So many people who come to my office have talent, wisdom, good fortune, and tenacity. What they don’t have are refined future-predicting skills, and they often forget they are living amid bumbling, imperfect humanity. This is true of all of us. So we expect someone or something will turn out one way, and we may spend years waiting—often futilely—for reality to meet our expectations. In short, great expectations are best left to Charles Dickens, not to our life outlook.
There’s a quote from the Will Ferrell movie Elf that has long amused me. He tells a little girl at a doctor’s office that he’s an elf. “Well, technically, I’m a human,” he explains, “but I was raised by elves.” In reply, she says, “I’m a human, raised by humans.” (She’s also adorable.) Just a basic response about who she is and how she came to be there.
Why is this so hard for the rest of us?
We expect others to fulfill our wildest dreams, to never let us down, to always be on time. We have expectations of our jobs or our vacations or our home renovations or our kindergarten teachers. While most people I see are appreciative of when their expectations are fulfilled or exceeded (kindergarten teachers, you are the best!), the “gap” that occurs when they are not causes a lot of distress. We notice when we are let down.
Lately, I’ve seen so many people struggling with this gap between how they expect something or someone to be and how they are. When we can remind ourselves that our expectations were perhaps too high, or that we’re dealing with another human, raised by humans, we can settle into a state of acceptance. Sometimes it’s a grudging acceptance. But it’s way better than the crash of the gap between expectation and reality.
In fact, I can trace many concerns that people have talked about with me recently—including postpartum depression, a falling out between mother and grandmother, high school graduation, a first sexual encounter, and a new job—to this very problem. In each of these situations, someone had an expectation it would be one way and it turned out differently.
This gap between expectation and reality is never more present than at certain holidays: Independence Day, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, even our own birthdays. We feel pressure to have an “amazing” time, often going out of our way or comfort zone to accomplish some story-worthy or photo-worthy agenda. Have you ever found that some of your most pleasant holidays or birthdays were low-key or involved no photos of cake? You’re not necessarily getting old; you’re getting good at knowing how to properly set expectations and achieve contentment.
By improving your ability to adjust your expectations, you may find others still let you down, but it may not be so bad because you weren’t counting on them to be some version of themselves that they never really were.
Sometimes the inflated expectations aren’t even our own. Our friends or family may tell us how great prom will be, or going away to college, or having a baby. We are led to believe by advertising or social media that marriage or work or sex will leave us feeling complete and happy. The truth is not everybody has a wonderful freshman year in college and being a mother to a newborn is not for everyone.
Fortunately, most of these things pass or we move on to the next phase (sophomore year, school-aged kids). But wow, are we hard on ourselves (and others) in the meantime! Some of the most difficult depressions I have worked with are with people who are so determined something should be a certain way that they have lost the ability to work with what they have.
How are we to remedy this and adjust our expectations? The short answer is it takes practice. For starters, let us remember and remind ourselves daily we are humans, made by humans! We are raised by humans, taught by humans, and are surrounded by the flawed and beautiful humanity of others. Have compassion for yourself and for others. Try to check your expectations at the door and notice how people actually are, not how you wish they would be (or, worse, how they “should” be).
Another helpful strategy for adjusting expectations is to allow yourself to have your own ideas about how something will be—not your mother’s, not your partner’s, not your coworker’s—and TEST them out. See your life as an experiment where you get to decide what it might be like and then evaluate whether you missed the mark. It’s possible college won’t be the time of your life, that you’ll be so tired on your honeymoon you’ll barely remember it, and that losing 10 pounds won’t change everything. That’s perfectly fine! The problem is when you’ve convinced yourself this is an inalienable truth. You could be set up for disappointment, disillusionment, and letdown. If this happens often, you could find yourself feeling jaded or depressed.
I recently worked with a student who described a major event in her life as “anticlimactic,” which I accepted without question, even though the event was a source of joy and excitement for many other people who shared it. Her feelings of disappointment were the cause of much distress for others. It turns out she was able to appreciate the event, just not through the lens of all the hype. Had she been allowed her own expectations regarding how things would be, and not had the constant pushback of “it will be amazing” from friends and family, she might have been able to enjoy it on her terms.
By improving your ability to adjust your expectations, you may find others still let you down, but it may not be so bad because you weren’t counting on them to be some version of themselves that they never really were. When you finally expect your commute to take as long as it does (and adjust for it), you may no longer feel the urge to curse the traffic or crowded train. It’s just part of the day. And when you know you can no longer go drinking on Friday nights because you’ll have a hangover until Tuesday, it allows you to make better decisions in the spirit of taking care of yourself. We aren’t superhuman. We are human.
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