Manage your expectations for healthier relationships
Updated: Aug 17
...and no this is not a "I must lower my standards" (often said with bitter resentment after a disappointment!) article! It is a way of remembering that we are not responsible for the actions of other adults - but we have power in the way we choose to respond.
In Psychologies Today, Sinnot said "Expectations are premeditated resentments", and I love that phrase. Indeed there is often a negativity attached to them because the option of "failure" (ie. not meeting them) is always in the mix. But, let's address the positives of having expectations first:
- They open the door to opportunity. If someone thinks you might be capable of something, and they offer you the opportunity, you may indeed rise to (and exceed) their expectation.
- They give you options. Parents who love music for example may have many instruments lying around the house and children may simply pick them up and play them discovering a new talent or gift.
- They can be a demonstration of support and belief in you. When those around us have high expectations of us, it can be a wonderful show of trust that we will come through with whatever we have set out to do (it's a little like sponsoring someone to run a marathon by completion rather than by the mile!)
Research has shown in the "self fulfilling prophesy", that we often do behave in the ways that are expected of us.
But of course that opens the door to the negative:
- If expectations are low, you may not bother to try. In this case, you may need to remember that you are the main person you are doing anything for and keep believing in your ability...and perhaps seek an environment where people are your cheerleaders!
- Expectations can add too much pressure. This can be especially difficult for young people who know that their parents may have sacrificed a lot to ensure they had a good start in life. Before you say "NEVER put pressure on your children like that" - I would humbly suggest there is a fine line between teaching the value of hard work and sacrifice, and simply "hiding" what you've been through from your children which may result in them feeling a sense of entitlement.
- It can feel horribly painful if we feel we've failed to live up to expectations. Worse so if we are constantly reminded of this, as this can really eat away at our self worth. As children we recognise that "pleasing others" can bring rewards, and disappointing others can bring punishment or ridicule, or perhaps worse - not even being acknowledged for trying.
- Expectations within a society or culture can prevent us from reaching out when we need help. In cultures which believe that mental illness symptoms are spiritual; or those which ascribe them to personal weakness; or are led to believe they are shameful - it becomes very difficult for those needing help to seek it. Happily it must be noted that times are changing, and while they may have taken longer to do so in the past, I certainly note that acceptance is something which is growing rapidly. If there is a community leader you can trust, consider reaching out to them, or perhaps seek help online (on a regulated/recognised site) - which is a great option if you feel you have no-where else to turn.
- We may feel let down when others fail to reach our expectations which can damage relationships. It is always disappointing when something doesn't work out - BUT one thing we can do is ask ourselves - did I make my expectations clear? For example, if I were to say "Please buy me a cake" - it is likely I would (if I was lucky enough and you did it...I DO love cakes by the way), get many different cakes as I didn't specify which one I wanted. If we simply expect without making what we expect clear (even if we think "it's so obvious") we might be setting others up to fail.
How can we manage our expectations:
- Aim for "excellence" rather than perfection. Of course we can always learn and improve, but we need to remember that perfection is subjective and even if we reach it for ourselves, we will not meet others' expectation of "perfection" because of said subjectivity. What's more, in procrastinating over it, or perhaps bugging people for extra support, or in our need to appreciation afterwards, we might have even annoyed them. What is better is to aim for excellence. This looks not just at the product, but at the whole experience.
- Ask yourself - are those expectations still relevant today? Many people know the parable of the baby elephant who was put in chains so he would not run away. When little, he tried to break those chains and couldn't so he stopped trying. As he grew and it was clear to all observers he could easily break the chains, he didn't try - because his expectation was that he couldn't do it. This is how "social heredity" - be it things people have said, be it rules and restrictions that once bound us, can affect us. Take a moment to ask yourself, are those limitations still relevant - and is it really that I'm being held back, or that I'm simply afraid to let go?
- Be clear on your own boundaries or limitations so you do not over promise and underdeliver! It is very easy to promise something when we are in a good mood, so always be conscious of what you can realistically do. It is better to say "no" at a time when others can find an alternative rather than agree and let people down at the last minute.
- Make your expectations clear (and follow through consequences stated) I am one of those people who, if you say "I'm fine", I don't ask any further...I respect your word. If you actually wanted to talk, then I would expect you to be clear.
There is no point being upset that someone failed to meet your expectations if you were not clear on what they were in the first place! Communicate with loved ones!
- Separate yourself from the outcome. Mistakes happen, learning is optional is a phrase I love. Sometimes, even with all the preparation in the world, things can still go wrong. On reflection focus on the process and if it is sound, it is OK to put that outcome down to bad luck!
- Negotiate ways of a better outcome next time. If, on the other hand, there are things you - and the other person - could have done to effect a better outcome, discuss this and agree for next time (if there is to be a next time.) In negotiating, be open to ideas as others may have insights you had not realised, but maintain an outline of what you would like to achieve.
- When delegating make sure the person has the skill, will and fits the bill! Don't just bring people in because they are friends, or because you feel sorry for them. If a task needs to be done focus on what the ideal outcome of the task is to be and invite people who have the ability (as well as the tools needed), the motivation, and where relevant, would either enjoy the opportunity, or fit in with what is being asked. If you do not have someone that will work, keep looking!
Hamlet said "there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so"...he may as well have been talking about expectations and how we manage them.
Read more: Helping Teens with Mental Health struggles: Teen Mental Health - A Guide for Parents | (mytutor.co.uk)
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For coaching tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt