The Downside of High Expectations

Businesswoman standing on ladder looking into distance against cloudy background

“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” – William Shakespeare

On a lovely Saturday last summer, in a rare alignment of the planets, I was able to spend the entire day lounging by the pool. I slept late that morning and after a full day of reading, napping and swimming, I sleepily asked my husband what he felt like doing for dinner. We headed out to one of our favorite restaurants, where we had a delicious meal. Ahhhh…. what a glorious day that was.

Fast forward to the next weekend. We had a full weekend of driving my stepson around, friends showing up at odd times and the usual running of errands. Even so, we had managed to carve out a couple of hours of pool time in the middle of the day. As I was getting in the zone of relaxation, my phone rang and I wound up on a 45-minute work call that couldn’t be avoided. After the call, I realized it was almost time to resume errand-running. So much for pool time.

I felt a small tantrum was in order. “I wanted to relax!,” I whined. My downtime had quickly slipped through my fingers. My anger didn’t bode well for going about the rest of my day, either. My husband said; “Well, don’t ruin your time today just because this day isn’t like last Saturday”. Instead of focusing on what was positive about the present day I had expectations that were as high as the out-of-the-ordinary glorious previous Saturday.

Having high expectations can cut both ways. On the one hand, you are more likely to realize something wonderful because it is part of your vision and you are striving for it. On the other hand, if a situation does not meet those expectations, you may get caught up only focusing on how the situation fell short, resulting in disappointment.

Once I realized that I would only have a couple of hours of downtime I should have let go of my high expectations. It didn’t mean that I could not still have a great day. I had found a little time to sit by a beautiful pool with my husband, reading a book and enjoying the sunshine in the middle of running around doing errands. That is a great day by anyone’s expectations, right?

We have all come in contact with those people whose expectations are so high that nothing could ever possibly meet them. I treated myself to a trip to Paris for my 40th birthday and on the first evening I shared travel stories with a fellow tour member. She seemed only to have had negative travel experiences and at the end of each story she would say; “Well, it was JUST a disaster.” Her definition of “disaster” included events I considered insignificant, such as losing her scarf in Scotland or having to rush for a train in London. She had “disasters” in many wonderful places such as Germany, China and Brazil and I was envious of all of the places she had been. My guess is that no matter how many good things happened on that trip to Paris, she would have another “disaster” story to tell others back home.

Stepping back and looking at the big picture is a great way to reorient ourselves to more realistic expectations. Even if we do have to rush for a train while in London, we can focus on the fact that… hey! We are in London! That is certainly more exciting than rushing for our morning train to work back at home. This perspective won’t take away our frustration in the moment – nor should it – but the more we take an alternate view, the easier it is for our brain to switch to adopting a more positive sense overall.

In the movie Enchanting April, two English women head to sunny Italy for a vacation in order to escape the constant rain in their home country. They arrive in Italy during a torrential downpour and one of them asks, “How is this different than England?” The other replies, “It’s Italian rain!” Expecting Italy to be a magical place where it never rains is too high of an expectation. Noting that one is experiencing rain in a new and exciting place is taking a positive view.

Keeping a gratitude journal is an excellent way to orient to a positive view overall. The practice of writing down three things every day for which to be thankful trains the brain to look actively for things throughout the day to include in that journal. Over the long-term, journaling can make us form the habit of looking for the good in any situation – no matter how dark it may seem. After just a few days of keeping the journal, I learned that when I look for good, I always manage to find it. If I look for the negative, it will undoubtedly be there as well. Which would you rather find?

Be careful of expectations that are too high because the secret to a happy life is balance. If you are finding that you are often disappointed in outcomes, check first to make sure that your expectations haven’t become the real problem. Aiming high is a good practice as long as you can remain open and flexible about the ultimate outcome. A positive attitude enables you to fall short of a lofty goal, maintain your resilience and still feel very satisfied.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.