Expectations as a topic has been discussed and debated upon countless times. Off and on I come across quotes and articles advising not to have any so one would never be disappointed. Sounds logical, isn't it? Expectations bring you disappointments so don’t have them, simple. However, if it really were as simple as it sounds, we wouldn’t still be discussing or writing about it. Because well, human relationships cannot be fully free of expectations. Whether overtly spoken or not, expectations always exist. In fact, the whole world runs on expectations. Don’t agree? Think of all ‘shoulds’, and ‘musts’ we use. Aren’t they inherently expectations – which we have from ourselves or others, or the society we live, our so-called values, traditions etc.?
A baby is expected to crawl at 6 months and walk by 11 months. A student is expected to excel at academics and develop holistically. An employee is expected to be punctual and hard working. A husband is expected to be understanding and supportive. A mother is expected to be nurturing and kind. A friend is expected to be trustworthy and loyal. A leader is expected to be confident and unbiased. We even have expectations from machines: we put on the pressure cooker expecting the whistle to blow, we put on the switch expecting the fan to start, we press the red button on our cell phones expecting the call to end and so on. And then there are expectations from ourselves and others. The list is never ending.
Ofcourse, when I think of our intra and interpersonal conflicts, I realize that most of them arise from expectations. The non-fulfillment of expectation gives rise to negative thoughts and unhealthy emotional regulation. Have you ever wondered why you were really angry at your husband for coming late from work? Or at your friend for cancelling a plan at the last minute? Or at yourself for not being assertive? In all the above situations you were expecting something from others and self but were let down. The latent feeling of being sad, disappointed or guilty led to the manifestation of anger. Since anger is something that is more readily acceptable in our society we resort to expressing it more than any of the other feelings so as to not be labeled as ‘weak’.
Our disappointment, irritation, anger, sadness most often arise because others didn’t respond to us in the way we imagined they would: That my boss would compliment me on my monthly sales figures, that my wife would appreciate how well I cleaned up the kitchen. Rather than looking down and focusing on ourselves, we’re always looking ahead and at others. And that’s what gets us into emotional trouble.
On the other hand, let’s say, hypothetically, if I operate by the theory of majority and don’t expect anything from people, then where’s my inspiration to strive for more? If I’m not to expect certain behaviours from people in my life, what motivates me or them to develop into being the best version of ourselves?
If I didn’t have expectations I wouldn’t be a psychologist today. It took more than goals to push myself past the hurdles and decade long commitment. And if I didn’t expect more from people around me, I’d still be in unhealthy relationships, or putting up with people who don’t respect me, or take me for granted.
This tells us expectations do not always bring unhealthy outcome; they have the ability to bring about positive outcomes as well. The key, I believe, is the balance – and we can have that by striving to have realistic expectations. Based on my experiences with my clients and my understanding of the subject, I have compiled ways how you can keep them realistic. Here it goes:
Setting Realistic Expectations from Self
The expectations we have from ourselves may sometimes be hard to attain. I once had a client who complained of feeling anxious all the time. On exploration we found that she always needed to be perfect; be it at work or in her relationships. She would think, ‘I’m no good at what I do’, ‘People close to me don’t understand me’, ‘I need to be more efficient at work’, ‘I am always tired.’ This resulted in her feeling stressed, constantly worried about what more she could do to make things perfect which left her with no time for self-care. Was her strive for perfection a realistic expectation? Such unrealistic expectations cause angst due to the pressure it exudes on us to accomplish the task. Other feelings that may be associated with under-achievement include feeling guilty, worthless, helpless, irritated, hopeless, and angry.
All of us believe that we set realistic goals but how can we be sure? One way to ensure is to check if they are as specific as possible; e.g. I want to lose 5kg of weight instead of I want to lose SOME weight. There has to be a way to measure it so that we know our progress; like I've lost 0.5 kg or 1 kg. It has to be something we can achieve keeping in mind the context, e.g. current weight and method of weight loss. Realistic goals are time bound and relevant to us. This process of goal attainment can be planned along with some positive reinforcement at regular intervals.
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our situation that we might not be able to assess it through a neutral lens. In such instances it’s helpful to detach from our story and view it from a third persons’ perspective. This may bring some of our faulty thinking patterns under the microscope. One such distortion in our thought could be our double standards; we may have different expectations from others and different expectations from self for the same situation. Being aware of such distortions and correcting them could aid in assessing our expectations realistically.
Dealing with expectations that others have from us
Have you been scolded for getting low grades in school by teachers or parents? Have you seen the disappointment on your boss’s face when you failed to meet a deadline? Their reactions made us feel sad, ashamed, upset or embarrassed. Why? Because we feel that we let them down. A repetition of these reactions from significant people in our lives gives rise to negative automatic thoughts such as, ‘I'm not good enough’, ‘Everyone hates me’, ‘I'm not confident anymore’. These thoughts may lead to low self esteem, reduced self confidence, intrapersonal conflicts, low productivity and/or dysfunctional behaviour.
Do you feel they are wrong in expecting us to perform at our full potential? No. Then how do we deal with their reaction? By not relying too much on their validation. Since we are social beings we tend to rely a lot on others approval and enjoy basking in it. It’s not completely unjustified to want approval but is it justified to define ourselves by only what others have to say about us? It’s imperative to be aware of our strengths and weaknesses, because that might help to change the way we perceive their response. Instead of receiving the scolding or disappointment as criticism and holding on to it, we could perhaps view it as feedback. Reflecting on the feedback and learning from our mistake could henceforth assist us in performing better.
Dealing with expectations that we have from others
Most of our expectations emerge from past experiences in similar situations, some from our own needs and wants while some others from our own beliefs that we’ve developed over the years. I feel this is what truly throws us off balance. Do you get affected when your parents do not understand or when you do not get a bonus that was expected or when friends do not stand by you in times of need? How do you feel in these situations? Angry, unheard, alone, misunderstood; with these feelings present we fail to see the other persons’ perspective. Instead the negative thoughts strengthened by our beliefs influence how we view others. That is the beginning of interpersonal conflicts. Most clients who come in seeking therapy for any sort of relationship troubles find a mismatch of expectation with the other person. The key to avoid these conflicts and have healthy relationships is to first assess how realistic are our expectations of others. When we realize that they are unrealistic or too demanding, it could do good to lower or redefine our expectations. And the times when our expectations are realistic, all we can do is to let go and make peace with the lack of it because there is no way to control another person’s behaviour, or situation.
Expectations form a major part of the give and take in relationships. At times they are more tangible and in our face and other times they are more subtle or hidden. They either get fulfilled to satisfy us; or they remain unfulfilled and create an imbalance. In order to take our understanding forward let’s take a deep breath and introspect on all our ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’. Once you identify, hold on to the ones contributing to self-growth, modify some and let go of others to create a balance within and de-clutter our relationships. If you find the task too daunting then lets do it together over a cup of tea! ;)