Let’s Talk About… Expectations

By Jeremy Godwin

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple ideas that you can use to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing every day, based on quality research.

This is Episode 82 and this week I’m talking about expectations. In this episode I’ll cover what expectations are, why understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy expectations matters for your mental health, and how to manage your expectations. So, let’s talk about mental health!

Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.

Find links to other available podcasting services here.

Watch Episode 20 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I’m sharing my most raw and personal video yet as I talk a little more about my journey with mental illness and how it helped me to be a better version of myself.

Watch it below or visit the channel on YouTube:

This podcast episode was originally released on 6 June, 2021.

Hello and welcome to Episode 82, and thanks so much for joining me!

This week is all about expectations. It’s quite common for us to expect things to turn out the way we want them to, and sometimes they will; however… sometimes we might found ourselves feeling disappointed, let down, frustrated or even angry because things don’t go the way we expect them to. Learning how to find the balance between being hopeful and not being as attached to the outcome takes work, and that’s what I’m exploring this week.

Before I begin, this week on Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV I’m sharing my most raw and personal video ever, as I sit down and share more of my own journey with mental illness. I’ve shared bits and pieces in this podcast but in this new video, out now on YouTube, I’m sharing a lot more and I’m also looking at how my mental health challenges actually helped me to become a better version of myself. You can find the video on YouTube (and the link is in the description for this episode on whatever podcast service you’re currently using) or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for that and past episodes of the show. And if you like what you see, subscribe to the channel for more weekly content about better mental health.

And also let me just take a moment to remind all of you that the full transcript for every single episode is available for free at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes — you might find them helpful to pull out key messages from the show to reflect on later, or if English is not your first language it can be really helpful as well. If you’d like to have the transcript sent to you by email each week, sign up for free at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/subscribe (and you’ll also receive my weekly newsletter which is a short dose of stuff I’ve found inspiring, interesting or just entertaining throughout the week). You’ll also find the links in the episode description.  

So, with that covered, on with this week’s episode about expectations… 

Introduction

Often we expect other people — and ourselves — to act a certain way, and often we’re disappointed when other people — and ourselves — do the complete opposite. Nobody is perfect and we all have our own unique approaches to life, and so it kind of stands to reason that every now and then we are going to find ourselves let down by other people, and by ourselves, when our expectations aren’t being met, which is the broad focus of today’s episode. Now, you’ll notice I talked about both other people and yourself there and I’ll be exploring both aspects of expectations today. 

The other week I found myself talking to my therapist about expectations, which is quite funny because I chose the topic for this episode more than two months ago. The short version of what I was talking about was about how I had found myself being really hard on myself about a whole range of things, and that part of that came back to the high expectations I put on myself, which is also something I know I do towards other people (and in fact I just mentioned that in my most recent Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV video over on YouTube).

Here’s the thing about expectations — it is wonderful to have hope and to have things that we are working towards, but so much of life is out of our control and so when things don’t go the way we might have liked we need to be able to step back, learn what we need to learn and then let go of the emotions surrounding our expectations not being met. So… 

What are expectations?

There are several ways to explain expectations. First, it’s about having a strong belief that something will turn out a particular way. Secondly, it’s about the beliefs we hold that someone else or ourselves will act a certain way, do or say a particular thing, or achieve a certain result. 

Hopefully you can already begin to tell from that definition that we’re dealing with a lot of grey-zone stuff here; in other words, it’s not completely black or white. We can have all the beliefs that we want to have but that doesn’t guarantee they’re actually going to happen — life tends to have its own way of working and often we’re just along for the ride! However that doesn’t mean that we have no control over our destiny; instead, what it means is that the control we have is limited to the things within our own control (our words, actions and feelings) and so it’s about refocusing our energy to make the most of what you can control.

So this episode is mostly going to be about you and your expectations, both of yourself and of other people, however let’s just talk about external expectations for a moment before we go any further. We can often find ourselves weighed down by expectations that other people might have of us: your parents or caregivers might want you to pursue a particular career or settle down with a specific type of partner, your employer might want you to do things a certain way, or your partner or spouse might expect you to conform to their way of doing things. There are 1,001 different ways that we might find ourselves being pressured by the expectations of others, and so I remind you that it is you who is in full control of your life and nobody else. I’ve never been able to fully wrap my head around the pressure some people can put on others to conform to a particular way of being, because the beauty of this human experience is that we are all unique — so please do not let someone else’s expectations take you away from being the best and most authentic version of yourself possible. If we were all the same, this would be a very boring world to live in! 

