Your expectations determine your reality, but what are they based on? We take a look
Expectations lead you to each moment, interaction, action, judgement and emotion of your life. Whether they are high or low, your expectations are predictions of what it is you think or hope is going to happen. They can set you up for great joy and for terrible disappointment, for surprise and for disillusionment, for success and for failure — but are you aware of how they operate at every level of your functioning?
While you may be familiar with the idea that each one of us has a natural tendency towards positive or negative expectations, your beliefs are more complex than simply whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. Your expectations determine your reality, but what are they based on? What determines the way you approach a situation, goal, event or relationship? And what can you do to use your expectations to create a future that is realistic, helpful and productive?
The majority of expectations operate below consciousness and become automatic, leaving you in a situation where much of what you say, do and feel comes from places you don’t even think about.
Your expectations develop over the course of your life from your experiences and what you are taught by others — both explicitly and implicitly. When you are young it is the adults in your life who create your first expectations about love, safety and behaviour and about the general rules that apply to your community, culture and family.
Some of these rules sit around what is and isn’t appropriate to say or do. It could be the manners or rituals that guide your interactions, such as lessons on crossing the road and health habits like brushing your teeth. Some you are explicitly taught while others you absorb or learn implicitly by watching what those around you do and by responding to praise or admonishment depending on what you have done or not done.
You’ll simply accept some of the rules. You’ll begin to test others as you think about how relevant or true they are for you and how important a role they play in who you are or who you are becoming. As such, some of your early expectations can be altered over time by the influences of peers and by experiences that either validate or refute what you’ve been told or previously understood.
As you get older and your world expands, you gather new expectations from your ongoing interactions with the world and others, so that previous expectations expand or retract as your knowledge grows. The majority of these expectations will operate below consciousness and will become automatic, leaving you in a situation where much of what you say, do and feel comes from places you don’t even think about.
Because this automatic thinking occurs outside of your conscious awareness, you will generally have no idea it is occurring and influencing your judgments and behaviours. And, because many of your everyday judgments and behaviours are performed on automatic pilot, it is difficult to remember that they are there and influencing everything you do.
Obviously, automatic thought has an important role in your functioning. For example, if you couldn’t drive a car automatically, you wouldn’t be able to talk to your passengers or listen to the radio at the same time. Yet when it comes to what influences your choices, behaviours and feelings, a little self-awareness and control can be a very good thing.
Your interactions with others inform your expectations about relationships from a very early age. These expectations may be positive or negative, creating social and emotional deficits or confidence, as well as confusion or fear, depending on the kinds of interactions you’ve had. They also influence the way you interpret other people’s behaviour within the context of a relationship.
Your interactions with others are viewed through your own lens, including your expectations, your needs and your current mood or sense of vulnerability. It can be easy to forget that others have the same list of things they are viewing you through, which is where misunderstandings and hurts can occur without any negative intentions on anyone’s behalf.
Your interactions with others inform your expectations about relationships from a very early age.
As such it is important to remember that your expectations exist because you are viewing the world almost exclusively through an egocentric perspective. So if a friend, colleague or partner does not live up to your expectations all the time, you may need to consider what might be going on in their world and see the situation from their perspective.
The only way to really understand someone’s attitude or behaviour is to communicate instead of personalising and internalising when friends or a partner disappoint you. This is because when expectations aren’t met it’s because of how we choose to interpret what’s happened. For example, a colleague not wanting to participate in organised activities might have less to do with how they feel about the people they work with and more about their own past experiences or fears about socialising with coworkers.
Some of the most powerful and debilitating expectations you develop are those about yourself and what you will or should do and what you should and shouldn’t think and feel. You develop your own unique set of expectations that guide your thinking and behaviour. They’re often based on your values and the expectations and reactions you have experienced from others about how you should look or act, what you should do with your life and what your participation with family, culture and community should be.
Generally, you have quite realistic expectations about what you are and are not capable of and what you are and are not willing to do or become involved in, yet your expectations can serve to defeat you when they are unrealistic. Unrealistic expectations can be those that are too high or too low and both serve to keep you from achieving your goals. Interestingly, you can have all three kinds of expectations about yourself at the same time in different areas of your life.
