Memories that set expectations

When I think of fall, I think of the kind of seasonal changes that came with growing up in the Pacific Northwest: chilly mornings, changing leaves, overcast and rainy days, and the inevitably of the sun going down at 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon. I have always found the change in seasons to be an opportune time for reflection and with my experience this fall, I thought a lot about my expectations versus my reality.

Living in Southern California for ten years still hasn’t done much to change my expectations for fall. As soon as Labor Day is over, I start daydreaming about sweaters and brisk morning walks. So when the temperatures were in the 90s in mid-October this year, I found myself feeling cranky and restless. I became curious about these feelings and realized that I felt that way because my reality (90 degrees in October) didn’t match my expectations (crisp mornings and falling leaves).

When the temperature outside makes you nostalgic on the inside

My fantasy of fall isn’t just about the weather. It’s about the associations I have to that time of the year. In the way that summer was a time of freedom—long sunny, supervision-free days stretched into a blur that seemed to go on forever—fall signaled a return to structure and community. I grew up in a very rural area and fall was a time of gathering and harvest and spending more time at home with friends and family. School activities were in full swing: football games, dances, and concerts were reasons for the community to come together in shared experiences. These are the things that I no longer have access to and really miss—the weather is just the thing that activates these pleasant memories. When I was able to be curious about my feelings and reflect—I recognized why the lack of fall weather was bothering me. And when the weather in Los Angeles finally cooled off and the clouds rolled in, I felt myself immediately relax. My expectations were met.

Using your disappointments to understand your needs

When one’s expectations are met, it can feel incredibly satisfying. However, when one’s expectations are not met, it can result in tremendous disappointment, frustration, and resentment (e.g., my crankiness at the unseasonable weather). One’s expectations can be set by past experiences or by an idealized fantasy of what one wants to have happen (such as my memories of fall growing up).

There are some helpful ways in which we can manage our expectations, use them to understand our current needs, and even prepare ourselves for potential disappointments. First, we need to recognize the fantasy as it travels in our minds and take some time to reflect on it. It can be useful to ask oneself “Why *this* fantasy?” and “Why *this* fantasy *now*?”

Your fantasy serves a purpose—it’s a message from your unconscious mind about what you might need or want. As we know all-too-well, just because you need or want something— it doesn’t mean that you’ll get it. Understanding why you have certain fantasies and expectations can be the key to uncovering unmet needs and to managing the disappointment.

Here are some important mental steps that you can take next time you notice a fantasy inhabiting your mind over the weather, your job, a family event, or your most recent vacation.

  1. Acknowledge that you are disappointed. Be specific: “I’m disappointed because it’s October and it’s 93 degrees and I really wanted it to be cool and cloudy because that’s what fall is to me.”
  2. Accept that you cannot control the outcome: “I have no power over the weather.”
  3. Consider that your fantasy might have been trying to meet or communicate a need: “I miss the cool fall weather, and all the fall activities and sense of community from my younger years.”
  4. Take some time to do some grieving: “That time of my life is gone and I’ll never be in that same place and time again.”
  5. Allow yourself to slowly revise your expectations and your path to achieve them into a process that is possible for you in this moment, or can become possible for you. In my case, I just needed to be patient in order to get the cool weather I craved, but I could also find other ways to get my needs met. For example, I could seek new ways of engaging in my current community or find creative ways to mark the passing of the seasons.

The key is to be curious about your feelings and fantasies.

So the next time you find yourself nostalgic for a time gone-by or for an experience no-longer available—take a few moments to consider what is being brought to your awareness; what about that experience is unavailable to you now and how you feel about that; and what are some ways in which you could bring aspects of that time or experience into your life right now.

For me, that means taking advantage of the crisp, cool LA mornings – what could it mean for you?



I’m Katherine Smith, one of the therapists you could see at Wright Institute Los Angeles where we offer Affordable Therapy for Everyday People!

Katherine is a doctoral candidate at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She believes therapy is more than just overcoming life’s challenges – it is an opportunity for you to explore and create a new relationship to your self. Katherine approaches therapy with kindness, compassion, and humor. She has worked with individuals and couples of diverse backgrounds, sexual orientations, mental health concerns, and integrates social justice and feminist perspectives in her approach to therapy.