With that said, I hope that my next point comes as no surprise: the expectations you have of yourself and of other people need to be healthy expectations. So, let’s talk about that a bit further… 

Why does understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy expectations matter for your mental health?

‘Healthy’ expectations means that what you expect of yourself and of other people is fair, reasonable and respectful. On the other hand, unhealthy expectations are unfair, demanding, unreasonable and potentially harmful. 

Here’s an example. Expecting your partner to spend quality time connecting with you is a reasonable and healthy expectation (assuming it’s delivered in a healthy and reasonable way!); expecting them not to see their friends, because (a) you don’t like them or (b) you feel they take away time your partner should be spending with you, is not only unhealthy but it’s also pretty toxic. There is a very big difference between trying to control someone versus wanting to spend quality time with them!

Let’s look at another example, and this time let’s talk about you and the expectations you put on yourself. If you expect yourself to perform well in an exam and put in the work required to study the content, that’s fairly healthy. But if you don’t fully understand the content (and haven’t asked for help) or you’re heaping pressure on yourself to achieve a perfect or near-perfect score (when you have no way of knowing what will or won’t be covered on the test), your expectations of yourself are unhealthy (and probably causing you a lot of stress!). So there’s a big difference.

Here are some other common examples of unhealthy or unrealistic expectations: 

  • Expecting romantic relationships to be easy — well, that’s unrealistic because they will not
  • Expecting family to be considerate and understanding towards you all the time — they won’t (it would be nice if they did, but they won’t!)
  • Expecting close friends to always be aware of your needs without you having to tell them — they won’t
  • Expecting people with vastly different backgrounds or life experiences to immediately understand and accept you — they won’t (they may with time, effort and perseverance but it will not be immediate)
  • Expecting that you can visit another country without having to respect their laws and customs, or make an effort to speak their language — well, not only is that an unrealistic expectation, that’s just downright rude!
  • Thinking that you will never have any unrealistic expectations — because the truth is that you will; it is just part of being human… but being aware of it and looking at ways to refocus your energy towards healthy expectations can minimise the likelihood of the unhealthy stuff happening

Healthy expectations involve a fair and balanced approach to things. It’s about being realistically optimistic, which is a topic I covered in depth back in Episode 47 and which remains a foundation of this podcast and the work I do. Basically, when I talk about realistic optimism what I mean is having the belief that things will (and do) generally turn out for the best while also accepting that sometimes things won’t go the way we want them to, and that’s OK. I mean, let’s be honest here: nobody would choose things to go haywire if we had a choice, but we don’t actually have a choice, do we? Being alive is about learning to deal with setbacks and loss just as much as it is making the most of all the wonderful and satisfying things in life; without night, there can be no day. 

So using the same examples as before, let’s look at what healthy expectations can look like: 

  • Expecting romantic relationships to require work — because they will
  • Expecting family relationships to be mutually respectful — they can be, provided you set and maintain clear boundaries (which I talked about back in Episode 53)
  • Expecting close friends to respect your needs once you have discussed them openly and calmly — they will (and if they don’t, then you need to do some work!)
  • Expecting people with vastly different backgrounds or life experiences to listen to different perspectives over time — some of them will, and remember that those who don’t are on a different journey than you, so choose to rise above that (and walk away)
  • Expecting that you can visit another country in a respectful way — because you can
  • Thinking that you will learn how to manage unrealistic expectations with time, effort and perseverance — because you can… and, you will

So how do you do that? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode and talk about…

How to manage your expectations

Alright, so again I’m going to be looking at your expectations of other people as well as your expectations of yourself and how you view the broader world. So let’s talk first about a few principles to consider to help you with managing your expectations towards others. 

First, do no harm — which is one of the core principles of this podcast, along with be kind and give more than you take, and I say it here because I firmly believe that when we have unrealistic expectations of other people we are actually doing harm… so be aware of that and choose to step back from that, so you are doing no harm.

