Struggling with Expectations

Note: This post was originally published on July 11, 2012 under the title “Could This Be Your Biggest Source of Irritation, Frustration and Even Anger?” It has been revised and updated significantly.

Expectations Are a Part of Life

Though my boys left elementary school years ago, I still remember the grading system used for their report cards.

  • BE = below expectations
  • ME = meets expectations
  • AE = approaching expectations
  • EE = exceeds expectations

In a college communication class I took years ago, the professor asked for our expectations on a particular assignment. Most students said, “I don’t have any.” Upon completion of the assignment, the teacher asked if expectations were met, and students answered either “yes” or “no.” The teacher then asked, “How can your expectations be met or not met if you didn’t have any to begin with?”

Anyone in sales knows that business revolves around meeting customer expectations. As Curtis Fletcher says in Creating Customer Expecta…, every aspect of a business creates expectations, from the tag line, to the company name, to the web site.

From business to education to personal relationships, expectations direct every area of life.

Analyzing Expectations

“Expectations are beliefs that spring from a person’s thought process when examining evidence.” (“What does the Bible say about expectations?” at GotQuestions.org)

With that definition in mind, consider that…

  • Expectations are often formed automatically and without effort.
  • Expectations are often unknown until they’re unmet.
  • Expectations are not always requirements, but we often treat them as such.
  • Expectations set standards that are often not agreed upon by those involved.
  • Expectations can be reasonable and still go unmet.

If you analyze your irritation, frustration and anger at any given time, in most instances you’d likely discover the root cause to be unmet expectations. And if you fail to adjust how you operate within these expectations, they’ll eventually wreak havoc in your life.

To avoid the chaos expectations often create, start by realizing that expectations become irritations, frustrations and anger when they are…

  • Unmet
  • Unrealistic
  • Unfair
  • Unset
  • Unclear

When we simply let the resulting emotions (irritation, frustration and anger) bubble up without assessing from whence they came, we’ll constantly find ourselves caught in the struggle that expectations create when left to their own devices. In other words, we need to deliberately make a point to understand and clarify expectations.

Expectations As Fuel for Healthy Relationships

We can’t escape the fact that expectations exist and that they are often the nemesis to healthy relationships. But they don’t have to be. Instead, the existence of expectations can fuel our communication, which can strengthen and deepen relationships. Expectations, especially when clarified and agreed upon, can actually help direct action toward progress.

Consider the following points to help clarify expectations in a way that can strengthen relationships, whether with your spouse, kids, coworkers or customers.

  • Understanding other people’s expectations takes work.
  • Telling someone your expectations takes courage.
  • Discussing expectations is often appropriate and necessary.
  • Writing down expectations can help clarify them.
  • Flexibility must accompany expectations.

Expectations must be acknowledged and communicated if they are to be a positive force in relationships. Yet, even with all our efforts toward communication of expectations, we still will regularly deal with the unexpected.

Expect the Unexpected

To ward off the negative impact of unmet expectations, we need to learn to expect the unexpected in the form of disappointments as well as surprises, unmet as well as exceeded expectations. They are a part of life because expectations are a part of life.

As we expect the unexpected, we can expect expectations to sometimes be unmet, unrealistic, unfair, unset and unclear because that is their nature. We can also learn to decrease the gap between expectations and reality as we learn to communicate better with those around us.

DISCUSSION: What is the most helpful piece of advice you have for managing expectations?

This post was inspired by the comments of Mark Allman in the post Happy Anniversary.

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27 thoughts on “Struggling with Expectations

  1. Very nice job Kari. My aunt and uncle found out they were at odds over something after 40 years of marriage because they never were willing to sit down and discuss their expectations and it would have been easily rectified had they done so. It is scary Miss Scare to do these things the first time but the benefits can be great.

    Thanks for the shout out by the way. I am humbled and honored.

    • My parents and several close friends of ours have marriages that have either ended or are in shambles for these reasons. My husband and I are using them as motivation to not let it happen to us by communicating everything, including and especially our expectations. Yes, it is scary, but the benefit is so amazing! Thank you for providing such a great framework for this post.

  2. I like how you end your post. The solution is to understand that we will have wrong expectations. I think some think the solution is to eliminate all expectations. They adopt an almost Buddhist philosophy of expecting nothing and therefore never being disappointed. They try to eliminate any form of desire at all. But that's not a realistic or a healthy way to live.

    • Eliminating all expectations just isn't possible. They are a natural part of how we think. You get at a point that I want to emphasize. There is only one truth that works, and it's found only in God's Word. Following that truth is the only truly realistic and healthy way to live. Disappointment is a part of life. God is disappointed all the time, right? (And that's just from me.)

      • I agree Kari, there will always be expectations. Our very interaction with each other set up unspoken expectations all the time. If I commented on your blog everyday and then just stopped you would wonder where the heck did he go because I set up an expectation just by the way I go about my life. You have even set up expectations as I look for a thought provoking post from you regularly! 🙂 Part of the clarification of expectations sometimes deals with people telling each other that they like or do not like the way the person goes about stuff that sets up either positive or negative expectations.

