Very often in therapy I find myself discussing with clients the disappointment and self-blame they experience when their personal expectations are not met. In addition, many people have a lot of difficulty discriminating what is and what isn’t a realistic expectation. This can become a problem, since having consistently unrealistic expectations of yourself or others is a recipe for stress, depression, low self-esteem, guilt and irritability.
How our expectations impact us
Our emotions tend to flow on from our expectations. Generally speaking, when your expectations are met or exceeded, you will experience a positive feeling, and when they are not met, you will experience a negative feeling. Imagine you just started a new job and suddenly next month you receive a $500 bonus to your salary you didn’t expect. You’d be pretty stoked, right? Now imagine again you started a new job and you got talking to a colleague who told you that last year everyone got a $2000 bonus at the end of the financial year. This will inevitably impact your expectations and create a hope and excited anticipation that the same will happen this year with you being a lucky recipient too. And then you get just $500. How would you feel – will you still be stoked or could you become disappointed and perhaps resentful towards the company? Exactly the same situation yet completely different expectations lead to completely different feelings about it.
There are two main ways in which “shoulds” can attack and undermine your self-esteem. Firstly, your expectations of yourself may not actually reflect who you are as a person. Consider a woman who has a lot of pride and sense of achievement in her job and believes that her profession is a big part of her identity and worth as a person. What if she also holds the belief that “To be a good mother I should spend all my time and energy on my child and make them the centre of my world”? How does an expectation like that of herself as a parent fit with her personal value of being a professionally accomplished woman? When there is a big mismatch or clash between our personal values and the expectations we hold of ourselves (which we may have blindly adopted from our family of origin or society at large), we will typically experience guilt, self-dislike or pressure to change in a way that is not self-enhancing.
Secondly, unrealistic expectations often demand behaviour that is unhealthy, detrimental or even impossible. Consider the consequences of trying to meet strict expectations such as “I should finish all my projects before I leave work” or “I should always prioritise my child’s needs above my own”. Trying to achieve this would render a person constantly exhausted, stressed and feeling incredibly guilty on the off chance they engaged in some type of self-care.
Modifying your expectations
For greater optimism and positive emotions, the most effective strategy is to target the cause of your feelings rather than your feelings directly. You can most successfully create change by targeting the earliest possible part of a process, so it’s best to target your expectations if you wish to change your feelings about something since expectations act as a precursor.
The easiest way to identify your expectations is to look out for “Should” statements. Statements such as “I should go to the gym at least three times a week” or “You should never tell a lie” or “I should finish all my tasks for the day before I leave work” all represent expectations you hold for yourself.
What are healthy expectations?
You can tell if your rules and expectations are healthy by applying one of these four criteria:
1. Healthy expectations are flexible. This means you can allow for exceptions due to reasonable circumstances rather than stick rigidly to the rule no matter what. Rigid expectations are typically set out in absolute, definitive terms such as “always”, “never”, “no matter what” etc.
2. Healthy beliefs are owned, not inherited. Owning your beliefs means you have critically examined them and they still make sense for you as a person. It is not an expectation you have automatically adopted from a parent or from society that you don’t truly “own”. For example, you may have very high and strict expectations of yourself professionally that you have inherited from a parent that was a workaholic and used to always tell you that “work comes before fun”.
3. Healthy expectations are realistic. People often have difficulty recognising what is realistic. In simple terms this means assessing the positive versus negative consequences of you upholding the expectation. A realistic expectation promotes a positive outcome and can be upheld in reality. Consider the expectation that “parents should always stay together for the sake of their children, no matter what”. This is not a realistic rule because it does not take into consideration possible negative outcomes such as that a toxic family environment may be more damaging to children than a parental separation.
4. Healthy expectations serve to enhance your life, not lead you to actions that are unhelpful or downright damaging.
How to set healthy expectations
Firstly, evaluate the implicit or explicit expectations you already hold using the criteria above. If you notice they fail in any of these criteria you may need to adjust.
Ask yourself what is realistic in this situation, not what you want in a perfect scenario. Consider the consequences and outcomes of your “should” and whether pursuing that would make your life better in the way you intend it to.
Learn to phrase and set your expectations in flexible terms without using definitive language. If you are still using words like “never”, “always”, “no matter what” or “everyone”, you need to rethink.