THE BLOG
06/11/2013 03:33 pm ET | Updated Aug 11, 2013

Great Expectations = Great Disappointments

It's human to feel disappointed now and then. As an optimist I tend to hope for the best in situations. It doesn't always work out the way I want. Having had my share of disappointments, I've become more aware of my expectations and learned how to hold them in check. We become disappointed when our expectations of persons, situations or things are unrealistic and not met.

In a circumstance with an uncertain outcome we naturally create expectations as a way of creating some certainty for ourselves. An expectation is a thought or a belief that is about our expected outcome, not necessarily about what might really happen. We have beliefs about ourselves that can turn into expectations about a desired outcome because they reinforce our beliefs about ourselves. When we are surprised by the outcome we are disappointed or frustrated because they undermine our beliefs.

Expectations create small crises that we forget about in a few days, or they can create massive fissures that last a lifetime and require the attention of professionals. Dawn Binkowski, a Gestalt psychotherapist, notes that: "In my practice, I deal with clients who were told by their parents that they were destined for greatness. When that doesn't happen, they become lost, especially when there's no backup plan. Dealing with disappointment and mediocrity can be a huge challenge." There are two sides to expectations. We have to manage our own expectations and we have to be aware of others' expectations of us. Disappointment is a two-way street.

High expectations are at the core for perfectionists who set unrealistically high expectations for themselves. As Dawn points out, "they are always focusing on what's wrong and as a result, feel anxiety, and obsess. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and an endless cycle of high expectations leading to low self-esteem and increased anxiety."

Managing our expectations is important for a number of reasons, the main one being our own sense of happiness. The less disappointment we face, the happier we are. The second most important reason is that our expectations tend to create demands, requests or orders on other people, which causes stress in relationships. The more we face disappointment, the more unhappy, unmotivated and stressed we become. So instead of curling up into a fetal position and giving up, there is a better solution: becoming aware of and modifying your expectations.

Our expectations stem from our beliefs and our beliefs flow from our needs. If I am lonely and call up a friend, I have an expectation that he will relieve my loneliness. If at the last minute he cancels, I will be disappointed, because he isn't going to fix my problem. Notice that it's not his problem and he's probably fine with the situation. If I understand that I have made a request to my friend and if I allow him to make his own choice, I can be okay with what ever happens. I will have to find another way to solve my problem. It would be worse if I'm explicit with my expectation of him because that creates a demand on him. It causes pressure on the relationship and if he still bails, then the disappointment is greater knowing I made a demand that was rebuffed. Sometimes disappointment can really hurt when it touches the ego and we take it personally.

People who are inured to hardship tend to have low expectations. When with a little effort, expectations are realized, they are happier. Conversely, wealthier people tend to have higher expectations that often are not met. As a result, they tend to be unhappier. The paradox of expectations helps us to understand why people in some of the poorer countries in the world test higher for happiness than those in wealthier countries.

For our own sanity and happiness, managing our expectations is a better choice than continually being disappointed or giving up. Here are eight steps that will help you begin to short circuit your process of creating unrealistic expectations:

1. Become aware of expectations you are creating.
2. Understand the beliefs behind your expectations.
3. What are your needs in the situation? Are there other ways to meet them?
4. Is your expectation a reasonable or a likely outcome?
5. When your expectation turns out to be incorrect, notice and adjust accordingly.
6. When you are disappointed, don't take it personally.
7. Stay flexible: What other options do you have?
8. Be okay with "what is."

Our disappointment should be turned on its head: Instead of being disappointed with an outcome, we really should be disappointed in our own unrealistic expectations. We can ask for things but we don't always get them. When you adjust your expectations to fit reality, you are much less likely to experience disappointment. In time, it will become a rarer occurrence. You don't have to give up hope. We can still anticipate a good outcome, just be ready to be okay with "what is" and accept it. As the old saying goes: "Don't count your chickens before they've hatched."

For more by Bradley Foster, click here.

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