        • Maybe I should have said in the post to expect there to be expectations. Could we really operate without making them? And, some level of standard should be assumed, right? That ideas is what McDonald's built its reputation on and that same idea is somewhat what my marriage is built on. Expectations met or not determine the level of trust. Now, we try to communicate as many expectations as is reasonably possible, but it's just not possible to communicate them all. Having broad shoulders and realizing that there's usually more to a circumstance than we may ever know can help in keeping unmet expectations from ruining a relationship. This is a WAY deeper topic than I had first realized, and it is really connected to so much of how we do life. And, by the way, I WOULD wonder if you stopped commenting all of a sudden 🙂

  3. HI Kari, you are right on! I learned a long time ago that it is your expectations of the way you think something should go or someone should act that sets you up to be hurt. they say FEAR is "false expectations appearing real"….I try to remember that when fear pops up, and it does quite often. Sometimes we fail to look beyond the fear and find out what is really holding us back. Thanks as always for your thoughtful insights. Mary McCauley

    • Looking beyond the fear is so important. Finding that root cause (what is really holding us back) is crucial in order to live the excellent life that pursues holiness. Thanks Mary!

  4. Kari,
    I had another thought about expectations. I think our trust can be compromised by unmet expectations. Trust in God, trust in our spouse, trust in a friend ect. We have to work to make sure that does not happen.

    • Trust is absolutely linked to expectations. This is why communication is so crucial. It's really the best way to make sure unmet expecations do not ruin a relationship. Yes, it certainly takes hard work to not let that happen as well as to move forward and not get into a rut.

  5. Just read the story of Naaman in 2 Kings again this morning and was struck by how much his expectations affected him. Fortunately, he got passed it and reaped tremendous awards. I encourage everyone to read this story in light of our discussion above on expecations.

  6. Excellent commentary in light of our joint project. Expectations set the bar for measuring success, but never overlook or be surprised by the unexpected. A story I once heard went like this: The sharpshooter by reputation in this small mountain town was asked by a reporter how he never missed. The proclaimed sharpshooter replied, "I aim and shoot, then paint the target around where my bullet landed." Moral: Never wait for the results to set your expectations. You always get what you aim for…

    My high school coach left a lasting impression on my thinking about goals. "Shoot for the stars, you might not reach them but you'll certainly land higher than you ever expected you would. Always set goals beyond your reach and watch what happens."

    • Good advice from your coach for sure. My boys get frustrated when their coaches never seem happy with their results and are always pushing them for more, and we try to explain this idea to them. They'll get it later in life, I'm sure. We definitely need to be careful how and where we place our expectations, and we have to be okay with people not meeting them. But, we also cannot not have them. They do serve a useful purpose as you've noted.

  7. As a pastor I lived far too many years under others' expectations of me. My freedom came when I realized I was living not for me or for any one else, but for Him. I honestly think you touched a chord here Kari because way too many are stifled, especially in doing what they believe God wants them to do (as long it is good) because they are worried about others. Imagine what and how much could get done if we didn't seek satisfaction and the constant approval of others.
    My recent post Rehearse

    • So true, my friend. Trying to please other people is constantly frustrating and usually fruitless. Of course, communicating expectations helps a great deal and is a necessary effort, but we need to realize that our ultimate approval comes from God and that sometimes other people won't be happy – we won't meet their expectations – but we have met His, which is what truly matters and must be our standard.

  8. Expectations can be a source of pain. If we place them on others. Or if they are unrealistic. Thankfully God exceeds my limited expectations daily. Grea6 post.

  9. Great update Kari. One of the tenets I try to live by is to exceed expectations. Again to do that one has to know what is expected either through communication or carefully observing reactions when something is not met or when something is exceeded.

    Again a great discussion point between spouses or friends in order to build or strengthen the relationship. It is better to start the discussion before an unmet expectation drives you to it. 🙂

    Another point I would share would be someone may not be meeting your expectations but the cause may be something other than you might think. For instance as a family or individually for the last 5 months we may have not met expectations of our friends and family because all of our time is being consumed by planning for our daughters June wedding. It is wise again to not assume someone is hurting you without knowing the facts. We have to work to not draw conclusions without facts. Extend grace and again communicate if an issue arises.

    • Thanks, Mark. The approach of exceeding expectations reminds me of something a colleague said to me once. "Under promise and over deliver." There is a danger in the under promise part for sure, but someone with ethics will do as you indicate and promise what meets a person's expectations and then work to exceed them.

      You're right too about the discussion of expectations strengthening relationships. Maybe expectations are the tools used to help keep relationships green and growing. I mean, if my marriage didn't hit some unmet expectations every once in a while, we might not discuss some of the things that we need to grow. Does that make sense?

      I like you're third point as well. My boys will complain about a teacher or a friend who does or doesn't do something they thing they should, and I remind them that there's very likely other things going on that you don't know and can't know. We have to always realize that when expectations aren't met, it's usually because of something going on with that person and not a personal hurt they meant to give us. Great addition!

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