I was having dinner with my friend and griping about my problems when she stopped me to give some sage advice. She told me that I needed to think about my expectations. “Aren’t you being a little hard on yourself?” I found myself getting ready to put up an argument, until I realized that she was right. I had created a story about where I should be with my business and I was feeling like a failure. We all do it. We create stories around our relationships, our work, our bodies, our success, our failures and our families, and then when the ending doesn’t happen the way we envision we get upset.
Expectations can be a healthy part of living when we are realistic about what we desire and we are able to communicate our needs. I am the first person to encourage my friends, family and clients to aim high. We have to believe in ourselves first and foremost. Many times though we attach ourselves to an outcome which is unreasonable and leaves us feeling as though we’ve failed or somebody has failed us. This type deep attachment can become a problem when our own happiness is contingent on our expectations being met. Often accompanying high expectations is the cognitive distortion called black and white thinking. This all or nothing mentality can become the catalyst for depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, relationship stress etc. Here is a brief synopsis of the pattern:
Step 1. Evaluate my status (my relationship, my work, my career, etc)
Step 2. Create an expectation about what should happen
Step 3. Evaluate status again-If I’m not there yet I feel frustrated, exhausted, disappointed
Step 4. Self criticize (what have I done wrong, what’s my story about why this happened?)
Does this sound familiar to you? We all face challenges like this, and we all can find ourselves trapped in feelings of defeat, hurt, anger and pain. I would like to propose a 5th step which has helped me, my clients and can help you too:
Revise expectations so that they are more realistic and less rigid
So how can we revise our expectations so that we aren’t left feeling bad? Below I’ve listed some tips to help you consider your expectations. Think about how you wish to edit your story.
- Practice mental flexibility. Mental flexibility allows us to move more fluidly from one thought or belief to another without getting stuck. At times, we are unable to see the “gray area” between the black and white. I encourage my clients to stay away from words like always, must, should, and has to be. Use new language which is less rigid such as sometimes, would like to, I hope to, etc.
- Use the friend test: What would I say to a friend if he/she were in the same situation? Do I notice differences in the advice I give myself versus the advice I’d give someone else?
- Self-compassion. No blaming, shaming, or attacking. Acknowledge what didn’t go as expected while cultivating empathy for self or others.
- Mindfulness of small victories. Maybe you didn’t get the end result that you wanted, but what will you take away from the learning experience? Help yourself create a more realistic perspective by evaluating what you will take away from the experience.
- Take an objective step back or seek a second opinion. When you look at the expectation, does it seem reasonable? Sometimes we need an objective eye to help us see that our expectations are unrealistic or rigid. Have someone else in your life help you “edit” your expectation.
- Seek validation. We often generalize, for example we may say that “everyone seems to be doing better than us.” Is that really true? Chances are there is someone who can relate to what you’re going through and can help you feel better about where you are now.
- Stay in the present. Expectations are often future based, which makes them hard to control. Focus on the here and now, appreciate what is going well in the moment.