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How To Set Realistic Expectations

Have you ever had an expectation that didn’t come true? So much of our pain and anguish comes from unmet expectations. And yet, not many people take time to think and reflect on how realistic their expectations actually are. More often than not, our judgment gets clouded with our desires and comparisons which ultimately set us for inevitable disappointment.

How to reevaluate your current expectations and set up new ones, achievable and firmly grounded in reality? Read on to find out!

man looking through the window, thinking about his expectations

The Purpose of Expectations

Every day begins with some new expectations – both from ourselves and others. When we set up an expectation, we make an unspoken and subconscious deal with ourselves: “I must meet this expectation, it will make me so much happier! I hope I won’t fail, that will be an absolute disaster.

But how can we define expectations and what’s their purpose?

Expectations are your subjective beliefs about events that may happen or not. The expectations originate from our childhood, life experiences, our desires, and our knowledge about the world surrounding us. All of these factors create a unique mix of wishes, hopes, and desires which give birth to expectations.

And why do we set expectations?

It all comes with the best possible intention: Setting expectations helps us cope with reality, anticipate the future and strive to do our best whenever we can.  

do something great with realistic expectations

Realistic VS Unrealistic Expectations

Our expectations can get the best or worst of us – it all depends on whether they’re realistic or not.

Healthy or realistic expectations can inspire you to improve and become the best version of yourself, by setting attainable goals and making them come true. Realistic expectations make you proactive, they drive you to cope with anything you’ve set your mind to and help you avoid failure and disappointment.

Unrealistic expectations, on the other hand, are just an illusion, although they may not seem so at a first glance. And that’s what makes them so harmful: you have no coping plan and you see the world through rose-colored glasses, not as it really is. Ultimately, you get crushed down, sad and disappointed, wondering what the hell happened and where did it all go wrong.

Keep it Real

Here is how you can determine whether your expectation is healthy or not.

Realistic expectations are:

  • Thought-out
  • Reasonable
  • Honest
  • Compassionate
  • Fair
  • Respectful

These key factors will help you determine whether you’ve set up a healthy expectation or not. Write them down and whenever a new one pops in your head, use it as a starting point to distinguish if it’s the “real one” or not.

But how do unrealistic expectations actually occur and why does it happen? Can we avoid them or block them altogether? Let’s find out more!

expectations hold the keys to your happiness

Unrealistic Expectations: Magical Thinking

Human beings are inherently driven to always strive for more and aim higher. And while that craving has ultimately given birth to our civilization as we know it, there is also a dark shadow that no one dares to mention: a graveyard of lost hopes and dreams, fueled by unrealistic expectations.

Unrealistic expectations can literally kill our happiness and make us obsessed with an imaginary illusion. While you’re under its spell, you forget to appreciate what you already have.

little girl daydreams

Psychologist Jean Piaget noticed that young children can’t make a real distinction between their inner, subjective world and the outer, objective world. Children believe that their thoughts can manifest their reality. For example, if they want something good or bad to happen, it will inevitably will. All they have to do is to think about it. This is called “magical thinking” and that’s how all religions are operating, by the “power of prayer”. Piaget suggested that this is quite a normal phase and that we outgrow it by the age of 7. However, he wasn’t quite right about that, because so many adults continue to use magical thinking past beyond their childhood. All the Law of attraction and manifestation gurus have built huge followings by exploiting this premise. And why? Because they know we want to believe that we can have an ultimate control of our own reality and we won’t let go of this illusory idea, no matter the costs. Now we begin to see the basic emotion hidden behind the veil of magical thinking or unrealistic expectations: fear.

Fear of letting go. Dread of losing control. Terrified of not being good enough.

Once you’re finally aware that unrealistic expectations are fueled by fear and illusion, you’ll become more conscious about how are your healthy or unhealthy expectations formed and how can you make a difference between them.

rugby player praying to win the match

What’s Your Unrealistic Expectation?

Let’s dismantle the unrealistic expectations once and for all, shall we? Which are the most common ones who manage to trick us, over and over again? Check out this list with some of the most common unrealistic expectations. Which one is yours?

  • Life should be fair
  • Everyone should love me
  • People should understand me
  • I must always achieve my goals, or I’m a complete failure
  • I can change my partner

Have you found yourself in some of these categories? Or maybe you have another unhealthy expectation? If you do, write it down and buckle up, ‘cause we’ll start doing some expectation management!

unrealistic expectations are a fantasy

Manage Your Expectations

Managing your expectations is vital if you want to have a happy and productive life. As we’ve said, expectations can be inspiring and motivating, as long as you’re sure that you’re on the right track by setting realistic, healthy ones. We’ll teach you how to manage your expectations in 6 simple steps.