Treat others as you want to be treated — this is one of those ones that your parents or grandparents probably said to you, and for a long time it was the golden rule in society (and, quite frankly, probably still should be!). If you want to be respected as an individual then you need to respect others as individuals, and that means recognising that you can be hopeful and optimistic about how they might behave, but what the person ultimately chooses to do is up to them (even if that results in your disappointment — let’s hope not, but if we’re being realistic then that is obviously a possibility). I talked about hope back in Episode 17 so I’d suggest checking that out for more on the topic.

If you don’t ask, you don’t get — often we expect other people to know what we need or want without actually stating what we need or want. Unless the person is a genuine mindreader, which is pretty unlikely, they will not know what you need or want unless you tell them. So that means being assertive (which I covered in Episode 45) and it also means setting and maintaining clear boundaries (which I talked about in Episode 53). 

Two wrongs do not make a right — I’m really dragging out all the clichés here, aren’t I? This one is about saying that if your expectations aren’t being met, just lashing out is not the answer. Instead, seek to have an open and honest conversation with the person and find out why so you can identify a way forward that you can both agree on.

Find a middle ground with other people — there has been this greater and greater shift towards extremism over the past 20-30 years, and I’m talking about on both sides of the political and social spectrum. Extreme points of view serve no purpose other than pulling us further and further away from one another. Instead of doubling down on our differences and expecting people to magically abandon their beliefs and see the world your way, choose to focus on the things we all have in common and slowly create a dialogue that builds over time in a realistic way. 

Do not judge — I try and avoid ‘do not’ statements in this podcast (because they make most people do the exact opposite) but I do have to say this one really bluntly because it’s kind-of the most fundamental thing about expectations towards others. When you expect someone to behave or speak a certain way, which is usually in line with what you believe or how you feel things should be done, you are judging. You are judging that person by your beliefs and standards, which of course are unique to you. Judgement is actually pretty egotistical because it’s effectively us saying to ourselves (and to the world) that our version of ‘right’ is the only version… and you have to know deep-down in your core that that simply is just not the case. How could it be? There are nearly eight billion of us on this rock hurtling through space, and we have tens of thousands of years of history where different civilisations have risen and fallen, and new ideas and perspectives have been created. So how dare any of us believe that our version of ‘right’ is the only correct one? This world would be a utopian paradise if we could all just stop judging one another by our own standards and instead focus on what really matters, which is: considering if other people do no harm, are kind and give more than they take, and holding yourself to those same basic standards. Then it just doesn’t matter what you believe in or what you look like, and our expectations of one another become much healthier and realistic. So, play your part in that by choosing not to judge others.

Okay, so now that rant is out of the way, let’s move on and discuss how to manage your expectations of yourself and how you view the broader world, starting with… 

Know the difference between a realistic expectation and an unrealistic one — thinking everyone should like you? Unrealistic (although they really should, because you’re wonderful!). Thinking that some people won’t be the right fit for you whereas other people might be? That’s realistic. Here’s another one: thinking that life should always be fair. It should be, yes, but it’s not… and no amount of wishing will change that. What will change it, even to just a fraction of a degree, is how you interact with others and how you treat yourself. If you focus on what is within your direct control (what you do, say and feel) in a way that does no harm, is kind, and serves to give more than it takes, then you are doing what is reasonable and realistic to contribute to a better world. I had someone get in touch with me a few weeks ago to tell me I was being harsh on social media for saying that if you’re not happy about something in your life then it’s up to you to do something about it, and this person was upset because there are governments in many countries — big and small — who act in horrible or selfish ways. Now, I’m not going to go too far into the conversation out of respect for the person, but in my reply I said that yes, what I said is harsh, but that does not make it untrue. You are always in control of your own destiny and if you expect the world to be perfect or politicians not to lie, then your expectations are unrealistic because, unfortunately, that is part of the way things are and it will take a long time and a lot of effort for things to change. What you can do is begin by focusing on what is within your direct control rather than trying to manage unrealistic expectations that are, currently, completely beyond your control. And, you know what, if you feel that strongly, make a move into politics and be the change you expect. Don’t just put your hands up and say the world is an awful place so therefore you cannot hope to ever make a positive difference, because then all you’re doing is focusing on the negative as well as blaming the world rather than taking action within yourself, and that’s when expectations become really unhealthy and unrealistic. Does that make sense? I hope it does!

