Expectations are tricky. Our brains are prediction machines, trying to solve for uncertainty. Our expectations hold an immense amount of power over our happiness, satisfaction, and even our physiology. If we fail to meet expectations that are too high, we feel frustrated, disappointed, unhappy, or maybe even anxious. High expectations can also lead to crushing pressure and a decrease in motivation and performance. If expectations are too low, we may be apathetic and unmotivated to take risks and try new things. Low expectations may leave our potential unrealized because we are too afraid to try. Additionally, actually meeting our expectations can also lead to dissatisfaction. Have you ever achieved a goal and felt empty? Therein lies the paradox. We need to have expectations, but how do you set realistic and appropriate expectations that provide enough stimulus for motivation and performance, but also enough space for happiness and life satisfaction?
To further complicate matters, there are also the expectations of others and from others that join the party. And even more complicated still, as we achieve more things, our expectations shift.
First, let’s define expectations and how they can quickly snowball out of control.
Expectations are a hope or appraisal for how an outcome of a task is supposed to go. The dictionary defines expectations as a “strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future.” Expectations are further complicated by cultural norms, past experiences, other people, our mindset, and even fear of others’ opinions.
A Negative relationship with Expectations –> Judgment –> Pressure –> Unhappiness/reduced motivation
Life satisfaction = realistic expectations and psychological flexibility around them.
happiness = reality/expectations
The Trajectory of Expectations
Imagine starting a new sport or activity. The pressure is low, the bar is low for most of us, and it’s easy to have a curious beginner’s mind. With low expectations and a beginner’s mind comes freedom and joy. The problem is that when we get validation and see improvement, our brain moves the bar, and now we expect more.
When it comes to expectations and other people, the more we get to know someone and the deeper our relationship gets, the more we expect of that person.
The more we achieve or the closer we get to someone, the more our goalposts move. As I mentioned before, we may even feel dissatisfied, even when we meet expectations. We may feel like we need to have our expectations exceeded to feel happy. What’s left is empty achievement and struggling relationships.
When it comes to our goals, put our happiness on meeting our expectations saying, “I’ll be happy when I get x…” but then we don’t feel happy. This is called the arrival fallacy and I’ve written about it at length if you want to learn more.
Then, there is even the case where someone is proficient at a lot of things, but doesn’t want to try something new because they already have expectations that are too high. We’ve all heard, “be brave enough to suck at something new.” This quote alludes to the fact that people even have high expectations for something they’ve never even done before. Bottom line, we don’t like to feel incompetent and people have different comfort levels with feeling that way. Feeling like you suck, feeling incompetent, and feeling frustrated is all on the path to mastery.
When expectations aren’t met repeatedly, our task or activity may no longer be fun, and our brain shifts into protection mode to preserve our self-worth. How many times have you gone out for a workout with an expectation in mind, and then spent the rest of the workout beating yourself up because you couldn’t meet those expectations? Expectations are also tricky when you show up for a group activity and people in the group or team expect you to perform a certain way. What if you don’t? Doubt, insecurity, intimidation, and fear abound.
What can we do about the paradox of expectations?
How do you set expectations of yourself and others without causing undue pressure, stress, and threat? How do you strive for more while holding expectations and outcomes lightly? Should you set the bar low so you don’t disappoint yourself and others? Or should you set the bar high so you stretch yourself? Therein lies the paradox.
The thing is, having high expectations isn’t the problem. Ask any high-performer and you can bet they set the bar high. Having a thriving relationship with your expectations lies in the complex relationship you have with yourself, your mindset, and how you manage expectations and strive for achievements. There’ll never be a solution for “now I feel better about it” but understanding yourself and having some tools in your pocket can help with this paradox.
“The question is not what you look at, but how you look and whether you see.”Henry David Thoreau
In doing the research for this article, my brain started hurting. Each rock I lifted begetted more complexity and many directions I could go with this. I’m going to start with expectations of ourselves, then go into expectations of others and from others, and I’ll end with some tools and takeaways.
Expectations of Ourselves.
For simplicity, I’ll use the tried and true metaphor: cycling. I’ve been a professional mountain biker since 2006. I have thousands of data points to inform what I should expect of myself based on training and racing, but we all know progress is not linear. Some days we experience cognitive fatigue and it changes our perception of effort or if we can ride a technical section. I’ve had injuries or sicknesses where I’ve had to take time off the bike. I’ve had strings of sub-par results or many weeks in a row of training outcomes that were far less than what I was capable of in the past. When I repeatedly do not meet my own expectations, it makes me want to give up. Yes, even after years of success and experience, I still feel like giving up at times.
All of the high expectations I have for what a ride would be like or how I’d feel or perform at a race creates extra pressure. If I overthink about the outcomes or even catastrophize at the moment if something isn’t going well, my performance could decline. All of the extra pressure can make riding my bike no fun. I’d even have anxiety before a ride even started – what if I don’t feel a certain way? What if I can’t ride that one section? What does it all mean?
