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How to Manage Expectations

Unrealistic expectations are a happiness destroyer.

Key points

  • Expectations are normal, but the attachment to them creates suffering.
  • When expectations are not met, it can lead to feelings of disappointment, frustration, and even anger.
  • The problem arises when we hold expectations that are not grounded in reality.
Sora Shimazaki / Pexels
Source: Sora Shimazaki / Pexels

An expectation is a strong belief that something will (or won’t) happen or be true. It is a standard for how we would like people to behave and how we want the world to be.

We hold expectations both for ourselves and for other people. We may expect ourselves to be brave and capable. We may expect others to be honorable and responsible.

We have expectations about organizations and institutions, such as the places where we work or shop. We expect our employers to treat us fairly, and we expect merchants to deliver the things we’ve purchased.

We even have expectations about inanimate objects and processes. For instance, if the sky is clear, we expect that it won’t rain soon.

Expectations are a natural part of the human experience.

They are deeply ingrained in our evolution because they help us predict the future and take effective action. Yet, the attachment to those expectations is the source of our suffering.

Some expectations are realistic—that is, they are based on experience, logic, and reality. We expect that a package sent for overnight delivery will arrive the next day, or that our spouse will pick us up at the train station as agreed. We expect ourselves to get to work on time.

There is nothing wrong in having realistic expectations of other people or the world, nor in working to fulfill the expectations we have of ourselves and of the groups to which we belong. Expectations of others serve a protective purpose; they form an implicit social contract that helps keep people from hurting and exploiting each other. The expectations we hold for ourselves can inspire us to follow our principles and motivate us to accomplish our goals and aspirations.

The problem arises when we hold expectations that are not grounded.

When we expect something to happen without good reason, we set ourselves up for disappointment, frustration, anger, and disillusionment. The resulting experiences drain our self-worth and motivation, and they often amplify negative thinking. Unreasonable expectations can easily shut down our goals, steer our lives in an unhealthy direction, and sabotage our happiness.

Unrealistic expectations can often lead to frustration.

When we become disappointed or frustrated, it’s often because an experience or situation does not fit our expectations. There is a gap between the reality we face and the way we think it should be, and frustration and disappointment highlight the discrepancy. Unmet expectations are quite common, and they are a major internal trigger for anger.

Sam and Steven grew up together and were very good friends. Some would say they were like brothers. At one time they had a business together, which they later sold. They had always supported each other emotionally during difficult times.

Then Sam asked Steven to loan him $10,000, saying he would pay it back within three months. Steven told Sam that he needed to consult with his wife. Later Steven called Sam and said that, although he wished he could help, he and his wife agreed that they would not loan money to relatives or friends.

Sam tried to convince Steven to change his mind, and when that didn’t work, he felt crushed and angry. He expected loyalty and support from Steven. The conversation escalated. Sam ended up cursing Steven, and Steven hung up on him. After that, these very close friends no longer spoke to each other.

Why are we surprised when a friend won’t loan us thousands of dollars without his wife’s blessing? Where do we get the sense that other people will behave the way we want just because we want them to? And what entitles us to be angry with them when they “fail” to meet our expectations?

It’s a real breakthrough to realize that the true source of suffering is our self-focus and self-importance. The universe was not created to fulfill our expectations.

Often, when we develop unreasonable expectations, it’s as a way of trying to meet one of the core needs: the need for safety and security or the need for love and positive regard. If we hold ourselves to high standards, aiming for perfection, we may “require” other people (especially those close to us) to meet those same expectations.

Naturally, other people will sometimes act in ways that conflict with our standards. They may not particularly mean to harm us, but our underlying need for safety or love goes unmet at that moment, and so our anger is triggered.

When others fall short of our expectations, we lash out. We may become annoyed, irritated, or even furious at someone who is more laid back than we are.

The sense of righteousness is appealing because it convinces us that we are “good,” thus giving us a way to meet our own core need for love and self-esteem. It can numb us to the fear and vulnerability that might lie beneath the expectations.

The paradox is that in our desire to control the external (the environment and other people), we lose control over the internal (ourselves). The more we are attached to our expectations, and the more strongly we feel a need to control others, the more frustrated and angrier we will become when those expectations are not met or people don’t comply.

In addition to the expectations that people will take care of us, do us favors, respond to our efforts to help them, and be grateful, other common unrealistic expectations include:

  • Everyone must like me.
  • I can’t have negative thoughts, painful feelings, or unpleasant experiences.
  • I need to know what’s going to happen.
  • I can’t make mistakes; I have to do things perfectly.
  • My sacrifice and self-denial will pay off. I deserve [fill in the blank].

Do you recognize any of these in yourself? Just about everyone holds at least one of these expectations, and any of them can be an internal trigger for frustration and anger.

How to deal with expectations?

An expectation can be a shortcut to the outcome we desire, yet, it does not include the personal responsibility that would get us there. For many, it is hard to let go of the idea that expecting something to happen will make it happen, or that something happening will make us feel a certain way.

It’s important to note that your expectations can be realistic and still go unmet. For instance, when you park your car in your driveway at night, it’s rational to expect that it will still be there the next morning—but that won’t be the case if someone steals it during the night.

Here’s another example: One of my clients listened compassionately to a friend’s problems for years, even though it was not always easy to do so. But when she wanted to talk about her problems, her friend didn’t extend the same support to her.

It’s reasonable to expect a certain level of reciprocity in a friendship or to expect that other people won’t steal your property, and naturally, you’ll become angry when things go awry. However, generally speaking, realistic expectations are helpful and functional. It’s the unrealistic ones that cause the most harm.

Perhaps you have heard the saying: "Expectations are premeditated resentments." Examining your expectations is a powerful step in taking personal responsibility for your triggers and uncomfortable feelings.

People who have mastered the art of setting realistic expectations have a healthier attitude and a more positive outlook on life. They experience fewer disappointments and less frustration.

If you can learn to recognize your unrealistic expectations and adjust them to be more reasonable, you will discover that you can trust in the process of life and truly enjoy the present, instead of worrying about the future or about what you don’t have. So, accept life and cultivate gratitude for the things you already have.

More from Moshe Ratson MBA, MFT
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