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Expectation vs. Reality

How to adjust expectations, avoid resentment, and live a life of joy and contentment.

We’ve all been there. A friend who always comes to you to share her problems but never seems to reciprocate when you need her most; a loved one who continuously lets you down; working hard in the gym for a few weeks and the scale doesn’t budge; you don’t receive the promotion you really thought you deserved.

Sound familiar? These situations are an all-too-familiar part of life. And they leave us feeling disappointed. Hurt. Let down. Resentful. These emotions can be toxic and influence the way we view ourselves, our future decisions, and the way we see the world.

Beneath the emotions, these scenarios are really just expectations we set for ourselves and others. There’s a saying: “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” We have a tendency to fall into the if/then mindset that our happiness is dependent upon fulfillment of our expectations. We often don’t realize that we have developed expectations of others until they aren’t met: it’s as if we’re setting ourselves up for failure. 

Setting high expectations for ourselves is an important component to accomplishing our goals and dreams; but when we develop a dependency on these fulfilled expectations, things can go south. This can lead to a reliance on not just the future to fulfill our happiness, but a particular future scenario. This becomes especially complicated when we set expectations of others and place our hopes and dreams of happiness, joy, contentment, and fulfillment into their hands.

How can expectations be both helpful in creating healthy relationships but also harmful if those expectations are unrealistic, immutable, or uncommunicated? Bob Levesque, LCSW, a mental health counselor and clinical social worker in Orlando, FL, has a unique perspective on this.

“When I hear the word ‘expectations’,” Levesque says, “I often hear my clients really saying ‘preferences’. We all have preferences. John Gottman says that the primary predictor for success or failure in relationships is in the area of conflict; navigating preferences is one of the primary contributors to conflict.”

“In a healthy relationship,” he continues, “I need to communicate my preferences and boundaries in a way that expresses my inner truth. Often, knowing and expressing our own inner truth is a challenge. So, I encourage those clients to build self-awareness and explore their inner truths by practicing expressing themselves more often in the smaller moments—choosing what they want for dinner when they go out or articulating when things bother them in the day-to-day.”

On the flip side, however, Levesque says that it’s important to bring awareness to when our expectations violate our partner’s boundaries or “preferences”.

“We need to do our best to communicate our inner truth while at the same time seeking to know and encourage our partner’s world and inner truth,” he says. “These are necessary building blocks toward long-term healthy connection.”

And what about those expectations that are communicated, and someone still lets you down? What are we to do with those moments which can lead to disappointment and resentment? Here are three suggestions on how to manage unmet expectations: both the ones we set for ourselves and the ones we set for others.

#1 Respond, Don’t React. First, take a few deep breaths and bring yourself into the present. Come to a place of responding rather than reacting. Ask yourself: Is what I expected of him or her (or myself) in alignment with their/my values and inner truth? Was it a realistic or unrealistic expectation from my perspective? From theirs? Did I clearly communicate my expectations of this person?

#2 Forgive. People won’t always live up to our expectations, and that’s okay. Forgiveness can be a powerful tool for healing and relationship building, and it’s good for you. When we practice forgiveness we experience elevated moods, decreased stress, better long-term health, and better relationships. Forgiveness married with healthy boundaries and clear, consistently conveyed “preferences” can also help prevent future unmet expectations.

#3 Choose Happiness Now. We have a choice to respond with disappointment or unhappiness when life doesn’t happen in the way we expected. Our happiness is not dependent on others fulfilling our expectations or on the expectations we set for ourselves. Though it’s okay to feel disappointed and sad when things don’t turn out the way we intend, it’s equally important to remember that happiness isn’t an if/then objective: happiness is decided in the here and now. Stay present and grateful in the moment; stay in harmony with your inner truth; focus on the smaller joys and accomplishments happening right now; and happiness, along with more balanced expectations, will find you.

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