Everyone has expectations for themselves. We often assume these expectations are reasonable. Yet many of them are anything but.
We expect ourselves to work without any breaks. We expect ourselves to have the same level of—high—energy every day. We expect ourselves to experience the same emotions—calm and contentment. We expect ourselves to be fearless.
We expect that we’ll handle difficult times like a to-do list, said Elizabeth Gillette, LCSW, an attachment-focused therapist in Asheville, N.C., who specializes in working with individuals and couples as their families grow. We’ll be quick and efficient with our sadness—like we’d be with replying to email or cleaning the kitchen.
Or we become parents and still cling to the same expectations around work and productivity—except, as Gillette said, now we “are sleep deprived and in survival mode. Even for people without children, there can be an expectation of doing everything well, 100% of the time.”
Or we set expectations based on the lives of others. We compare ourselves not only to other people, but to many other people. Life transition and recovery therapist Jenn Fieldman, LPCS, worked with a client who hyper-focused on all the incredible things people were posting on Facebook. They were getting more work done. They were having amazing dinners with their spouse. They were working out every morning. They seemed like the “perfect” parents.
But Fieldman’s client wasn’t comparing herself to one person—she was comparing herself to the facets in at least five people’s lives.
We set super high expectations because “we idealize the ‘perfect’ outcome,” Gillette said. We assume that in order to feel successful, we need a specific result, she said. We need to get the promotion, or we’ve failed. We need to get an A+ on the paper, or we’re failures.
This is a hard way to live. It’s a lot of needless pressure. Even if we do reach the carrot, there’s always another bigger carrot around the corner. It never stops. We never stop. And it’s utterly exhausting. The tips that follow can help.
Get clear on your values. For instance, Gillette asks parents the following questions to help them identify their values (which you can adapt to your situation and life): “What do you want to show your child? What memories do you want to pass on to them? What are all the ways we can make that happen, without having to be perfect?”
Such questions help parents clarify where they want to place their intention and focus “to create an outcome that feels acceptable, even if it’s not the most ideal.”
Evaluate your expectations. According to Fieldman, also a marriage celebrant in Asheville, N.C., explore these questions on a regular basis: “What has the past proven to me about this expectation: Has it ever worked out? Has it changed over the years? What is sparking this expectation (fear of not being like others? Not being enough?)? If I wasn’t concerned about what other people thought of me, would I still have this expectation of myself? Do I truly believe this expectation is attainable within my time frame, the hours of my day, and the people who I have in my life?”
Quiet your fear. “Often unrealistic expectations are born from fear,” said Fieldman. She works with clients on gaining distance from their fear-based thinking. One technique she does is body scanning. “We hold so much fear in our bodies and we don’t even realize it.” Fieldman asks her clients to breathe in and out slowly while relaxing their bodies from head to toe—doing this every day, two times a day, for two to five minutes.
Specifically, say the words, “I’m breathing in, I’m breathing out” as you relax your body. Pay attention to where you’re holding onto tension. When other thoughts arise, return to your breath. “This trains the body to accept openness and calm rather than making decisions and expectations from a fearful place,” Fieldman said.
Explore your not-enough story. Unrealistic expectations stem from the core belief that we are not enough as we are, Fieldman said. “When we live in this place, we are never truly living in the moments of our lives; we’re living in sadness from what we weren’t and fear that we may never be.”
We can start chipping away at this false belief by realizing that this is not our belief. It may be the belief of a caregiver who was convinced they weren’t good enough, either. It may be the belief of a childhood bully. Fieldman suggested asking yourself: “Whose story is this?”
“Realizing then that it is not our battle to fight, not our story to finish, we get to have our own story,” she said. And then, find a therapist to support you through this process.”
Identify the most realistic takeaway. Gillette encourages clients to consider the question: “If this could go well (with several things not working the way I want it to), how would that feel for me?”
She shared this example: Lots of parents put pressure on themselves for their child’s birthday parties or first day of school. In reality, these are imperfect, often messy moments: Your child’s best friend can’t make it to the party. The bounce house you ordered is suddenly not available. The first day of school is filled with mixed emotions, and various challenges.
So instead of focusing on perfect (i.e., unrealistic expectations), according to Gillette, you reflect on: “What do I want my child to take from this? How can I create an experience that allows for all of these factors to be present, and still consider it a worthwhile experience? Does the fact that it’s not perfect bring value to my life and to my child’s life?”
Sometimes, we worry that if we don’t set high expectations for ourselves, we’re somehow letting ourselves off the hook. We’re being lazy or unambitious. We’re skating through life. We’re not living life fully.
But that’s not true.
Setting realistic expectations actually helps us grow and become more flexible. It helps us savor life and embrace the messy moments, which often hold more meaning anyway. And if you’ve got kids, it saves them from suffering needlessly. Because sky-high expectations are the antithesis of self-compassion.