How to Avoid Disappointment and Achieve Greatness

The paradox of expectations

Jonas Ressem
Dec 9, 2019 · 4 min read

Expectations shape our reality. They affect our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors — which makes their impact extreme.

This is common knowledge within the field of psychology, but few stop to think about the implications that it has for daily living:

There are typically two different views you’ll hear about. Those who view them as bad and those who view them as good. Here’s an illustration:

  • “Expectation is the mother of all frustration.” — Antonio Banderas
  • “High expectations are the key to everything.” — Sam Walton

Why are they so different? They seem like opposites, but how can that be? Is it really possible that expectations can be both good and bad?

Let’s first take a look at each of these views, then explore if there’s a solution to this paradox.

The Negative Effects of Expectations

Many people will tell you that if you don’t have any expectations, you can never be let down. And sure, there’s some merit to this assumption.

When you hold expectations, you have a belief about how something is, or how something will be. It’s like you give your trust to something or someone.

And if that something fails to live up to your expectations — whether it’s other people, an event, or even yourself — it’s going to hurt. You’ll be disappointed, angry and frustrated.

“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
― Alexander Pope

The Positive Effects of Expectations

Others will tell you that if you don’t have any expectations, you will never accomplish anything. There’s truth to this too.

Holding expectations can sometimes lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. If you have a certain belief about the feature, then you’re more likely to perform the actions that are consistent with that belief.

This is also true in social situations. Research shows that if you expect someone to have a certain personality, you might evoke behaviors in that person that’s consistent with the belief you have about them.

“Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.” — Stephen R. Covey

How to Navigate Reality

As we have seen, there are both positive and negative sides to expectations. Below are some tips on how to navigate them, and get the best of both worlds:

  • Have high expectations towards others. Expect other people to be as good as possible. However, you shouldn’t be naive about it. Intend to treat them highly, but if their true character eventually shines through as something else, make a choice of what to do next.
  • Don’t expect others to treat you like you’re treating them. Just because you’re a person with good expectations, doesn’t mean that everyone else will treat you with the same goodness. However, if you realize that anything external is outside of your control, you won’t be as disappointed when people let you down.
  • Have high expectations toward yourself, but be smart about it. Expect that you’re capable of the greatest things. This will trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, you should have at least one foot inside reality. If you try your best, you cannot expect more than that. The principle of not holding expectations toward something you cannot control applies here as well.
  • Don’t avoid having expectations altogether. Without proper expectations, you won’t benefit from them. Your standards will be low, and you might even lack the drive to reach your goals.

Bounce Back When You’re Let Down

Although you should strive to only hold expectations that are good, it’s not easy to be completely free of unfavorable ones. A lot of them are operating in your mind unconsciously.

If you should come to be let down by expectations — for whatever reason — there are tactics that you can use to bounce back.

One such tool is learned optimism. This tactic implies that you should generally be optimistic about things (e.g., high expectations).

If disappointment or failure does come your way, simply explain to yourself why it occurred in a rational manner.

Best case scenario; the thing was outside of your control, so you couldn’t have done anything about it. If in fact, you could have avoided it, then there’s still an upside to it; you learned something, and you get to improve.

Solving the Paradox

The paradox of expectations is solvable. The outcome we get is a matter of navigating the things we can and cannot control. Having high expectations for the things we can control is beneficial. It’s the things that are outside of our control we should be aware of.

Although it can sometimes be hard to navigate the landscape of expectations, the important thing is that we try to manage them to our best capacity. It’s a thin line to walk, and only by exerting psychological agility can we achieve the optimal outcome.

Want to Learn About the Meaningful Life?

Subscribe to my newsletter (here) and receive a FREE guide to living a more meaningful life.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +567K people. Follow to join our community.

Jonas Ressem

Written by

From Norway. Using psychology to enable meaningful living. Author of ‘Nine Notes.’ http://jonasressem.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +567K people. Follow to join our community.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade