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Setting Expectations Too High – a Direct Route to Stress and Depression?

by Andrea M. Darcy

setting expectations Our prediction of how we want things to go, expectations can seem harmless.

But not always. Low expectations, for example, can mean you underachieve in life, or let others manipulate you.

And what about high expectations? In a world focused on success and ambition, they can seem exemplary.

But high expectations are often a form of trying to control both outcomes and other people, and can lead to considerable stress and mood swings.

Signs that your expectations are running your life

  • little things, like your coffee made wrong or being a few minutes late, throw you right off
  • you often feel people ‘let you down’
  • you tend to obsess on details
  • others have called you too critical or a perfectionist
  • you have thorough ‘checklists’ for your future – your future partner, career, house, etc
  • you live your life with a constant burning feeling of dissatisfaction, frustration, or even emptiness
  • you suffer from guilt (a sign you expect too much of yourself)
  • you often have feelings of resentment (a sign you expect too much from others)

But surely high expectations are a sign of confidence?

Expecting good things from life is indeed a sign of self-worth.

The trouble is that most of us don’t expect good things, we expect exact outcomes. We don’t expect a good relationship. We expect to meet someone who is six foot one, makes over fifty thousand a year, lives within a twenty minute drive of our front door, went to one of three universities, and likes to do yoga.

How do high expectations cause low moods?

Life inevitably throws curve balls. So trying to force an unrealistic outcome from everything leads to being disappointed.

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And if you are living under the misguided notion that you actually control everything, every curve ball will leave you feeling to blame. This leads to a mood-killing downward spiral of self-criticism and judgement that can result in depression and anxiety.

A study on ageing by a sociologist at Chicago University found that happiness levels tended to rise rather than fall with old age. One of the main reasons cited? Lower expectations and more acceptance of the way things were.

As for having high expectations from others, nobody lasts long on a pedestal without falling off. Worse, wanting certain things from others can blind you to what they actually can offer you. The end result can be troubled relationships, intimacy issues, and loneliness.

High expectations also dictate our response to the little things in life and our capacity to be resilient. For example, if you have the high expectation that things should always be easy and go your way in life, then something small like the train being two minutes late one morning can mean you show up at work in a funk that lasts all day. And the high expectation that friends should be endlessly loyal can mean one person not calling you on your birthday can result in months of upset, even if you later find out they were sick with flu.

Psychological issues connected to high expectations

High expectations often come connected to other issues, including:

  • perfectionism
  • low self-esteem (failing at what you expect confirms your low beliefs of yourself)
  • negative core beliefs (I have to be perfect to be loved, the world is dangerous so I need to be in control)
  • fear of intimacy (by expecting too much of others you have a perfect excuse to push them away)
  • fear of failure (which can lead to setting yourself up to fail, unconsciously proving your fear valid)
  • fear of change (if I focus on things going the way I want they won’t change)

Unrealistic expectations can also be a sign of borderline personality disorder, where you have a very distorted idea of other people and what they have to offer.

Why am I the sort to always set such high expectations?

It’s often a learned habit. You might have grown up, for example, with a parent who demanded the best from you and others or who had tantrums when things did not go their way.

It can be a worthwhile exercise to look at what your family still expects from you. Do you still place those same demands on yourself? Or have you possibly projected them onto others now, demanding from them what was once unfairly asked of from you?

How do I know what my expectations are?

Try making an ‘expectation inventory’. Sit down and write down what your expectations are from each area of your life, trying to be as honest as possible. What do you want from work, family, home, and your money situation? What about leisure, spirituality, your social life?

Take the inventory one step further by having a day dedicated to noticing your expectations. First, set a timer to go off every hour on the hour and write down what you expected during the hour that has just passed.

Then try to notice every time you feel annoyed, frustrated, or let down. What is the expectation behind what you are feeling? Write that down too.

Once you have amalgamated your list of expectations, it can be really helpful to sit down and ask yourself some good questions. These can include things like:

  • is this what I really want, or is it what my family, friends, or society want from me?
  • how does this expectation serve me?
  • how does this expectation hold me back?
  • what would it take to let this expectation go?
  • what would I lose by letting go of this expectation?
  • what would I gain by letting go of this expectation?

Do you want to know how to stop the expectations you’ve discovered from running your life? Or how to align your expectations so they serve you instead of cause you stress? Sign up to our site to receive an alert when we publish the next part in this series, ‘How to Stop Your Expectations From Running Your Life”.

If you feel overwhelmed to realise your own expectations, want support navigating them, or suspect they are connected to deeper psychological issues, why not try a session of counselling or psychotherapy? Harley Therapy provides highly qualified therapists and a warm environment of support in three London locations. Or try us from anywhere in the world via our online counselling service.


Andrea M. Darcy therapy coachAndrea M. Darcy is a popular health writer who also loves consulting and helping people find their perfect therapy journey. 





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Blog Topics: Anxiety & Stress, Depression

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