Jennice Vilhauer: Why You Don’t Get What You Want; It’s Not What You Expect (Transcript)

Psychologist Jennice Vilhauers on Expectations and Wanting at TEDxPeachtree conference
Jennice Vilhauer at TEDxPeachtree

Read here the full transcript of award-winning psychologist Jennice Vilhauer’s TEDx Talk: Why You Don’t Get What You Want; It’s Not What You Expect at TEDxPeachtree conference. This event took place on November 13, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Why you don’t get what you want; it’s not what you expect by Jennice Vilhauer at TEDxPeachtree


Raise your hands if you’d like to win the lottery. Keep your hand raised, if in the past month, you actually bought a lottery ticket.

You don’t need a psychologist to tell you why you didn’t buy those tickets you didn’t expect to win. Given the odds of winning the lottery, that might seem like a reasonable conclusion. But what’s important to learn here is that you act based on what you expect, not what you want. What you want and what you expect are completely different.

An expectation is a belief about whether or not you’re going to get what you want. As a psychologist that studies how people create their futures, one of the things I have learned that having an expectation that differs from what you want isn’t just the reason you don’t buy lottery tickets. It’s the reason why there are lots of things that you want, but you can’t quite seem to attain them.

expectation + action = creation of your life experiences

Losing that last five to ten pounds, going for that dream job or relationship, it’s the reason why no matter how hard you try to create change, you often stay stuck. Because expectation + action = creation of your life experiences. Now it might surprise you to know that most people go about their daily life thinking that they are acting on what they want, when in reality, they are acting on their expectations.

I was working with a client of mine recently. I’m going to call her Amy. She was a gorgeous and successful woman, but she was also sort of shy, very self-deprecating, and she had a history of picking the wrong men. Amy had recently gotten out of a bad marriage and she worked on herself, so she was ready to meet someone new. And she decided she was going to give online dating a try.

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But she was having one bad date after the next. The men didn’t look like their pictures, they would forget their wallets. Some of them didn’t show up at all. One day, Amy comes into my office, and she immediately bursts into tears. “I had the most awful date of my life.”

“Well how bad was he?”

“He was amazing,” she said, “Absolutely everything I had been looking for.” She said, “I completely blew it. I was so certain this was going to be another bad date and a waste of my time, I told him to meet me for coffee after my yoga class. Didn’t have time to shower, just showed up in my gym clothes, hot and sweaty, no make-up. And there he was, Mr. Immaculately Groomed, tall and handsome, the perfect smile.”

She said, “I was so mortified, and self-conscious, I couldn’t even make eye contact. I just sat there, staring at the ground laughing nervously, until finally I told him I had to put more money in my parking meter, and then I left, without even saying goodbye.”

Amy acted on what she expected, another bad date, not what she wanted, which was to meet that great guy. I wish I could say this kind of behavior was uncommon. But having been in practice for more than 12 years, one of the things I hear most often is “I want to change my life, but I don’t really believe that I can.”

I’ve seen people give up on their marriages, their health, their careers, give up on their entire lives, because they didn’t think they could get what they wanted, and so they weren’t willing to try.

There is probably something that you want in your life right now, but you’re not sure if you can attain it, and so you’re holding back. When you don’t act on what you want, you take yourself out of the game. Buying that lottery ticket doesn’t guarantee winning, but not buying it guarantees losing.

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Now you might be wondering: why do we do this? Our brains work on the principle of anticipation; we constantly predict what we think is likely to happen before it ever occurs. If you’re walking in the park, and you hear a dog barking behind you, and then turn around to see big foot, you’re going to be very surprised, although it would make a really great selfie.

As soon as you start to anticipate any event, you begin to act and feel in ways that help you prepare for what you think is going to happen. If anyone has ever said to you, “We need to talk,” then you know exactly what I mean. I see the men nodding.

When you prepare for something that hasn’t even happened yet, you participate in creating the outcome. In other words, you create the self-fulfilling prophecy. Because Amy was acting anxious and ambivalent before her date, she acted on what she expected not on what she wanted, and so she got what she expected; another bad date.

One of the reasons that our expectations can keep us so stuck is we have an automatic tendency to use the past to predict the future. If you failed once, you’re likely to think you might fail again. When you think about the future, the same part of the brain gets activated as when you think of the past. However, just because you use the past to make predictions, doesn’t mean that your past is what’s holding you back.

What was holding Amy back wasn’t her past; it was that she didn’t believe her future could be better than the past. And without that belief, she wasn’t able to create something better, even though an opportunity had presented itself right in front of her.

If you’re aware of what your expectations are in a situation, then you have the ability to use your conscious mind to override the automatic thinking, and plan for how to create a different outcome. If Amy had planned for her date to go well, things might have turned out differently.

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Our expectations about our ability to get what we want have a very profound impact on our emotional well-being. A large part of our brain is dedicated to anticipating rewards: rewards, to put it simply, are all the things you want that make life worth living. As J.R. Tolkien said, “A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.” When you expect to get a reward, you feel positive emotions like happiness and joy. But when you don’t think you’re going to get what you want, you feel sadness, disappointment, maybe even depression.

The larger the gap between what you expect and what you want, the more distressed you feel. So what do you do when what you want doesn’t match up with what you expect? There is only two ways you can feel good in this situation. You can give up wanting what you want, tell yourself it wasn’t really worth the effort, you didn’t really want it anyway. Or you can change your expectations to match up with what you want, so that you can take consistent action.

So how do you do that? I’m going to give you three simple steps that will help you begin to shift your expectations. What I want you to do right now though is imagine an upcoming future event: it can be a goal that you’re trying to achieve, a work presentation, an upcoming holiday event with your family. Got it?

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