For example, you may have very realistic expectations about yourself as a parent, too high expectations of yourself as a partner or too low expectations of yourself in your professional life. That is, perhaps you understand that you’re a good parent because you’re patient; you enjoy playing with your kids and have always wanted to have a child. However, you may think you need to be the perfect partner and lover by always putting your partner’s needs before your own and always being available to fulfil their needs regardless of what else is going on. At work, you may believe you are not as capable or competent as others believe you to be and are constantly afraid of being “found out”.
Keeping your expectations about yourself realistic is an exercise in self-awareness. Being able to recognise your strengths and weaknesses is an effective way to not only manage your expectations but to build your sense of self and create more successful life moments.
Keeping your expectations about yourself realistic is an exercise in self-awareness. Being able to recognise your strengths and weaknesses is an effective way not only to manage your expectations but to build your sense of self and create more successful life moments. Unfortunately, maintaining expectations over time can be fraught, not only because experience should and does challenge and change our expectations but because significant life events can radically alter what we can and can’t do.
When you experience a major change in your life, the expectations you have of yourself can be shattered. In the midst of that major change you might discover that your expectations aren’t relevant any more or don’t apply. Serious illness, injury or disruptions such as a job loss or the death of a spouse, child or parent can remove the certainty you once had about what you can and can’t do and what you will or won’t get involved in.
For example, if you have always had the expectation that you are strong, healthy, capable and independent, a serious illness or accident can fracture your sense of self. In these kinds of situations, it can be difficult to accept that some of your expectations about yourself are not useful or helpful right now. When circumstances change and you discover your expectations no longer make sense, it’s not only confusing but can severely impact your ability to cope.
Expectations, especially those you have about yourself, provide a sense of security, consistency and control. They offer a sense of the familiar. But holding on to these old expectations can be seriously harmful and can interfere with your ability to manage and move through the challenges you face. Changing your expectations about what you’re currently able to do can take the pressure off the situation, allowing you to deal piece by piece with what has happened. It’s essential you be aware of and adapt your expectations to suit the circumstances you are in.
Your expectations about others are where your biases, prejudices and poorest judgements are exposed. While they help you think about, size up and make sense of individuals, groups of people and the relationships among people, they can influence you in very negative ways. Some of your expectations might be linked to your gut instinct, warning you at a base level when someone may be a threat, but they can also sense a threat when there is none.
Additionally, when your expectations about someone are negative you will often process new information about them in a way that helps convince you that your judgment was correct and justified. Because this kind of automatic thinking occurs outside of your conscious awareness, you will have little insight into how often it influences your judgments or behaviours and how many opportunities you are missing out on because of it.
Even if you consider yourself to be more enlightened about prejudging others based on their gender, race, religion or appearance, you’re not immune to the power that expectations can have. Because many everyday judgments and behaviours are performed “on automatic”, you may not always be aware they are occurring or influencing you. If you go beyond automatic thinking and consider people more carefully, this can create a space to cultivate awareness.
Being aware of how the expectations of others influence you is key to ensuring you live your life according to your values and with integrity.
Interestingly, research has found that you can and will judge the same person differently depending on which expectation or lens you are viewing them through. For example, someone you meet in the workplace may not trigger the same response you might have if you met them somewhere else. This is because your expectation in one context may be different from the expectations you have in another context. Similarly, the reason for your attention to the person will change your expectation — meeting the friend of a friend or a blind date or witnessing a crime or other behaviour that is troubling will all influence which expectation you are using.
The expectations you have of others are not just the judgements you make about other people but the expectations you have of how others perceive you. When you put too much emphasis on this and use other people’s expectations of you to guide your behaviour, you can begin to make unhealthy choices and even lose your sense of self.
Certainly, the expectations of others are the basis of social etiquette, the way you perform at work and even your levels of achievement. The expectations of others can be a great motivator but they can also add undue pressure, point you in directions you don’t really want to go, sap your self-confidence and interfere with your opportunities to achieve your goals. Being aware of how the expectations of others influence you is key to ensuring you live your life according to your values and with integrity.
Becoming aware of the influence expectations have in your life is an effective way to rid yourself of the roles you don’t want to play. It will help ensure you’re judging others fairly and accurately and that your sense of self is realistic and helpful to you achieving your goals. By tapping into self-awareness you will begin to open up a world of new opportunities, relationships and understanding, freeing yourself of the expectations that no longer work or that hobble your chances of success.
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