The Expectation Trap: How Wanting Is Making You Angry

upset-womanIn my articles on anger management, I frequently talk about how anger gets disguised as another emotion. Conversely, I also emphasize the reverse: other emotions left unnoticed and unacknowledged can turn into anger. In this article, I offer no disguises, no cover-ups. Witness instead a direct creator and perpetrator of anger.

I expect things. So do you, and so does everyone else. These expectations encompass virtually everything we conceive. We expect things about our bodies and minds, other people (along with their bodies and minds), our jobs, our pets, the sun and moon. If I sound a bit hyperbolic, it’s because I mean to emphasize this: the vast majority of the thoughts we have throughout any given day are comprised of expectations. And with these expectations—every single one of them—we create frustration, irritation, and anger.

An expectation, put in the simplest of terms, is a thought about the way we want something to be. Expectations can range from the obvious form of “I really want to get that job” to more subtle expressions that hardly go noticed, like heavy sighing or rolling one’s eyes. Regardless of what form an expectation takes, it ushers in personalized judgment about the way we think the world should be.

Expectations trap us when we cannot see past them. When we lead with them and then meet up with something very different from our particular desire, anger is typically the result. At its core, anger expresses dissatisfaction with reality. All the different words for anger apply here: irritation, frustration, annoyance, being “miffed,” etc. The intensity of our anger is often directly correlated to the level of attachment we have to our expectations of reality.

It might seem as if I’ve made expectations out to be truly heinous. Usually at this point, a person I’m working with in therapy might say something like, “Well, then, I suppose I should have no expectations at all? Just have no standards?” On the contrary! Standards dictate our commitment, connection, and drive for excellence. What I shop here isn’t an end to expectations, but a renegotiation with them.

Expectations in and of themselves are actually harmless. They can be viewed from the perspective of expressing personal tastes and preferences. Expectations get the better of us only when they become rigid barriers keeping us from flexibly working with what life hands us.

Expectations in and of themselves are actually harmless. They can be viewed from the perspective of expressing personal tastes and preferences. Expectations get the better of us only when they become rigid barriers keeping us from flexibly working with what life hands us. Toward a more functional use of expectations, I offer the use of what I call basic requirements.

Basic requirements express the base-level necessities that must be met for us to continue cultivating a relationship with another person, a job, a lifestyle, etc. Whereas expectations get used as billy clubs to bash over the head of a reality that doesn’t meet our desires, basic requirements take a more open stance. They state that certain things will need to be in place in order for the relationship to continue—for example, respect and trust in a committed romantic relationship. If for some reason the basic requirement isn’t met, both parties may move on.

The reason expectations so often create anger is we stubbornly keep insisting that the thing in question be different, be what we want. Basic requirements free us from this trap. Instead of staying locked in a constant struggle to get an experience from someone or something that just can’t supply it, we take our basic requirements elsewhere. We relieve ourselves of the need to be constantly angry, because we no longer resist the truth that X can’t give us Y.

Notice that attachment is the real culprit here. Basic requirements express how we want the world to be. Attachment keeps us locked in struggle. Freeing ourselves from chronic anger becomes easier and easier when we let ourselves move on from no-win situations.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joshua Nash, LPC-S, Anger Management Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • lowell

    July 7th, 2015 at 8:05 AM

    Be thankful for what you have, and don’t get hung up on the stuff you want but don’t have.

  • Merri

    July 8th, 2015 at 7:15 AM

    It doesn’t really make me angry- I think that mostly it makes me sad, sad for the things that I don’t have, stand any chance in having, nor that I can afford to give to my kids.

    I realize that life is more than just about “stuff” and they say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but having more certainly helps.

  • Delores

    July 8th, 2015 at 1:57 PM

    Why EXPECT things? What happened to that old work ethic that if you want something you are going to have to go out and WORK for it?

  • Cat

    July 9th, 2015 at 3:49 AM

    @Delores – It’s not about just things you can work for, or even material things for that matter.

    As a child of abusive and completely self-unaware parents, I had to set aside my expectation that they would not say terrible hurtful things to me (let alone be nice). My expectation of happy times with my family was only leading to me getting hurt, and making me angry that they always had to create drama when all I wanted was peace.

    I think I had “reasonable” expectations – calm (not even merry!) Christmases, graduations that weren’t ruined by tear-streaked shouting matches – and I tried for years to give my parents more chances, only to be met with more pain and sorrow. Working hard wasn’t the answer. Letting go and accepting reality, like the article says, was.