Focus on the present — expectations can be tied into our hopes for the future… which are great because hope keeps us going, but we have to be prepared that things might turn out differently than the way that we may hope and that’s OK. If we become weighed down by our expectations and demand that things go a particular way that means we will inevitably find ourselves facing disappointment after disappointment when things don’t always go our way — and when we’re so focused on that disappointing stuff, we miss all of the lessons we can learn from the things that do happen… the good, the bad and the ugly. So choose to focus on the present and be hopeful, rather than demanding, for the future. Building on that, my next point is…

Gratitude — focusing on what you have rather than what you expect helps to reframe things as hope rather than expectation. When you’re grateful for all the good stuff in your life and you have your priorities sorted, you’re better equipped to deal with challenges and difficulties (especially with all the stuff that’s outside of your control). I talked about gratitude in Episode 46 and it’s something I talk about a lot on this show, so check that out for more on the topic. Speaking of things I talk about a lot, my next point is…

Practice kindness — and that means towards yourself and towards others. For example, if you made a mistake at work choose to see it as a learning opportunity instead of a failure (which it is — the only true mistake is the one that you don’t learn from). Stop being so damn mean to yourself! And, by the way, I talked about kindness in Episode 41 so you may find that helpful.

Step back and observe your expectations thoughtfully — when you think about it, expecting ourselves to be perfect is kind of ridiculous, isn’t it? We know intellectually that nobody is perfect or ever will be, yet we sometimes demand nothing short of perfection of ourselves! Take a step back and look at these sorts of thoughts rationally, and ask yourself why they might be happening. For example, perfectionism is very often linked to a desire for control (which is a topic I covered in more detail in Episode 48). 

Reflect — continuing on from the last point, really ask yourself why you might have high expectations of yourself and others, and also how you expect the world to be. It could be that you feel insecure or that you feel fear about a situation or the state of the world in general; once you know what the root cause is, you’re better able to deal with the baggage that sits beneath your expectations (because it’s very likely there’s a lot more going on). I talked about baggage all the way back in Episode 7 (which included an exercise to help you dig a bit deeper and understand what’s really going on) and I also looked at fear in Episode 10, so you may find those helpful as well.

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to expectations and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: The expectations we have of ourselves and others can be healthy, but sometimes they can turn into unrealistic and unhealthy expectations. You are not in control of external events or other people, so you need to factor that in to your thinking and remind yourself that all you can control is yourself — your words, your actions and what you do with your feelings. And when it comes to the expectations you put on yourself, well… stop being mean to yourself. You cannot ever possibly be perfect and you will make mistakes, and that’s OK — focus on learning from your experiences and taking steps to be the best version of yourself possible every single day. When you do that, you begin to realise that expectations are less important than hope and the genuine belief that things can and will turn out for the best in the long run, regardless of the setbacks that we will inevitably face along the way. How you choose to see things is entirely a matter of perspective. 

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:

“Sometimes we create our own heartbreaks through expectation.”

Unknown

Next week I’ll be talking about being present. I talk a lot about being in the present (in fact I just mentioned it a minute ago!) and it’s something that can be challenging for many of us, especially if we find ourselves focusing on things that happened in the past or becoming worried about what may or may not happen in the future. Grounding yourself in the present moment helps you to cope with stress, anxiety and other challenges because it serves to remind you that life is lived here and now, and everything else is beyond our control. So how do you do that? Well next week I’m talking about what being present means, why being present matters for better mental health, and how to be present. 

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 13th of June. And join me for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube, with new episodes released every Wednesday. 

Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for links and all past episodes and, while you’re there, join the mailing list for my weekly newsletter. You can find the website links in the description of this episode on whatever podcast service you’re using.

You can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, where I post extra content daily.

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

Did you like what you just read? Then please share this with someone who might appreciate it, like a friend, family member, or coworkerbecause word of mouth helps other people to find Let’s Talk About Mental Health! Thank you 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2021 Jeremy Godwin.

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