How to Escape the Tyranny of Expectations
Have you noticed that many of your disappointments in life — or with your career — are due to outcomes not living up to your expectations? I would also imagine that the expectations friends and loved ones have for you have caused friction in your relationships.
It’s that darn gap.
We expected more from a situation or another person than what was delivered. That gap between expectations and reality sets us up for unhappiness.
“Unhappiness is best defined as the difference between our talents and our expectations.” — Edward de Bono
Having unrealistic or high expectations often leads to disappointment. They frequently take the form of an unspoken demand:
- “I expect her to call me. She had better get in touch with me this weekend! If she doesn’t, I’m going to be sad and disappointed.”
- “I expected that you would take care of that! Why didn’t you? Well, no. I didn’t ask you to take care of it, but you should have known.”
- “I expected to receive a promotion this cycle, but it didn’t happen. Now, I’m upset. My boss should have known that I wanted that promotion!”
But, having low expectations can become a negative self-fulfilling prophecy as well. You expect the worst, unintentionally look for negative signs, and perhaps unconsciously guide it to failure.
“I knew that this wasn’t going to work out. And look. It failed just as I expected it would.”
Expectations have hurt me
For much of my life, I let myself be a victim of the expectations trap. I thought that I was ambitious and bold by setting high — and often unrealistic — expectations for my performance and achievements.
When I failed, I would berate myself. I beat myself up for not meeting those expectations and be in a funk for days.
On the flip side, I also had unrealistic expectations for others. When they failed to live up to them, I would be disappointed and hurt. I let those unspoken and broken expectations damage relationships.
I broke up with expectations.
I no longer have high nor low expectations. I have no expectations. They’ve never done me any favors in my life.
I’m delighted when positive things happen. They are a surprise since I didn’t tell myself that they had to turn out that way. I will no longer allow myself to become jaded by preset notions of outcomes.
I’m also not crushed when good things don’t happen. I didn’t expect them in the first place.
I still hope for good outcomes. But, hope is not the same as an expectation. Hope is saying:
“Sure. It would be nice to get that job offer. But I don’t expect it. I can’t control that outcome. I can only do the best that I can and hope that it turns out well. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Note that expectations are different than standards too. It is good to have standards for what you consider to be acceptable behavior and performance. There are standards relative to norms in societies, communities, personal relationships, and workplace conduct.
Unfortunately, many companies and managers have documents that include the phrase “expectations for performance.” What they are actually describing are the acceptable standards of performance for employees in different roles and at varying levels of experience and seniority.
Having hope and setting standards have never hurt me, unlike expectations.
Your expectations of others
“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.” — Bruce Lee
We also set ourselves up for disappointment when we have expectations of others that they fail to live up to — at least in our perception of the outcome. Just as it isn’t fair for others to have expectations of us, we shouldn’t have expectations of them.
The most disastrous of expectations is the hidden one that we haven’t bothered to share with the other person. We expect them to do something or behave in a certain way, but we never asked them to do so.
Then, when they failed to read our minds, we get upset. We become angry or sad that they didn’t do that thing we wanted them to do in our minds.
Even when we verbalize our expectations, who are we to demand a specific outcome from another person?
You can establish shared goals, plans, and standards (e.g., especially when you manage others). But, you can’t control outcomes, and neither can they. There are simply too many variables that impact reality.
Learn to be forgiving and understanding. Accept that people are human and have their own lives that aren’t 100% consumed with what you need.
Focus on goals and actions instead. Are people doing the best that they can do and acting with integrity? If not, then you may indeed have an issue that you must discuss with them, and you’ll have to deal with the problem.
Their expectations of you
“I do know one thing about me: I don’t measure myself by others’ expectations or let others define my worth.” — Sonia Sotomayor
Some of our earliest expectations come from our parents. I know that I’m lucky. My parents didn’t set expectations for my life or career. They simply wanted me to be happy and healthy.
I feel the same way about my children. I don’t expect them to go into specific professions, marry particular people, or live their lives a specific way. I wish for their happiness and health, and they get to decide how they want to achieve that.
However, I know that some people have parents who have demanding expectations. They become disappointed when those expectations aren’t met.
- “You must become a doctor.”
- “I expect you to study law.”
- “Why aren’t you married with a family yet?”
Then, we receive more expectations from our teachers. Our friends have them for us as well.
If you have a significant other and your own family, I’m sure you’ve experienced not living up to their expectations too.
