Navigating the Stressful Gap Between Your High Expectations and Reality
May 10, 2019
Every day, we engage in an emotional dance with our expectations.
Think about it: In the past 24 hours, you’ve probably set an expectation without even realizing it.
Maybe it happened before that meeting where you had to give a presentation, and expected to be flawless?
When you turned the alarm off on Friday morning, and expected to finish your entire to-do list before the weekend kicked in?
Or, perhaps it was before meeting that cutie you’ve been texting with from Tinder for your first date? The text conversation went well, and you're feeling hopeful, maybe they're the one. But then...you’re not even halfway through the date and you’re already preparing to text your group chat all the eye-rolling details.
On your way home, you’re feeling crushed, defeated, and a bit embarrassed for having expected so much from this one date, thinking that this person might be special.
That’s the exhausting dance of expectations in action—we set them and simultaneously make an emotional pact with ourselves: If we meet them, we’ll be happy. If we don’t, we’ll be disappointed.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
It actually comes from a good place.
Selena C. Snow, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist, tells PsychCentral we set expectations because we believe they’ll be helpful for us. “We think these expectations motivate and inspire us to accomplish our aspirations,” Snow says.
And it’s true—having expectations does help us make progress. But not all expectations are created equal.
As it turns out, there are two different types of expectations: unrealistic and realistic.
Unrealistic expectations are the ones that we set for ourselves that are actually unattainable. For example: the idea that everyone has to like you (impossible, ask my therapist), that everything should be fair at all times (out of our control), that someone else should act in the exact way you’d like them to (again, out of our control), or that you should crush everything you try the first time (if that was the case, wouldn’t we all be Olympians?).
When you run solely on unrealistic expectations, you set yourself up to come up short all the time—and deal with the negative feelings that brings.
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Realistic expectations, on the other hand, are what can actually help us. These are the ones that take into account our desired outcome, what we can actually control in a given situation, how much time or energy we truly have, and the fact that we’re not perfect—we make mistakes, we get side-tracked, and sometimes we need do-overs.
The good news: You can take steps to check your unrealistic expectations and turn them into realistic ones—and save yourself from the emotional tango of coming up short all the time.
Here’s how to do it:
Make a List
According to Miranda Morris, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist, a great way to turn expectations into something positive and realistic is to write them down and actually read them. It can be easier to keep track of how ridiculous or hilarious something may sound if you read it back to yourself.
For example: If your expectation was to get job interviews with 15 new companies this week, write that down.
Read it outloud, and maybe consider how you got to the number 15. Do you have job applications submitted for 15 different roles? Do you have warm leads on people you could network with at 15 companies? Do you even have the bandwidth or time to fit in 15 interviews on top of your current 9-5 job?
Asking yourself questions, and taking note when possible, can help you lighten the mood and realize that maybe the initial expectation was impossible to fulfill. There's no shame in lowering an expectation—especially if it was unrealistic to begin with.
Make Your Expectations Work With—Not Against—You
While setting any expectation can feel helpful at the start, it’s important to consider whether the expectation can actually help you be who you want to be and take you where you want to go.
If your goal is to be more active, for example, will pushing yourself to tackle 10 miles on your first run actually help you get there? Or, might it cause you to burn out and get frustrated—making 1 mile or even a 10 minute jog a better place to start?
Set expectations not only with your goal in mind, but also your energy, ability, and emotions. As Morris tells PsychCentral: If the expectation works against you, that’s your cue to release your grip on it.
Get a New Perspective
One of Snow’s favorite expectation-busters is the “double standard technique.” This technique involves imagining a friend or family member having an expectation that you hold—and thinking through what you’d say to them about it.
For example: What would you tell a friend who holds an expectation to find the love of her life within her first few weeks of dating? You’d probably call it out as an unrealistic expectation, but do so in a kind way.
You’re capable of being realistic and reasonable with others, and by seeing your situation through someone else’s eyes you can practice the same with yourself.
Set Compassionate Expectations
Finally: Setting expectations from a place of compassion will always help, especially if you tend to be hard on yourself.
Maybe that job interview didn’t go well, even though your expectation was to kill it, and now you’re in a cycle of self-despair and disbelief, telling yourself that you should have been better. (We’ve all been there.)
Morris tells PsychCentral it can be helpful in this moment to acknowledge your feelings of hurt or defeat. Accept that you didn’t fulfill your expectations. Then, get curious about what didn’t work and why, taking note so you can improve in the future. After all, the only way to get closer to an expectation is to learn and grow each time you reach for it.
Bottom line: It’s OK to set expectations for yourself, even high ones—so long as they’re realistic. And when you get in the groove of setting realistic expectations, you’ll find it’s a lot easier to stay motivated and hustle towards your goal.