God most clearly has given us. It’s important also to “rehearse” these goals often--to review them in our devotional time, and to bring them to mind frequently throughout the day. We should remind ourselves why, given how God has fashioned us, these goals make sense for us, and why we have strong reason to be optimistic about accomplishing them.

In the ongoing process of embracing our goals and fine-tuning them, we should also seek to spend as much time as possible with friends and acquaintances who think encouragingly about us. Their expectations invariably influence our own, and God will often use them to help clarify his will for us.

Finally--and it’s hard to stress this point too strongly--we should give special priority to spending regular time alone with Christ, in which we allow him ample opportunity to clarify his will and to give us fresh heart for what he wants us to do. The conviction that Christ wants us to take a certain step with our life is the most positive, powerful expectation we can embrace. This confidence can come as we seek his presence and make a responsible effort to establish goals that reflect his best for us. It’s all part of exercising stewardship over the life he has entrusted to us.

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