The element of surprise is a beautiful but strange thing – it can invite laughter, tears, and a whole range of emotions. This impact of encountering stuff we didn’t expect is what makes managing expectations such a vitally important skill.
Expectations are a valuable addition to our cognitive toolset but can also be a massive source of discomfort, difficulty, and conflict when we don’t manage them appropriately. Taking time to identify and address problem areas with your expectations can pay dividends in emotional peace and security.
Why Do We Have So Many Expectations?
Expectations are the mind’s often-subconscious attempts to predict the future in order to prepare and act accordingly.
Much like the capacity for judgment, expectations are a cognitive tool that helps us to operate more efficiently. If you have even an approximate sense of how things will go before they happen, you can be in the right mental and physical place when they do, rather than reacting to everything on the fly as a completely new stimulus.
This skill helps us plan ahead and navigate potentially complex situations more easily. But just like judgments of other people and situations, expectations are not always perfectly accurate. You can get it wrong from time to time, and that can lead to complications.
The Emotional Impact of Expectations
Expectations – particularly unmet ones – play a significant role in humans’ emotional states. When things don’t go the way you expect them to, it can be a shock to the system – for better or worse.
For instance, much of our media and culture – from humor to horror – relies on subverting expectations to elicit an emotional response. A joke is funny because the punch line is something unexpected. A scary movie is at its most thrilling when the audience doesn’t know when or where the monster will appear or what it will do next.
Artists and entertainers can tap into the impact of unmet expectations to empower their work. But there are many times when surprises have much less savory appeal.
Unchecked Expectations and Mental Health
For most people, unmet expectations can cause emotional discomfort; you had an idea of how things were going to go, but they didn’t go that way, and it often doesn’t feel great.
If you are someone who frequently sets strict or unrealistic expectations, whether or not you do so consciously, you could be getting yourself into a pattern of emotional trouble. Unmet expectations create cognitive dissonance, which is usually an uncomfortable feeling to process.
Expectations in Relationships
While we may not always be aware of it, each of us is constantly setting expectations for the people in our lives and evaluating situations based on those expectations.
You may expect your roommates to wash their dishes, your spouse to talk to you before making a big decision, or your parents not to lie to you about something important. They may have had similar expectations to yours, or maybe not. But in either case, if their actions don’t align with your expectations, it can cause tension and lead to resentment.
Whether or not you identify and label your expectations for other people and their actions, it impacts how you feel when they act.
How Setting Clear Expectations Can Help
Setting expectations consciously and intentionally can go a long way to alleviate some of the unfortunate side effects that expectations can cause. These benefits extend from your internal perception of yourself and interactions with others to the long-term results of the things you set out to do.
Managing expectations involves identifying assumptions, communicating more clearly with those around you, and proactively setting more reasonable expectations for yourself and others.
When you proactively identify, set, and communicate expectations with yourself and others, you set the stage for fewer unmet expectations.
An environment where you can consistently meet expectations makes it easier to uphold a positive self-image. Living in line with your expectations is also great for reducing the burden of cognitive dissonance from things going awry.
Accountability is a precious tool for keeping your actions in line with your best intentions and reaping the rewards of those actions. Being open and honest with yourself and others about your expectations is a great way to boost that accountability.
One of the things that most often hinders accountability is ambiguity. If it was unclear what was and was not your responsibility from the beginning, there is a loophole to avoid accountability and thus resist taking action when necessary.
Clear communication leaves little room for ambiguity or disconnect; When you tell yourself or someone else upfront what you plan to do or how you plan to act, it’s a great motivator for you to do it. Taking ownership of those choices puts you on track to make better choices.
Easing Interpersonal Tension
When two or more people are not on the same page with their expectations, trouble can brew.
For instance, unidentified expectations between family members or roommates about household responsibilities leave significant gaps. Failing to divide responsibilities and come to shared expectations can leave some feeling resentful of others for not contributing.
Simple, honest, upfront communication is perhaps the most vital component to healthy relationships of every variety, and expectations are one of the clearest reasons for that.
