In “Breaking Bad,” (spoiler alert, except not really; it ended four and a half years ago!) Walter White, the main protagonist of the show and its tightey-whitey anti-hero, is diagnosed with lung cancer. Lots of stuff happens (another spoiler alert, except not really) that involves the Mexican cartel, his DEA brother-in-law and science-yo grade meth, but then he meets with the doctor and is told that he is in remission.

Remission. What a strange word.

The doctor tells Walt and his family that they need to manage their expectations. Walt’s not cured, the super-special doctor tells them; the cancer is simply not growing. It has shrunk, but Walter is not cured. The tumor, is still right there.

Say hi, tumor. Give us a little wave now.

Remission with Rheumatoid Disease is an incredibly elusive thing for me, and I understand it is for other people as well. Even if we find it, it’s like sand, slipping through our fingers; it is very often something that we can’t hold onto for a significant period of time.

Remission is only as good as the medication we take, and sometimes even that’s not enough.

Remission is considered a period of “low disease progression,” which I take to mean actual damage to joints and organs, but if it’s aggressive, like mine, it is entirely dependent upon my ability to take my shots.

I, who had to have an anxiety pill before a tattoo and nearly pass out every time I have to have blood drawn, must take two shots a week to have anything near remission. Like Walter White’s cancer, it may not be spreading its damage throughout the body, but it’s always, always there. The other part—the interference with activities of daily living and—gasp—work, seem to effect me—regardless my status of disease progression.

Pain remission? I don’t think there’s such a thing. There are times when pain is more manageable, when it’s low-grade and ibuprofen alone handles it, but it doesn’t ever go away, either. And there are times when the pain is beyond manageable, when I just want to curl up in a ball under covers and heating pads and ice packs and sleep through it without screaming and/or taking a knife to the offending parts.

Those days are far less manageable thanks to the restrictions on pain relief, but that’s a rant for another day.

I have been off meds more than on since November. Oral surgery, then a sinus infection, then another oral thing, then the flu and ensuing pneumonia.

You can’t take your meds if you don’t eat your meat. No, wait, that’s Pink Floyd’s The Wall. You can’t take your meds if you’re sick or on antibiotics.

And so I have to manage expectations. I know that, for the majority of the time, I can work. Sometimes even a whole day, which is awesome because right now the job is extremely taxing.

How do we manage expectations without descending into a nihilistic pessimism?

We keep perspective.

Chances are, today isn’t our worst day ever, although, in the thick of it, it can feel that way. Remember when things were worse, but remember when they were better. It’s very likely we’ll have those good days again. We just have to hold on.

Yes, we may not be able to hike the Himalayas right now. Or ever. But managing expectations isn’t just about coming to terms with the bad days. It’s about coming to terms with the good ones, too.

Sometimes it’s so damned easy to get caught up on what we can’t do in the current moment that we lose sight of what we can do. And that’s a dangerous rabbit hole. Should we fall down it, it doesn’t lead to Wonderland. We won’t be having any tea parties. Instead, it’s more like the tunnel that leads to the Goonies waterslide directly into despair and hopelessness.


Yeah, there’s no pirate treasure, either.  Booby traps, yes. Pirate treasure, not so much.

If we can realize that today is more than likely not our best day ever, but neither is it our worst day ever, we can begin to pull ourselves out of the mire that keeps us frozen.

  We expand our understanding of managing expectations.

Managing expectations is supposedly about making expectations that are achievable and realistic.

Let’s look at that a moment.

In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Tali Sharot writes,

There is a problem with the notion that people should lower expectations to increase wellbeing. It may work in theory, but it does not hold when tested empirically. It turns out that people with high expectations are generally happier, whether they succeed or fail.

So, yes. While we may not be able to hike the Himalayas today, or even get out of bed today, by expecting more, by expecting better, we tend to uplift our mood and look toward the future, which is definitely not this present moment that is sucking so damn much.

She also writes of three “cognitive processes”:

1. First, what matters for our wellbeing is how we interpret the events we encounter.
2. Second, when tweaking people’s expectations upward they actually do better.
3. Finally, having high expectations about the future makes us happier at present.

While the typical assumption that managing expectations is downgrading them, adjusting our expectations to fit what we’re experiencing as reality, the truth is that managing expectations can—and should—cover upgrading them as well. While all three of  Dr. Sharot’s processes involve well-being, the last two involve doing better and being happier right now, in the present. 

If we raise our expectations, if we think that things will get better, things will be better because of it.  It

It’s not just a self-fulfilling prophecy (although that might be part of it), it’s a shift because by simply imagining better, our mood is instantly better.

Granted, it may just be a notch. But it’s an important notch.

How do we raise our expectations? We honestly look at the ones we have now, and then picture better. Greater. More.

What can we expect from the future if, given our current course of action?

Maybe we’re on exactly the right path for us right now. And if so, that’s fantastic. But if we’re trapped in the moment of feeling hopeless or feeling like failures due to our inability to do certain things we might just be in need of a little course correction.

What might we expect if we reach upward just a little, tweak one habit just a little?

Would the needle of our mood and expectations nudge right from that danger-red wedge of nihilistic pessimism just a little toward the safety-green of hope?

Sometimes that course correction can take the form of that one little thing we can do *right now* to make our lives just a little bitty bit better, to give us room to breathe and think of possible solutions to our current problems. Maybe it’s something simple, like eating if we haven’t eaten in too long. Maybe that small action is at the very edge of what we can manage right now, like shifting position to relieve some pressure.

What is that one tiny action, repeatable or not, that would have immediate results in making your life a teeny tiny bit better right now? What has kept you from doing it? How do you think doing it would change anything?


Goonies “Waterslide Scene” via YouTube

“Should You Manage Your Expectations?”  Tali Sharot, Ph.D. Psychology Today. July 29, 2012.


Managing Expectations and Finding Hope

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