We all hold unrealistic expectations — though we might realize it only when they backfire. Here’s what to do if your expectations are too high.
All of us hold unrealistic expectations.
In fact, the biggest unrealistic expectation is that people shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations, according to Miranda Morris, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Bethesda, Maryland. “It’s part of the human experience.”
But this doesn’t mean unrealistic expectations are healthy. They can chip away at relationships, shut down goals, and even steer lives in an unhealthy direction.
“Unrealistic expectations are potentially damaging because they set us and others up for failure,” says Selena C. Snow, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Rockville, Maryland. When we or someone else naturally falls short, we draw false conclusions, feel difficult feelings, and act in unhelpful ways, she adds.
The first step to relinquishing unrealistic expectations is spotting them. This isn’t always easy, especially if we’ve held these expectations for years.
Snow shared this example: You hold the unrealistic expectation that “I should be perfect in school.” Because this is impossible, you inevitably feel like a failure.
You conclude that you’re stupid and incompetent, feel bad about what this means for your entire life, then avoid applying to grad school.
Snow cited some examples and signs of holding onto unrealistic expectations:
- You think, “Everyone must like me.” The reality is we can’t make everyone like us, no matter how hard we try.
- You think, “The world should be fair.” This is also unrealistic because many aspects of the world are outside our control.
- You think “My golden years were supposed to just be golden.” But there are many transitions and challenges as we age.
- You think “My marriage should be easy.” Then, when problems arise, you assume the relationship is hopeless and avoid working on it.
Unrealistic expectations assume a level of control that we don’t have in a situation. We repeatedly feel disappointed that the expectation hasn’t been met.
Morris cited these examples of thoughts that indicate your expectations are too high:
- “It’s not OK to be depressed or anxious.”
- “It’s not OK to have painful feelings and thoughts.”
- “Should” phrases, like “My spouse should know how I’m feeling without me telling them,” or “My kids should always listen to me.”
- “If, then” thoughts, like “If my partner loved me, then they’d know how I’m feeling.”
Unrealistic or false expectations like these interfere with our ability to pursue what matters to us in life.
For instance, if you hold the unrealistic expectation that it’s not OK to make mistakes, you may not take risks that could help you grow.
Unrealistic expectations are rigid. They don’t leave room for changing circumstances or allow us or others to be flexible. Sometimes the expectations might seem reasonable, fair, and realistic, but your experience reveals they can’t be met.
Your expectations can also create more problems than they solve.
For instance, you might expect that your kids should always be well-behaved, but in your efforts to enforce this expectation, you experience disappointment, conflict with your kids, and mental health challenges.
Even when unrealistic expectations get us down, it can be difficult to let them go.
This is partly because we believe setting high standards for ourselves is helpful. We think these expectations motivate and inspire us to accomplish our aspirations, says Snow.
We also worry that with a lack of unrealistic expectations, we’ll just “sit around and not meet any goals.”
Unrealistic expectations can also feel protective, Morris says. We might worry that if we loosen our expectations, other people will exploit and hurt us.
But 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. “Paying attention to our experience as it’s happening gives us a lot more information about our safety than these expectations.”
You may find it helpful to face your unrealistic expectations with curiosity and humor.
Morris suggests getting to know your expectations. Consider keeping a list of every unrealistic expectation you have this week.
Instead of beating yourself up when you notice one, consider making it into a game.
You might say, “That’s a funny one!” or, “So interesting I have this impossible expectation.”
Or you might simply observe, noticing that “I’m really hard on myself when I make mistakes.”
1. Use the double-standard technique: What would you say to a loved one in the same situation?
This technique involves imagining what you’d say to a close friend or family member who holds the same idea or belief, Snow says. 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.
To make this method more effective, set the intention to review how it went afterward. You might ask yourself, “What did I learn from trying the double-standard technique?” and write a journal entry on the answer. This solidifies and reinforces what you learned in this exercise.
2. 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.
To test whether your high expectations are truly functional or improve your effectiveness, you might consider performing a behavioral experiment. Here, you purposefully go into a situation without preparing in advance to test whether or not you actually function just fine without them.
According to Snow, clients often realize that unrealistic expectations don’t motivate them to strive like they thought they did, she said.
Clients may also realize that the unreasonable rules they have created lead them to avoid challenges at all, as they believe they will never succeed.
If the expectation is working against you, see if you can release your grip a little, Morris said.
Again, it’s important to reflect on how effective this technique was afterward. For example, you might journal on the question, “Did I find that letting go of high expectations make it so I was not able to perform well?”
3. Practice compassion
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.
One way to cultivate compassion is through practicing loving-kindness meditation.
When you’ve been practicing compassion for a while, check in with yourself and think about how it’s going, what you have learned, and how your outlook has changed since you began.
4. 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 might say, “It looks like you didn’t get to cleaning the kitchen. Could you work on it? Need my help?”
Here, you’re communicating your needs and giving him the opportunity to listen and make a choice about responding to them.
Unrealistic expectations are unhelpful expectations. Even though it’s hard, you can find many benefits through working on relinquishing them.
Remember that you can create new rules and beliefs that actually inspire, support, and serve both you and your relationships.
Many of the concepts and methods discussed in this article are practiced in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). To further explore and engage with relinquishing unrealistic expectations, you might consider seeking counseling with a CBT specialist.
Looking for a therapist, but not sure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.