It’s OK for someone to have standards for how they want to be treated. There are certain behaviors that they will accept and actions that they will not tolerate.
This may apply to your interactions with them. They do have that right.
However, no one should be establishing expectations for what you should be achieving. They don’t have to walk in your shoes, spend their days in your job, and live the rest of your life.
Only you do.
Reclaiming your freedom and happiness requires setting yourself free from the expectations of others. Don’t let someone else determine how you will live your life.
Your expectations for yourself
“I never go into a situation with any type of expectations.” — Kevin Gates
We are often our own worst critics. We set high expectations for ourselves and then feel sad and disappointed when we fail to meet them.
Some of this happens when we fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others.
- Why am I not a millionaire like my friend is?
- My college buddies have already become executives. What’s wrong with me?
- I should have published a book by now.
- My colleagues are tenured professors. Why am I stuck?
- All of my friends are married already.
There is nothing wrong with having goals. But, I see those as different than expectations.
I think that goals are a continually moving line for self-improvement and professional development. So, you can’t ever cross the “finish line” anyway.
You simply measure progress. Are you getting closer to your next goal? Are you getting a little better every day?
Do you have the freedom to define your career path, set new goals, create new plans, and do your work the way that you want to do it? That’s a reasonable definition of success.
Free yourself from comparison to others and unrealistic expectations. Heck, eliminate expectations.
I know, it’s easier said than done
Shifting away from the model of having expectations won’t be easy. I know that. But, I think it leads to better outcomes.
- Hope for the best.
- Prepare for the worst.
- Perform as well as you can.
But what happens will happen. You evaluate, adjust your plan, and move on to the next goal.
You want to live a life that is open to possibilities, instead of being trapped with anxiety about whether your expectations will be met or not. It allows you to live more in the moment.
However, I’m not saying that you should abandon all goal setting, strategy formulation, and planning. I’m not talking about living in the moment so extremely that you just flow with whatever comes your way.
What I’m suggesting is that you reframe the way you think about the future for yourself and what you want from others in your life — professionally and personally. Stop setting rigid — and sometimes unrealistic — expectations for yourself, others, and outcomes.
That sets you up for repeating cycles of disappointment.
When you catch yourself thinking or saying that you “expect” something to turn out a certain way, take a moment to change how you are thinking about that event. Detach yourself from the outcome and redefine success to focus on the actions you will take.
Say to yourself, “I will do my best and be satisfied with my performance in and of itself.”
Similarly, work to eliminate expectations for others. Instead, be clear about what you want and the standards you have for interacting with them. Yes, literally, have a conversation with people about this vs. having some hidden expectation in your mind that will lead you down the path of disappointment.
Some examples of reframing:
- When I interview for a new job, my goal is to receive an offer. But I don’t expect an offer. There are too many factors beyond my control. I will bring my best to the challenge, perform to the best of my abilities, and I will receive an offer, or I will not. My sense of accomplishment lies in delivering the best that I know that I could. I refuse to tie my happiness to the outcome.
- I work out and eat healthy meals. I don’t have an expectation for how my body will look or even what my health will be. I am doing the best that I can, and I am happy with my consistent habits (e.g., exercising daily, eating healthy food, eating the right amounts of food, getting rest, etc.). My body will be what it will be after all of that.
Note that there is nothing about this strategy that implies that you should settle for less in your life. When you aren’t achieving desired goals, make the necessary changes in your plan. When people aren’t treating you in ways that meet your standards, then you shouldn’t tolerate that behavior (e.g., ask them not to treat you that way or end that relationship).
You can’t change other people. Only they can change themselves.
Sometimes, you can’t change circumstances either. But, you are in control of your own thoughts and actions.
True happiness depends more on the process — how you are you living your life every day — than the outcomes. Focusing on outcomes leads to unhappiness, sooner or later.
You will never achieve every single outcome that you want when you (or others) have high expectations. You simply cannot.
However, you can feel happy and fulfilled when:
- You know that you are doing the best that you can.
- You can see that you are making progress towards your goals.
- Your daily habits are making you a little better every day.
- You are acting in alignment with your values.
- You have the necessary freedom to be in control of your future.
Forget outcomes. Eliminate expectations. Embrace possibilities.
Larry Cornett is a Leadership Coach and Career Advisor. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, a Great Dane, and a rabbit. He shares advice that helps you become an opportunity magnet for the best things in life! You can also find him on Twitter and Instagram @cornett.