Improved Planning and Goal-Setting
When you clarify what you expect from yourself, others, and the universe, you have a model to work with to plan ahead.
When you have clear expectations of your role in things, you will have a sharper vision of how to proceed. Likewise, when there are likely to be challenges or difficult moments, and you set that as an expectation, you will be more ready to respond to those situations when they come.
How to Set and Manage Your Expectations
Unchecked expectations can sometimes cause harm, and intentionally set ones can help protect you emotionally while also improving your ability to think and act ahead. So how do you make the shift from one to the other?
Here are a few tangible steps to reduce the negative impacts of some expectations and engage with them more consciously.
Identify Pre-Existing Expectations
It would be impossible to lay out and define every expectation you have for every situation.
The purpose of expectations is not to make you clairvoyant, accurately predicting the outcome of every scenario in which you find yourself. Expectations prepare you for upcoming events, creating a sense of calm in the present and better enabling you to handle those events when they come.
Try to highlight any assumptions you may have and either challenge or commit to those assumptions.
Separate Hopes and Worries From Expectations
One way it’s easy to get tripped up with expectations is by confusing them with things like hopes, fears, and worries.
There are the things your imagination can stir up that may happen – both good and bad – and there are the things that careful consideration will reveal are more likely to happen.
It is perfectly healthy to have bright possibilities you hope might come to pass; it’s also healthy to sometimes worry about how things might go wrong. But when you get these distant possibilities mixed up with reasonable expectations, you set yourself up for a host of emotional difficulties – disappointment, ruminating, stressing over hypotheticals.
Welcome the Unknown
Expectations are a way that the mind reaches for control in a world that is often wild and unpredictable.
No matter how hard you may try, you can’t control everything, and you can’t accurately predict how every situation will play out.
Apart from dismissing unrealistic expectations and acknowledging more realistic ones, one thing you can do to better manage your expectations is to know that they won’t get it right every time.
You can plan, predict, and communicate until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, there will still always be unknowns.
Communicate and Set Expectations With Others
When entering a new situation or beginning a new project, you want to get on the same page as the people who rely on your input, or you on theirs.
Before heading into a potentially tricky or high-pressure situation with a spouse, coworker, teammate, etc., have a conversation with them beforehand. Let them know what they can expect from you, try to get a sense of what you can expect from them, and set shared expectations about outside factors that may come into play.
With clear communication, no one is disappointed later due to something they didn’t clearly understand at the get-go.
Shine a light on unchecked expectations by asking questions about what you and your counterparts expect. Most of these questions will be situational and context-specific, but consider a few of these generic examples for a sense of what to look for:
- Are you expecting this situation to be simple and breezy, or a bit of a challenge?
- Are there any hitches you’re likely to run into?
- How will you respond to the situation if ?
- What do you expect ‘s responsibility to be in this?
- What sort of outcome(s) are you anticipating?
The purpose of this exercise is not to accurately predict how things will transpire. Instead, it is to further identify and label existing expectations. It is also an opportunity to refine and adjust any unrealistic expectations you may hold. Use questions like these to better align your expectations with your best understanding of reality at that moment.
Be Clear and Specific
Much of the value of managing expectations, as well as the methods to do so, involves reducing ambiguity. To that end, the more specific you can be when setting expectations, the better.
Again, the point is not to predict the future in incredible detail. It is to outline your vision of things as precisely as you can. Doing so reduces the hazy uncertainty of expectations lingering in the back of your mind. Becoming more aware of your expectations, particularly those that have a great deal riding on them, is the road to reducing their harmful power over you.
Expecting the Expected
Much of your day operates around the habit of consistently setting, evaluating, and updating expectations. These expectations inform what events you anticipate happening, how you think others will behave, and what actions you plan to take as well.
These expectations are a valuable, if imperfect, tool. They are not always entirely accurate, and when reality doesn’t align with them, it can cause some emotional friction. By intentionally setting and managing expectations, you can reduce this potential for harm while still allowing your mind to assess, plan ahead, and respond to situations in a healthy way.