  • Joanna F

    September 30th, 2017 at 12:38 AM

    Thanks for reminding us it’s not all about getting things, just basic appreciation.

  • H

    November 11th, 2018 at 6:20 AM


  • Sullivan

    July 9th, 2015 at 7:28 AM

    So many of the bad things in our lives come from trying so hard to keep up with the Joneses and look where that gets us. Envious and angry and unhappy with our own lives.

  • Joshua

    July 9th, 2015 at 11:20 AM

    So many great comments!


    Expectations can also be looked at as ways to resist accepting what really is. We all struggle with the truth that we have very limited power and control in our lives.

    When we remember that we can always control our thoughts and emotional expression, life’s little annoyances (or big ones) become easier to handle.

  • Cindy

    July 15th, 2017 at 2:44 PM

    Great article! Gives me a different perspective. I am looking at this article differently. I am very happy in my life, what I am struggling with is my relationship with my boyfriend. We are happy and good together, he brought up marriage and us being together, at first I was surprised pleasantly. That was almost 2 years ago, now it is a sore angry spot with me, as he has not asked me for marriage yet. We have been together for 3 years. We are not young…over 50 years of age, both divorced. I am a professional and have assets as so does he…he tells me I am his forever and does not want anyone else to do life with, but still nothing, that is my anger and frustration. So, how do I get to basics with this?? I love him and we are happy, so good together, I do not want to leave him nor do I want to let the years keep passing by, we are older. Any suggestions??

  • Joshua

    July 16th, 2017 at 3:55 AM


    I do have a suggestion. Mention your frustration and where it’s coming from. Simple.

    Why hold out and create resentment and bitterness? If marriage is important to you, then advocate for yourself and speak up.


  • Cindy

    July 16th, 2017 at 11:29 AM

    Joshua ,
    Thank you for your time and response!! Yes, I will do that!!!!!

  • Liza

    July 10th, 2015 at 7:05 AM

    I have been watching this great series about choosing happiness on one of the morning programs, and I know it sounds pretty simplistic, but since I have started getting up every singe morning with this mantra in mind, I am telling you that my days have been happier. I know that there are times when being low or even angry are unavoidable, but there are also times that you have a conscious choice on how we feel, and for me it has become my job every day to find things that make me happy versus unhappy and to focus on those.

  • Terrell

    July 13th, 2015 at 2:50 PM

    Truth is, life today can make you feel like you are on this horrid treadmill and you are never getting anywhere really. It is all about being mad about what you don’t have and forgetting that a good life is all about living for what you actually do have. How did that lesson somehow get lost on so many of us along the way?

  • Mills

    July 14th, 2015 at 2:17 PM

    Isn’t this sort of like giving up?
    I am not sure that this method would work for me because it does in a way feel like you are just packing it all up.

  • Joshua

    July 14th, 2015 at 3:39 PM


    Very good point! I don’t have much space here, but I’ll do my best to answer.

    Expectations keep us stuck because they are often unreasonable. Even if they ARE reasonable, we often use them as ways to stay mad a people/situations. They also usually keep us engaged in unhealthy relationships.

    The trick is to recognize the basic requirements you need in place to continue the relationship. (Fairness, support, etc) If you don’t receive these reasonable requests, you move along.

  • Julia B

    September 29th, 2017 at 6:32 PM

    I find this article helpful but think it could be improved by giving more of a focus on explaining what basic requirements really means and how to put the idea into practice.

  • Cristy

    September 30th, 2017 at 7:12 PM

    Generally speaking, I think the problem has more to do with coping than managing one’s expectations; at least when it comes to “reasonable expectations.” When they aren’t met, we feel disappointed which can manifest itself as anger, sadness and/or resentment. These emotional reactions are expected but, how significantly they affect a person can vary a great deal. Someone with good coping skills may feel the initial disappointment and get on with their day just fine. Alternatively, someone that lacks the proper coping mechanisms will ruminate, feel resentment or become self-loathing depending on the circumstance. Ultimately, it seems that the more equipped we are with coping mechmisms, the better we are able to manage our expectations.

  • Shannon

    October 2nd, 2021 at 1:02 AM

    This article is just what I needed to read, thanks for writing it. I also agree with Cristy that’s a challenge in itself

  • Jenny

    December 25th, 2022 at 10:47 PM

    Hello, what about the anger or deep disappointment from an immediate family member (like grown child) Or a best friend? Why is there the tug of war of them always letting you down – these are folks you often expect expectation- like remembering a birthday.


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