The Psychology of Expectations—and How Having Them Might Be Hurting You


OK, so I’m going to ask you to imagine these scenarios:

  1. You planned this huge birthday surprise for your best friend with no attention to detail spared (I’m talking custom balloons level detail here, guys), but when it came time for your big day, the gesture wasn’t returned and you were pretty upset.
  2. You heard amazing things about a newly-opened restaurant in town (with apparently “the most unbelievable sushi in the world”), but when you finally got around to going, you were NOT a fan.
  3. You were hoping to get some work done at your usual table at your favorite coffee shop with your favorite latte by your side, but showed up to have that seat already taken, throwing off your whole day.

Any of these sound vaguely familiar to something that’s happened in your own life? Most of you are probably nodding your heads saying,”Yes. Mmhmm.” See, what happened in these situations was that these fun little things called expectations were formed.

Over the years, I (along with many of you, I’d assume) have been told by relatives, peers, and literature that having high expectations could be hurting my well-being and shot at happiness. The theory goes: the lower we set the bar, the higher we’ll perceive the outcome, and the more gratified we’ll feel (which is definitely a valid point in many cases). Theoretically, looking at many situations as series of surprises versus outcomes from the expectations we make with ourselves could definitely be a hack to help us feel less defeated by matters out of our control.

But does that mean that we just shouldn’t have expectations at all? Would constantly keeping them at a low end up just making us pessimists? When we were kids, our parents and teachers are told to wish and dream big, which can lead us to become more optimistic, goal-oriented, and tenacious individuals. Is getting rid of expectations and hopes entirely going to keep us driven and let us attain the things we feel we deserve? 


Do all roads lead to disappointment when expecting from others? 

We’ve all been there: doing nice things for our friends, family, and partners, and hoping in the back of our minds that they do the same for us. Many of us, though, might not get that reciprocation that we’d like, and this can cause some (rather unpleasant) tension in our relationships. 

We also sometimes find ourselves believing that a person can change for—in our opinion, at least—the better. Then, when they don’t show the qualities or actions we had come to expect from them, we often get upset (offended, even) by the fact that they’re not checking all our boxes, which can put these relationships in jeopardy.

Dr. Napthali Roberts, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told Bustle how important it is to avoid the “one strike or you’re out” rule for others. Many of us have created the habit of setting deal-breakers, and she said we honestly should avoid making any of these type of rules that are so specific that we don’t allow people make any mistakes. Let’s be real now—as cliche as it might sound, mistakes are often necessary for growth in relationships. They lead to conversation, and that leads to understanding. People will slip up, and in the spirit of any self-confidence-themed song ever, no one’s perfect. We can’t expect others to change—the only thing we can depend on successfully changing are our attitudes towards them.

That being said, you’ll be happy to know that there is also research that says that having some expectations of others may actually be a good thing! Back in the 1960s, researchers at Harvard conducted a study that resulted in what they called the “Pygmalion Effect” phenomenon. Basically, they found that the beliefs and expectations we hold for others may have an impact on the behavior they showcase, as Discover noted.

Their theory was this: We treat people better, give them more opportunities to succeed, and offer them more constructive feedback. In turn, those close to us now have the incentive to push themselves to achieve certain goals, and will want to succeed not just for themselves, but also for us (the ones counting on them). Truly a win-win scenario.

Essentially, disappointment from others is inevitable if we expect that people can simply change on their own to suit our needs and wants. All that can really be done is on our behalf: treating our relationships with respect, attention, and positivity. In turn, this will help them live their best lives, and us live our best lives.


We can’t expect others to change—the only thing we can depend on successfully changing are our attitudes towards them.


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Expecting things outside of your control may be a losing battle

Alright, so I’m going to throw yet again another situation at you: an Oscar-nominated movie is generating all the buzz and literally everyone you know is raving about it. You have several friends urge you to go watch it because of how good it is and how much they’re obsessed with it. When you’re finally at the theater, as pumped as ever, you text one of those friends, “Hey! I’m finally watching that movie!” and you’re met with the response along the lines of, “OMG you’re gonna love it!”

… but you don’t love it.

As much as you wish you could have enjoyed it enough to gush about it and bond with your friend afterwards, you instead had very high expectations that swayed your judgement and left you unsatisfied.

These going-in expectations are part of what shape how much we enjoy books or movies (or the latest episode of The Bachelor, if we’re being real), and how we evaluate the quality of various products and events, according to BBC Worklife. Instead of holding new things and experiences to such high standards and being upset when we find them lacking, maybe we should let ourselves be surprised by unanticipated events and take that time to understand what we can learn from them. 

When it comes to less important expectations for things like trying a new restaurant, potentially getting caught in traffic, or a trip to the DMV, having smaller expectations—or honestly, none at all—might be the best route to go here. Of course these sorts of experiences are super annoying, but they’re also so fleeting, and they’ll likely just upset me for a couple of hours in a day and then disappear out of my mind. In the grander scheme of things, having expectations for them is not going to benefit me, since nothing is really in my control in these circumstances. The takeaway is to be adaptive, be flexible, and just keep going! 


They’re also so fleeting, and they’ll likely just upset me for a couple of hours in a day and then disappear out of my mind.


The difference between goals and expectations

Seeking perfection for our own selves is something that most humans have been prone to for ages. Fair. Always good to strive for more. While setting high expectations for ourselves to do better is one thing, having them come so much in the way of our happiness might damage our self-esteem in a scary way.

Bonnie Marcus, a career coach, explained in an article for ForbesWomen how so many ambitious women set aims to such a high, unattainable degree that the failure to attain them results in a spiral of negative self-talk, causing them to beat themselves up. Sound familiar to anyone?

In an article he wrote for Psychology Today, John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT argued that the pursuit of perfection in life might be holding you back if you expect and need everything you do to be done without possible failure. As he noted, it’s critical that we let ourselves make mistakes and allow for unplanned results—obviously easier said than done, I know, but definitely something we can work on!

I think we need to be gentler with ourselves when expectations for perfection aren’t met, which happens a lot. Oftentimes, we don’t feel that we or our work is good enough, but the real strength comes from us understanding that. Let’s all try to embrace our shortcomings and allow ourselves to learn from our failures when expectations aren’t met.

As you expected (ha!), there is also the other side of this argument that setting certain expectations for yourself is important for your emotional and mental growth. Remember the self-fulfilling prophecy from Psych 101? This states that an expectation can manifest into reality by the mere fact that you believe it will. Essentially, this concept argues that we have the power to alter our mindsets to set expectations and standards for ourselves, and we can easily trick our minds into subconsciously guiding our behavior to the end result we want. Consider our minds blown.


Source: rawpixel


Goals can be considered a form of expectations, since they’re something we consciously work to one day achieve through our specific efforts and understanding. One huge benefit to having goals is having fixed starting and ending points, with benchmarks in between—and this creates a a mental visual. You can not only see how close you are to the result you want, but more importantly, you can see how far you’ve come from the beginning. Setting goals (or expectations) motivates us, excites us, and makes us want to push ourselves to grow. 

Managing expectations is not always going to be easy, since there are good and bad sides to having them. We should always remember that certain things might be in our control, while many might not. What’s important is that we stay aware of all the expectations we’re creating, while also understanding the logic behind why we have them. Communication and checking in with our loved ones, as well as ourselves, may help us align what we want with what we (ideally) actually receive, and just might make us happier in the process!


What do you think about having expectations in your own life?