Unrealistic Expectations

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We hope for a painless existence and suffer disappointing surprise when drama disrupts. We long for the unattainable. These maladaptations of thought interfere with the spectacular enjoyments of living. Unrealistic expectation invite disappointment. We recoil and sadly proclaim, “life shouldn’t be this way.” We can’t predict which drama will shuffle our plans, leaving dreams in disarray; but we can reasonably expect some menacing event is waiting. When we entertain unrealistic expectations, reality disappoints.

Life Disrupts; We Must Adapt

Life does not conform to our wishes. The universe does not anxiously await to give. The world turns independent of our wishes. Our lives exist in dynamic complexity with trillions of other living creatures. When we cry out, “it shouldn’t be this way,” we overlook the obvious paradox—it is this way. Our “should” is an expectation. Susan David, co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital of Harvard Medical School and an Instructor in Psychology at Harvard University, wrote that “expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” She explains that people with unrealistic expectations for happiness “increased their expectations for how things ‘should be,’ and thus set them up for disappointment” (2016, location 736-742). Handling the ebbs and flows of life is a skill–an emotional skill

We vary in our abilities to soothe, respond and interpret emotions. For some, emotions overwhelm—not by choice. When the slightest disruption occurs, they respond with a vicious retaliation or plunge into self-protecting depression. Others stoically march through hell and never break pace.

Preparation plays a role in skillful living but perhaps predispositions have a greater influence on emotional sensitivities. We can mediate our emotional responses prior to these events with realistic predictions. If we hold unrealistic expectations, we will be shocked and our dreams will be shattered.

Key Definition

Unrealistic Expectation are expectations that most likely will never occur, leaving us disappointed and hurt. Many of these our expectations are unconscious. However, we still feel the pain when life leaves these expectations unfulfilled.

Unconscious Expectations

Not all expectations are conscious plans. Many, if not most, exist beneath the surface. We encounter events and then react with feeling; cognitive processes join the party and trigger emotions. We know we are upset but we remain ignorant to which complex powers are fueling the emotion.

Even if, we logically accept that life is imperfect; the conscious acceptance and the emotionally programmed desires conflict, marching out of step with each other, creating the discomforting stirrings of cognitive dissonance. The knowledge of life’s unpredictability and a hidden desire for perfection conflict, adding to the chaos, and magnifying mental disruptions.

We experience the world singularly but modularly—by different regions of the brain, each region receiving information, spurring a response. Some modules struggle to integrate, energizing the emotional explosion. Our cognitive processes our charged with making sense of the incident by exploring surroundings, and drawing on memories. Our mind obliges and constructs a meaning, bringing the unrealistic expectation to the surface, “life shouldn’t be this way. He should act differently!”

“We may logically accept that life is imperfect; but the conscious acceptance and the emotionally programmed desires conflict, marching out of step.”

~T. Franklin Murphy


Ryan Holiday, an expert on ancient philosophy, wrote that entitlement “creates ridiculous expectations” (2016, location 1568).

Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter explain that we our taught entitlement in childhood. They explain, “from childhood we are brought up to believe that life is supposed to be fair. Our noble efforts and good works will be rewarded. We feel cheated when we are not properly rewarded.. Our dashed expectations trigger resentment” (2015, location 574).

Expectations and Goals

Whether a goal is explicit or implicit, when unexpected obstacles derail expectations, we are at a critical crossroad. Do we work through the problem or do we give up.  Goldsmith and Reiter describe these moments as, “unexpected emotional wallops that inspire change or knock us out of the game completely” (location 1847). We adapt or quit. We’re more likely to adapt if our expectations realistically considered interference from obstacles along the bumpy path to goal achievement.

I, like many others, discovered that COVID-19 impacted my weight. Too many hours researching, and not enough exercising and my weight sky-rocketed. I committed to lose the weight. My plan was simple, cut a few high-calorie snacks and drinks from my diet and start running. Eventually, I predicted, I would build up enough endurance to run five miles several days a week.

Plans fail. Losing weight in my fifties is much different than my experience of losing weight a few decades ago. My knees rebelled against the running. My diet changes stabilized my weight but failed to drop the pounds. Life is what it is. Predictions often need correcting. I failed to consider the impact of running on my knees.

The unexpected was expected—an obstacle. After a few weeks of research, I bought a stationary bike. This plan worked.

Expectations and Emotions

When expectations disappoint, our mood spirals. When biological expectations (learned from the past) are askew, they negatively impact feelings. But we rarely examine the past for unrealistic expectations, we blame the present for unfairness. We seek answers in the moment. Foundational triggers—expectations—evaluate incoming data and initiate a biological reaction. Whether you feel the emotion or not, the chemical changes in your blood motivates action and biased interpretations.

During heightened emotion, hopefully we can stop, breath and suppress inappropriate expression, imposing the mental brakes long enough to regulate the madness, recognizing our unrealistic expectations and getting back on track with a new plan. Some people are skilled at this, others meltdown, quit, or destroy futures.

With practice, we can skillfully navigate the confusing emotions surrounding unrealistic expectations. We will never eliminate all the stubborn learnings imprinted on our souls; but we can proficiently manage the rascal expectations, refocus behaviors and achieve our goals.

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David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Avery; First Edition.

Goldsmith, M., Reiter, (2015). Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts–Becoming the Person You Want to Be. Currency; Illustrated edition.

Holiday, R. (2016). Ego is the Enemy. Portfolio; 1st edition.

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