All of us hold unrealistic expectations. In fact, the biggest unrealistic expectation is that people shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations, according to Miranda Morris, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Bethesda, Md. “It’s part of the human experience.”
But this doesn’t mean unrealistic expectations are healthy. Quite the opposite. They can chip away at our relationships, shut down our goals and even steer our lives in an unhealthy direction.
“Unrealistic expectations are potentially damaging because they set us and others up for failure,” said Selena C. Snow, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Rockville, Md. When we or someone else naturally falls short, we draw false conclusions, feel negative feelings and act in negative ways, she said.
Snow shared this example: You hold the unrealistic expectation “I should be perfect in school.” Inevitably, since this is impossible, you fail. (As Snow said, “it is beyond our control to ensure that we will always perform perfectly when we are mere mortals.”) You conclude that you’re stupid and incompetent. You feel depressed about what this means for your entire life. And you avoid applying to grad school.
Or you hold the unrealistic expectation “If my marriage were good then it would be easy.” When you experience problems, you assume your relationship is hopeless and avoid working on your issues or seeking professional help. As a result, your relationship continues to deteriorate and maybe even ends. However, as Snow said, “relationships are actually difficult and require effort, thoughtfulness and compromise even when they are going well.”
Examples and Signs of Unrealistic Expectations
The first step in relinquishing unrealistic expectations is being able to spot them. This isn’t always easy, especially if we’ve held these expectations for years.
Snow shared these telltale examples and signs of unrealistic expectations:
- “Everyone must like me.” The reality is that we can’t make everyone like us — no matter how hard we try.
- “The world should be fair.” This also is unrealistic because we “can’t control all aspects of the world to ensure that it operates consistently in the most fair manner.”
- “My golden years were supposed to just be golden.” There are many transitions and challenges in older age.
- Unrealistic expectations assume a level of control that we don’t actually have in a situation.
- We repeatedly feel disappointment that the expectation hasn’t been met.
Morris shared these instances and indicators:
- “It’s not OK to be depressed or anxious.”
- “It’s not OK to have painful feelings and thoughts.”
- “I have to have control” or “I need to know what’s going to happen.”
- Unrealistic expectations are rigid. They don’t leave any room for changing circumstances or let us or others be flexible. For instance, “‘I can never make mistakes’ is not doable unless you live in a bubble.”
- “They’re heavy on shoulds,” whether it’s about ourselves or others. For instance, “My spouse should know how I’m feeling without my needing to tell him or her,” or “My kids should always listen to me.”
- They follow this format: “If/then…” For instance, “if my partner loved me, then they’d know how I’m feeling.” (This is actually a common and erroneous assumption.)
- They interfere with our ability to pursue what matters to us in life. For instance, “It’s not OK to make mistakes” means you won’t take risks. And “if you can’t take risks, it’s hard to stretch and pursue the things you care about.”
- They’re unworkable. Some expectations might even seem reasonable, fair and realistic. “But your actual experience [reveals] that these expectations can’t be met.” Also, your expectations create more problems than they solve. For instance, you might expect that your kids should always be well-behaved. You set appropriate limits, and you were a well-behaved child. But in your efforts to enforce this expectation, you’re experiencing disappointment, conflict with your kids and other issues.
The Difficulty of Relinquishing Unrealistic Expectations
For starters, we believe it’s helpful to set high standards for ourselves, Snow said. We think these expectations motivate and inspire us to accomplish our aspirations, she said. We also worry that in the absence of unrealistic expectations, we’ll just “sit around and not meet any goals.”
We also think unrealistic expectations are protective, Morris said. We worry that if we loosen our expectations, other people will exploit and hurt us. However, we don’t need sky-high expectations to ensure our safety. Instead, she stressed the importance of getting out of our heads and focusing on present experiences, such as how someone is treating you. “[P]aying attention to our experience as it’s happening gives us a lot more information about our safety than these expectations.”
How to Relinquish Unrealistic Expectations
Catch your unrealistic expectations with curiosity and humor.
Morris suggested getting to know your expectations. Keep a list of every unrealistic expectation you have this week. Don’t beat yourself up when you catch one. Instead, “make a game of it.” You might say, “That’s a funny one!” or “So interesting I have this.” Or you might simply observe, “I’m really hard on myself when I make mistakes,” she said. (This translates into the unrealistic expectation that you can’t make any mistakes.)
Use the double-standard technique.
According to Snow, this technique involves imagining what you’d say to a close friend or family member who holds the same idea or belief. She teaches this strategy to her clients. “Usually, they will say something far more reasonable, realistic, and measured to someone else than what they would say to themselves.” Then they can practice saying something as realistic and self-compassionate to themselves, she said.
For instance, Snow’s client says she made a mistake at work. She believes this makes her a terrible employee. The underlying unrealistic expectation is that she shouldn’t make any mistakes at work. When asked what she’d say to a loved one, she said: “Everybody makes mistakes sometimes. It is part of being human and not a machine.” Then she tells herself something similar.
Reflect on the effects of your expectations.
Both Snow and Morris stressed the importance of considering whether an expectation is helpful. For instance, you might consider, “Does [the expectation] help me be who I want to be? [Does it help me] go where I want to go?” “Is it in service of what I care about, such as a good relationship, safety or professional or academic goals?” Morris said.
If it isn’t, she suggested gently acknowledging this. You can tell yourself something like: “This expectation doesn’t help me now.” This might feel like a loss, which you also can acknowledge, she said.
According to Snow, clients often realize that unrealistic expectations don’t motivate them to strive, like they thought they did, she said. They also “realize that these unreasonable rules they have created often lead them to avoid participating in challenges at all, because they believe they have such limited likelihood of success based on repeated perception of failures.”
If the expectation is working against you, see if you can release your grip a little, Morris said.
When you’re asking yourself to give something up or loosen your hold on unhealthy beliefs, it’s helpful to have a replacement, Morris said. She suggested compassion — both with others and yourself. This includes “patience, openness and gentleness.” It includes the way you’d treat a child who was hurt, she said.
For instance, if your spouse disappoints you, acknowledge the disappointment and sadness you feel. If it’s something that needs to be addressed, Morris said, then you can communicate that your feelings were hurt. “When you speak with compassion and understanding, people are much more apt to hear you.”
Instead of telling yourself, “I can’t believe I screwed up my presentation,” you can acknowledge your feelings and get curious about what didn’t work, what did and how you’ll improve next time.
Allow for flexibility.
Being flexible “starts with us being sensitive to changing circumstances,” Morris said. For instance, instead of telling your husband, “You said you’d clean the kitchen. We had a deal!” you say, “It looks like you didn’t get to cleaning the kitchen. Could you work on it? Need my help?” You communicate your needs, and give him the opportunity to listen and make a choice about responding to them.
Unrealistic expectations are unhelpful expectations. Even thought it’s hard, work on relinquishing them. And remember that you can create new rules and beliefs that actually inspire, support and serve both you and your relationships.
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