My expectations were coming from myself because I was comparing to past experience (which, ironically self-efficacy drives confidence from past experience), but what if you no longer can meet past expectations? This also happens as our life situation changes or can even happen with aging. I’ve had to shift my expectations after having children because my goals, energy, and time commitments had to change. It’s not bad, but I can’t expect to be the type of mom I want to be and train, travel, and race as much as I was before having kids. A question I frequently ask myself is “what are appropriate expectations now that I have 2 small children and a lot less time to train and work?” Am I feeling upset because I am comparing to what I was doing before I committed less time and energy to train and recovery? How do you set new expectations that are motivating? Meeting or getting close to your expectations can create momentum and motivation if set appropriately. Another thing I ask myself is what rate of achievement should I expect given the time I’m putting in, and does that even matter?
There’s a study out of the UK from Robb Peterson and associates….
Personally, I don’t believe in setting the bar low. I do believe in setting the bar in a place that meets you where you are today. You can start where you are and lightly hold onto expectations. If you don’t meet your own expectations, approach it with self-compassion and a growth mindset.
- Start where you are and set expectations there. Not on what you used to do.
- Expect that you can improve with effort and have patience
- Expect to screw up and for things to be hard sometimes
- Set just manageable challenges. From goal-setting, the optimal amount is just 4% harder than last time.
- Your mindset impacts the expectations you set and how you cope when expectations are not met.
- Your perception of what your expectations and actions mean is within your control.
- Develop your growth mindset- beliefs dictate our actions and effort.
Expectations FROM others
Expectations from others are a challenge because you can’t control what someone else expects of you. This could be in a sports team or a work setting where someone wants you to do something by a certain time or perform a certain way. This can even extend to something like going on a group ride or going for a run with someone. You feel like you’re letting the whole team down if you don’t accomplish what they need you to do. You feel like you’re letting your partner down or maybe you don’t want to do the things your partner expects you to do. This causes a lot of extra pressure. Managing expectations is one bucket and the pressure that comes from those expectations is a whole other bucket. This also goes for expectations of yourself. Some questions you can ask yourself: Are the expectations placed upon me realistic? Do they align with my values? Is meeting those expectations within my control? What and how do I communicate if the expectations are unreasonable or make me resentful?
If you’re interested in how expectations impact motivation and how different people meet expectations, make sure you listen to my podcast with Gretchen Rubin and pick up her book, The Four Tendencies.
That said, having positive expectation of someone can actually increase their performance. The Pygmalion Effect is a psychological phenomenon in which having high expectations of someone actually improves their performance. The story goes that Pygmalion was a greek sculptor who created a statue and fell so deeply in love with it that it came to life. The myth motivated a study by Rosenthal and Jacobson where they took students and teachers, told the teachers that certain students were intellectual bloomers (even though they were not). With their unconscious bias and nonverbal actions, they treated those students differently throughout the school year. Picking up on the nonverbal cues and silent beliefs, the students outperformed the other students. People act as we expect them to act. Our expectations can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
However, this effect does not take into account the happiness or satisfaction of the students, nor does it take into account the pressure that those students might have felt. I’d be interested to see how the Pygmalion Effect impacts well-being, and how leaders know where to set the bar for expectations to help people meet higher expectations.
Expectancy Theory is another interesting theory of motivation from psychology. Cognitive Neuroscientist, Dr. Marcel Kinsbourne stated that “our expectations create brain patterns that can be just as real as those created by events in the real world.” That transl ates into our neurons rewiring to fire as if the event actually took place. That also leads to physiological shifts. Some examples are the placebo effect, the nocebo effect (like if you are told a drug has a list of side effects and then you feel those side effects. This was actually shown in a study where people were given a sugar pill, but then felt the negative side effects of the drug), perception of athletic performance (there was a study where people were put on a treadmill and and a few of them were told they had a special genetics for endurance and they performed better, even at the physiological level). This effect has even come up with people from Ellen Langer and her team, showing that people who had a positive mindset around aging lived an extra 7.5 years. Another example is a study by Ellen Langer and Ali Crum with cleaning staff at hotels. Some of the staff was told their cleaning work was silimlar to a cardio workout, and they lost weight while the other individuals who did the same amount of cleaning but without the expectation intervaention did not lose weight. Expectations can impact hormones and so much more. It’s mindbending to think that our perception of an activity can define our reality.
Of course, the aforementioned thoery also apply to expectations of yourself.
When we treat man as he is, we make him worse than he is; when we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be.Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Expectations OF others
What about expectations OF others? What if our expectations of what our friend, partner, person at work can do is too high or if it’s downright negative? Negative expectations can also create a narrow field of vision. We think, “Oh, my partner didn’t do x again…” and then you start looking for all the ways they won’t meet your expectations. Perhaps you’ve never clearly communicated your expectations and are hoping they’ll just figure it out. A good tool for communicating your needs and expectations with a consistent framework to follow comes from Marshall Rosenburg’s Non-Violent Communication. I enjoyed Oren Jay Sofer’s Say What You Mean book (and podcast we recorded).
