Throughout our lives the expectations we set for ourselves and those around us are what determine who and what we are, what we have or don’t have, and what we are willing to settle for. Expectations are like little invisible magnets that attract both positive and negative situations into our lives. If we look back over our history and see a chronic pattern of disappointments and failures, it is likely we have held ourselves and others to unrealistic expectations. On the other hand, if you look back and see a lifetime of low achievement, missed opportunities and under-performance, your expectations have likely been too low. If either of these have been a consistent pattern in your life, it is time to re-examine your expectations and give them a major overhaul.

Setting the Bar Too High

Setting your expectations impossibly high inevitably results in frustration, disappointment and the real possibility of failure. Ongoing failures can potentially change you into a pessimistic person with a chronic negative attitude toward everybody and everything. When we expect too much from others, it is often because we are in the habit of expecting too much from ourselves. The question is, who determined what our expectations should be?  Did we set our own or were they decided for us by someone else?

The roots of this are in childhood, and are generally connected to power, manipulation and control. That posse inside our heads that serves as judge and jury is likely to be left over from one or both of our parents. It is the echo of their voices telling us “you ought to,” "you must," "how could you," "why didn't you,” and so on. We may have spent years trying to meet their expectations, and not wanting to disappoint them we have soldiered on, continuing to be unhappy and dissatisfied.

Setting the Bar Too Low

On the other hand, those who set their expectations too low generally do so as a means of protecting themselves from failure and disappointment. This too often starts in childhood when negative experiences and feed back from family, teachers and others convince us we don’t have what it takes and aren’t good enough. Once we accept other people’s judgments of us, we tend to set our expectations too low and are willing to settle for far less. While we may be successful at protecting ourselves from potential pain and are able to get by with less effort, we are also compromising richness in our lives. We are functioning at a level below our capabilities.

Learning to Set Proper Expectations

People who have mastered the art of establishing realistic expectations generally have more positive attitudes and a happier outlook on life. They experience fewer disappointments and less discouragement. There are two basic categories of expectations:

  •  Those you set for yourself
  •  Those you set for your family, friends and others

 Expectations you set for yourself

It has been said that 95% of the unhappiness in the world comes from unmet expectations, both of others and ourselves. This is one of the advantages of knowing your own unique interests, gifts, talents and what you are most capable of. If you have a clear picture of what your strengths and weaknesses are, the more likely you are to have expectations that are realistic and achievable. Choosing goals that are not a fit with your interests and capabilities is a surefire way to set yourself up for disillusion, frustration and disappointment. For example, if you hate math and physics, being away from home, and have a fear of heights, it would be completely unrealistic to expect to become an airline pilot or an astronaut.

Expectations you set for others

You know how you feel about having to meet other people’s expectations, so why would they feel any different about having to meet yours? Why would any of us ever think that those in our lives have an obligation to meet our expectations, especially when they probably have no idea what they are?  Since no two people see things exactly the same way and most of us are not mind readers, is it unlikely that another person, no matter how close to you he or she might be, could instinctively know what’s in your heart and mind. Even if you’ve made your wants and needs quite clear, is it reasonable to expect others to be unquestionably willing to meet your standards and expectations, particularly if they are at the expense of their own?

At some point we must recognize that we and we alone are responsible for our own success and happiness  It is up to us to decide what we can and cannot expect and what is realistic and what is not. Just as we do not have the right to decide what is best for others, neither do we have the right to expect others to make us happy by meeting our every need and desire. Making oneself happy is an inside job. To think otherwise is to foster arrogance and codependency.



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