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All of us have expectations.
It is human to want and expect; to become happy if we achieve an expectation, or to be disappointed if we do not.
Our expectations are often unique to our personal experiences and are intricately linked to our beliefs and values. While some might be created and cultivated from young, others are handed down across generations or developed as a result of environment or life experience.
Expectations that we set serve to help us understand and navigate a confusing world by placing logical markers at any given point of our lives.
For example, our societal expectations tell us that if we work hard and achieve good grades in school, we are likely to become successful individuals.
When we grow up and become older, we start to form other expectations — such as career aspirations, choice of life partner, or self-fulfilment goals.
Like it or not, expectations are a part of the human condition.
While expectation can be a powerful tool used to motivate and encourage, it can also do the opposite. If we fail to fulfil an expectation, it can leave us dealing with debilitating emotions such as annoyance, frustration, disappointment or anger.
Now, some may turn such discouraging outcomes into fuel to drive themselves further: After all, most of us would have heard of the old adage, “failure is the mother of success”.
However, If we approach all goal-setting in such a negative manner, expectations that we set for ourselves might start to seem bleak and terrifying.
Not all expectations are inherently bad. For example, setting high expectations of yourself or others can be helpful. Having high self-efficacy expectations about one’s ability to complete a task might influence one’s ability to do just that.
In other words, we push ourselves to succeed.
In fact, research has found that believing in one’s ability to cope with the challenges of a chronic disease can produce effective outcomes. When we expect to be able to cope with it, we end up truly being able to do so.
So why does this happen?
Psychological research has suggested that expectations influence our behaviour and cognitions, such as how much effort we put in, and what steps we take towards achieving those goals.
This begs the question: How can we balance having expectations but not be overly affected if they are not met? Here are some of my thoughts:
Dealing with expectations
1. Be aware of your thought patterns
The first step to dealing with expectations is to be aware of the negative thinking patterns or cognitive distortions that accompany them.
For example, if we expect to do well in an exam but do not, we might feel that we have failed as students, disappointed our parents, or that we would never become successful in life. This is a type of distorted thinking known as catastrophising, where we tend to assume the worst of a situation.
These distortions are negative or irrational patterns of thinking that seem real no matter how outrageous they might sound to a third person. Subsequently, they also affect our emotions and behaviour, causing us to have mood swings, feel anxious or depressed, withdraw from situations, or lash out at others.
So how do we deal with such thoughts?
Whenever you feel disappointed, annoyed, frustrated, or let down, take a step back from the situation.
Ask yourself: What were you expecting to happen and how did the situation actually turn out? Write down your feelings. Penning these thoughts down will allow you to feel more present in the moment, and while doing so, release the worries from your mind into words on a page. Writing also helps you to collect your thoughts.
You don’t even need to write that much; you can choose to pen down anything that occurred during your day. The goal is to recognise recurring thought patterns and to free your mind from overcrowding thoughts, and in return, keep your mind healthy.
2. Let go of “Shoulds” and “Musts”
“I should be spending my free time on my side hustle.”
“I must be on time or my friends will dislike me.”
“I should reply to texts immediately.”
“My children must get good grades.”
These statements might come across as benign and even positive goal statements. However, these statements simply emphasise desirable outcomes without considering the most effective way of achieving them.
Goals that are unattainable or achievable only in an unsustainable manner might trigger feelings of failure or disappointment when failure occurs.
Not only that, constant use of “should” and “must” in our self-talk also serves only to increase the demands we place on ourselves, and the corresponding negative emotions when we fail.
Take the first statement for example – what happens if you spend your free time after a stressful and long day at work watching an episode of your favourite show instead of working on your side hustle? It might lead you to feel like you failed your goal instead of understanding that you were taking the necessary self-care you needed before embarking on the task.
It might seem counterintuitive, but planned self-care at regular intervals could actually be the most efficient way towards achieving a goal or expectation.
It is also important to reframe our statements.
Take note of the role certain deeply ingrained statements play in your life and how you use them. How often did you feel something should have turned out a certain way but did not?
When you’ve noticed them, reframe your perspective. Replace “should” and “must” with words that leave room for mistakes or failure! Such as:
- “I will try to spend my free time on my side hustle.”
- “I will try my best to be on time for my appointments.”
- “I will try to reply to my texts as soon as possible.”
- “Good grades are important but they do not define my child.”
3. Challenge your expectations
Sometimes, the expectations that we place on ourselves and others might be unrealistic. Unrealistic expectations might look something like:
- Everyone should like me
- I must look presentable and put together all of the time
- Spending time with family will always make me happy
- Other people should feel happy around me
Rather than expecting these to be a given, try asking yourself:
- Is it possible for these expectations to be met all the time?
- Is this something that you really want? How do you feel when you don’t achieve it?
- What would you tell a friend who has similar thoughts?
4. Exercise gratitude
We tend to focus on negatives, failed expectations and disappointments rather than noticing the positives. Think back to a time when you felt disappointed: Was there any aspect of that experience you appreciated? What went well? Are there any positives that can be taken away instead?
Instead of recognising what people could not offer, try looking at it through a different lens – what can they offer?
Cultivating gratitude by focusing on the positives of each situation can help deal with failed expectations. Try keeping a gratitude journal — write down what you appreciate from each situation — not just for those that had a positive outcome, but also those that didn’t meet your expectations.
5. Identify your values
While we cannot (and should not!) prevent ourselves from having expectations, we can work towards forming expectations based on what we truly value instead.
Do our expectations truly reflect what we value in ourselves and others? Are other people’s expectations of us aligned with our own values?
The first step to answering this question is to identify what we hold dear. Try this following mental exercise:
Imagine yourself at your 60th birthday party. Your friends and family have gathered to celebrate this milestone in your life. Who do you hope will be there, and why?
They begin taking turns to give a speech on how you’ve impacted their life and what you mean to them. What is it that you would want them to say?
What came up for you? These are the values that will direct you in your journey through life.
Similarly, reflect on your expectations – do they reflect what you truly value? If they do not, reframe them and align them with what you truly believe in.
Expectations are good — in the right context
We should always continue working to become better versions of ourselves.
To prevent ourselves from becoming inundated with expectations consuming our lives, we should be mindful about how we frame and think about our expectations.
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The first step is to be aware of the hidden expectations that we place on ourselves. And to manage them without compromising what we want to achieve.
By increasing our awareness of and appreciating the good in every situation, I hope (without expectation!) you and I can improve our relationship with expectations!