The framework(worksheet) is stating your observation, how you feel about it, and what you need, and the concrete action you would like to have happen. Expressing or listening without blame or critcism is key. It sounds simple, but understanding your needs and feelings, and knowing how to articulate them requires emotional intelligence. It also requires actively listening what someone is telling you when they are discussing their expectations and reflecting back what they said to make sure you got it right.
So, expressing your expectations of others, and having the flexibility and communication skills if those expectations aren’t met is an essential skill.
Another note is asking if your expectations of others are within your control? You can’t control how someone else feels when you do something or don’t do something. You might expect your action to be perceived in a certain way, but it might not go the way you hoped.
The Pressure Created from Expectations
I wanted to briefly touch on the pressure created from expectations, and primarily, the pressure we put on ourselves. Pressure and anxiety can lead us to choke. Being too focused on expectations forces us out of a potential flow state. We start thinking about HOW we are doing (judgment of our task) instead of WHAT we are doing. Check out Sian Beilock’s TED Talk and book: Choke.
If you are feeling like you’re choking under pressure, here are three tips. If you want more, I wrote a whole article and recorded a podcast about it, including some tips on choking under pressure with Reggie Miller.
- Develop contextual awareness around your negative self-talk. When are you doing it, what circumstances cause it?
- Focus on execution, not outcome. Don’t think about winning the game or the race, think about what you’ll do to perform your best. Don’t think of the test result, think of the work you put in to know your stuff. Don’t think about getting the promotion, think about communicating everything you’ve done well.
- Positive Visualization: For days or weeks leading up to your event, imagine what not only what success looks like, but try to imagine how it’ll feel when you are doing everything perfectly for your execution. You can even use negative visualization- how will you deal with potential hiccups? If this gives you anxiety, don’t spend too much time on the negative parts.
The Difference Between Goals and Expectations
Goals and expectations are different. Your expectation is an appraisal of your actions and if the goal is successful. For example, say your goal is to avoid getting sick. The processes associated with that goal are hand washing, healthy eating, getting enough sleep, and maybe taking supplements (side note, I love Immune Health Plus from Previnex). But inevitably, you still get sick. The goal was a process goal of taking action to stay healthy. You executed your process. But your expectations may have been unrealistic that “I think if I do these actions to say healthy, then I won’t get sick.”
If I do x (goals/process), then I get x or will feel x (expectations).
There’s also the expectation of how the process may feel (this goal is a lot of work and hard work feels bad… versus hard work is meaningful) of an expectation of what the process will require (I don’t expect this to take that long… and then it does aka Hofstader’s Law).
In sports- my goal is to do this race and all the preparation it requires. My expectation is to feel good in the race or to have fun in the race. Goals require action and process. Expectations are an appraisal of the efficacy of the process or outcome, or how something will feel. Your goal checks all the boxes to set you up for success, your expectation judges it.
Your process for your goal should be controllable. Your expectation of that goal may not be within your control.
What to do about it
- Have a zone of expectation
- Set a minimum expectation instead of comparing it to your best ever. Maybe the expectation is just to show up, or maybe that minimum expectation is your performance on an average day or the average of the last 30 days.
- Define success for yourself, measure against that definition instead of expectations
- Start where you are
- Assess if expectations are intrinsic or extrinsic
- Use self-talk to reframe your mindset and expectations
- Create expectations that are controllable
- Be flexible around your goal. Changing your goal and thereby your expectations based on how you are that day can be defined as a success and help with realistic expectations
- Just manageable challenges and small wins
- Acknowledge emotions
- Re-visit your self-esteem and your values.
- Expect to suck at first and have backslides, plateaus, and setbacks.
- When expectations aren’t met, find gratitude, things you are proud of, or moments to savor
- Use disappointment to inform what you care about/value
- Expect it to be hard/challenging and to screw up. There is reward in hard work and challenges.
- Rate yourself 0-10, can I achieve this?
- Embrace uncertainty
- Notice if you are setting low expectations out of fear of failure, disappointment, etc. Address it with mindset.
Expectations are tricky. I spent most of this essay discussing where expectations come from and how to set reasonable expectations. The line between expectations, performance, motivation, and happiness will be different for everyone. I don’t think there is a solid answer of set high expectations so you perform or set low expectations so you feel happy, but understanding your own relationship with expectations and working on your mindset around it can help. There are circumstances where lowering your expectations will make you happier, and circumstances where not lowering them is beneficial. An example is “I’m excited to line up for this race and for the fun and adventure I’m going to have, but I also acknowledge that it may not go to plan. Gratitude before expectations.” – Bret Biggart
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