1) Write and read it

For this exercise, you’ll need only a pen and paper. Write down a list of your expectations and read them aloud. It is a very useful technique aimed to bring us back to reality, and reading also serves that purpose: if it still sounds reasonable to you, it’s good to go. If it sounds ridiculous, it’s definitely an unrealistic expectation and it has to go.

writing down realistic and unrealistic expectations in a notebook
2) Reevaluate and adjust

After you’ve removed the unhealthy expectations, it’s time for some reevaluation. How do the remaining expectations seem to you? Are they attainable or not? Does their fulfillment depend entirely on your capabilities or does it involve external factors, like other people or some situation? What’s driving your expectation, fear or something else? Is it really achievable, having in mind your timeframe and capabilities? What’s the most realistic outcome you can expect?

There’s nothing shameful in adjusting your expectations if you’ve set the bar too high. Perhaps you have an attainable goal, but not in the available timeframe. Think about how can you adapt and adjust accordingly, so that you can finally get the desired outcome – but with a healthy dose of realism.

make impossible possible
3) Ask for an impartial opinion

We are subjective creatures: that’s why our illusions can pass as expectations. One of the best ways to really differentiate between healthy and unhealthy expectations is to ask for an unbiased opinion from someone else. It can be a family member, your partner, or a dear friend. People who know you very well can provide you with valuable insight into whether your expectation is feasible or not because they know what you’re really capable of.

man talking with a woman about his expectations
4) Accept that things will not always go as expected

People plan, but life happens. Be always prepared for the unexpected and have a plan B – that’s an unavoidable part of life!

Renovating the house? Set up an extra emergency fund before you start any work.

Preparing for a job interview? Think about how will you proceed if you do get the job and what will you do if you don’t.

Your expectation can’t be turned into reality? Accept it, learn something from that experience and move on with your life. That’s the best you can do.

man looking in distance, expecting something
5) Stop comparing with others

Nothing can bring you down like the social media posts where all your friends have a fabulous life, great job, lovely kids…. you get the point.

If you’re not careful, comparison can be your ultimate downfall: it’s a perfect breeding ground for depression, envy, and self-hatred.

If you constantly compare yourself with your friends or with celebrities on social media, you won’t get anywhere. Remember that nobody has a “perfect” life – it’s the most common social media mass illusion. Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses, because we all have our own ups and downs in life – and our experiences are so different! Instead of beating yourself up, turn off Facebook and go for a walk in the park. Clear your mind of comparison and breathe deeply.

Envious girl comparing with her friend
6) Be kind to yourself

Picture this: You have a friend who had a goal to become a millionaire by the age of 30. He hustled and did his best, but ultimately failed. Now he is sucked into a defeating cycle of self-loathing. And of course, you’re here to empathize, listen and try to lift him up, right?

Yes, when it comes to others, we are always compassionate. But what if it was you, and not your friend? You’d be so distressed, obsessively thinking: “I’m worthless” and lose sleep over it, right? Well, let’s try to show some compassion to yourself, as you would do for others?

Set your expectations with a clear heart and mind, and do your best to achieve them. However, if you fail, it’s not the end of the world! Try to see why you’ve failed and what can you learn from it to improve yourself and start over. It will be better next time.

compassionate friend having a conversation
7) Show gratitude

Gratefulness is an antidote to unrealistic expectations that rob you out of your happiness. And while chasing your ideas and dreams is praiseworthy, you also have to stay grounded. One of the best ways to do so is to practice some gratitude.

Be thankful for what you already have, don’t take your life for granted. 

Show love to your nearest and dearest ones whenever you can.

Practice self-love and self-care rituals, that will rejuvenate you and nourish your heart and soul.

Take time to smell the flowers.

Don’t ever get too busy chasing your expectations, savor every good moment in your life!

grateful woman touches her heart

Make Your Expectations Work With You, Not Against You

Don’t be scared to chase your dreams, but before you do it, make sure that you’re standing with both feet on the ground. One of the best ways to do so it to set up realistic expectations and practice gratefulness whenever you can.

We hope this article has enabled you to see clearly beyond the elusive veil of unrealistic expectations and outline new, healthy expectations for your life. What’s the most harmful unrealistic expectation you’ve had and how did you overcome it? Share your experience with us in the comments below, we’d love to hear you!

Till the next reading, cultivate realistic expectations and find your steady with a Steady Space!  

fulfilled expectation

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