Why Unrealistic Expectation Are Resentments Waiting to Happen

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“Expectation feeds frustration. It is an unhealthy attachment to people, things, and outcomes we wish we could control; but don’t.”

— Dr. Steve Maraboli

We all have a tendency to believe that expecting something to happen will automatically cause it to. We rest our hopes and dreams on the fulfillment of these firmly held expectations. And in reality, there isn’t anything wrong with this—especially when we have good reason to believe that having our expectation fulfilled will result in our happiness. Many of us learned from past experiences that doing certain things will make us happy. For instance, I know from experience that making my morning latte usually brings me happiness and a boost of energy, so it’s reasonable for me to expect this experience every morning when I wake up.

The problem with expectations shows up when we expect something to happen without any good reason or evidence for it. If I believe that my expectations alone will bring me what I desire, I create an unreasonable expectation that sets me up for disappointment. For example, I can’t make a latte by just thinking it into existence; I have to take the necessary steps to make it happen. I have to put the espresso, water, and milk in the machine and push the button. Just expecting my latte to show up the minute I wake up will only let me down.

That example is pretty easy to understand, but the concept gets a bit confusing when it comes to dealing with people. Most of us can understand that expecting a latte to materialize from our thoughts the minute we wake up is unrealistic. Yet many of us have at some point mistakenly believed that expecting other people to behave the way we want them to will actually make it happen. For example, you may expect your partner to be the one to make your latte in the morning, which is totally fine and nice if your partner’s on board to do it. But what happens if your partner has no interest in living up to that expectation? You might feel shocked, upset, and resentful. In cases like these, expectations become premeditated resentments.

It should be easy to think of times from your own life when you’ve felt resentful toward someone who didn’t live up to your expectations. I know it is for me. Needing life to always turn out the way you want it to is guaranteed to disappointment you, because life doesn’t work this way. Your parents, spouse and children won’t always meet your expectations, and that’s okay, if you let it be. Instead of allowing your expectations to lead to disappointment and resentment, it better serves you to keep your ideas about how things should be in check.

Think about it: Why is it that we don’t get upset when a latte doesn’t make itself, but we get upset if our spouse doesn’t make it for us? Where do we get the idea that expecting others to behave the way we want them to will make them behave that way? What entitles us to get angry at other people when they don’t meet our expectations?

Without verbalizing expectations about the give-and-take in a relationship, people construct stories in their heads, coming up with what they believe to be legitimate expectations of each other. In this way, people in a relationship have a deal, even when they don’t discuss the details of it. It’s hard for people to live up to our expectations when they don’t know what they are. However, we still feel wronged when our needs aren’t met. For example, I hear a lot about how my clients listen to their friends and families’ problems for years, even when they didn’t want to, because they expected they’d one day get the same in return. When that doesn’t happen, they feel upset and wronged. I’ve felt the same way many times. It’s easy to believe that if you’re there for people, they should be there for you too.

However, unspoken expectations are almost guaranteed to go unfulfilled. Talking openly about what you expect from other people might improve your chances of fulfillment. And by learning to not expect people to know what you need from them, you’ll be much clearer when communicating your needs. Instead of hoping others will read your body language, try telling them why you’re upset or disappointed.

At the same time, thinking that merely communicating your expectations clearly is going to get people to behave the way you want them to might also leave you feeling let down. My biggest challenge when it comes to expectations is questioning what to do when my children don’t follow the rules I’ve designed to help keep them safe, healthy, and respectful. I know that yelling and getting angry isn’t the answer, so I always consider other ways to address my expectations of them.

What I’ve learned is that if we expect other people to act in ways that aren’t consistent with their own interests, they’ll probably resist those expectations, leaving us feeling resentful. Furthermore, they’ll probably end up resenting us, too. Think about it: How do you feel when people expect you to do things that don’t align with your own goals and values?

When thinking about your expectations of others, consider whether you’ve fully communicated them. If you have, make sure those expectations meet the interests of your partner, friend, or family member. When you let go of the expectation that everyone needs to fall in line with what you want so that you can feel good, you get to experience contentment even when things don’t turn out the way you’d hoped.

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Talk soon,

Dr. Ilene

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