'Tis the Season to Be Jolly. Honest!
So, I say we should not only allow ourselves and others to expect the best, we should encourage it. True, this puts us in danger of possible disappointment, of awful prospects such as Christmas without a Magic Pine Needle—and this calls for preparation.
Preparing for the worst
The best way to deal with anticipation is not to deaden all hope but to have an effective plan for dealing with disappointment. It's like buying insurance: You don't go out looking for bad things to happen, but if they do, you'll have the resources to cope. You "insure" yourself against failed expectations by expecting up a storm: Expect to have expectations, expect that they will sometimes be unfulfilled, and expect that when they are, you'll go through the predictable stages of the grieving process.
You probably know these stages already, but since reviewing them helps make the ordeal more endurable, let's recap. The phases of grieving are (not necessarily in order): denial, bargaining, anger, pajamas, grief, acceptance, and shopping. Okay, I added pajamas and shopping, but with good reason. When you experience disappointment, you not only need to allow yourself room for disbelief, anger, and sorrow but also give yourself a lot of TLC and some small but special treats. Handle yourself as gently as if you'd contracted a terrible flu. Sleeping in, a Big Mac for breakfast, a new book, a manicure—these small kindnesses add up to an environment where your disappointed psyche can heal.
It's also important to have a support system you can turn to during the healing process. Recruit people who understand failure, who can help you mourn the dead relationship or the job you didn't get. You don't need a professional, just someone who will remain present and empathize with the experience. For extra credit, find someone who can also make you laugh. Then set up a code word that can initiate the recovery process.
I have such an arrangement with my friend Annette. We both write for publication, not because we are particularly verbal or insightful but because we are certifiably insane. The writing life is lush with unrealized expectations. Annette and I use the term PRS (postrejection syndrome) to refer to the devastating mix of shame and despair that overcomes us when our work gets savaged by public criticism or trashed by some high school freshman with the vocabulary of a mold spore and a summer job as a publisher's assistant.
When this happens to me, I have only to pick up the phone, dial Annette's number, and say "PRS." Instantly, Annette swings into action, sending me waves of understanding and support. At a certain point, she'll ask, "Are you out of your pajamas yet?" When the answer is yes, it's time to shop. So off we go—not to break our budgets but to purchase, say, a T-shirt or a pen—preferably something with enough sparkly stuff on it to get my expectations rolling again. Then we stop at a coffee shop and talk until we begin to laugh about failure and humiliation in a dark, faintly crazed way. At that point, I'm ready to go home, fire up my computer, and start expecting all over again.
I know this kind of rolling with the punches can work for you, too, because I watched it work for Katie, who is intensely prone to expectations and their attending disillusionments. Shortly after the Magic Pine Needle debacle, when Katie was 8, we moved to a snowless region of Arizona where virtually every one of her stereotypical holiday scenarios was doomed. I knew Katie would be all right when one morning, shortly after putting up the Christmas cactus, I heard her teaching her siblings to sing, "I'm Dreaming of a Beige Christmas" and "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Labor Day." Katie is 19 now. I expect great things of her. And if I'm disappointed, well, that'll be all right, too.
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