The Destructiveness of Expectations

by | Jul 15, 2019

“Expectations are resentments under construction.”

-Anne Lamott (author)

The Problem with Expectations

Anytime we have expectations, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and resentment.

Dr. John Johnson writing in Psychology Today notes two primary problems with expectations:

First, “merely expecting something to happen will not make it happen.” Many things we “expect” are not within our control. It is difficult enough to control our own thoughts and actions, let alone how others think, feel and act. Think about how irrational it is to have an expectation about something over which we have little or no control.

Second, “human beings have a natural tendency to pin their hopes for happiness on fulfilled expectations.” when our expectations are not fulfilled, as they often are not, we take a hit to our happiness. We feel disappointed, frustrated and often feel resentment.

Resentment due to expectations can flow in two directions: both from the expector to expectee, but also from the expectee to the expector.

Outgoing Expectations

Outgoing expectations are when you expect something of someone else. For example, assume a married couple where the wife expects the husband to keep the yard and landscaping looking nice. The husband mows the lawn regularly but rarely trims the edges and doesn’t weed the flower beds very often. In this situation, the wife has higher expectations for how the yard should look and feels resentment towards her husband for not caring enough and not putting in the time to make their yard look nice. (Note – this is not a personal example – I’m on the same page with respect to yardwork with my wife.)

In this scenario, she feels let down. It’s possible that she also views lack of care for the yard also as a lack of care for her or things that she values.

Incoming Expectations

Incoming expectations are when somebody expects something from you. Like outgoing expectations, incoming expectations can also create resentment. Using the same yard example from above, the husband likely resents the expectations his wife as has placed on him. He mows the yard. He trims and weeds when he thinks it looks bad. He thinks he does a fine job keeping up the yard and doesn’t agree with his wife’s high expectations for yard upkeep. He feels controlled and a lack of autonomy.

Another common example of incoming expectations creating resentment is how much teenagers resent their parent’s expectations relating to keeping their room clean, doing homework and the like.

Thus, resentment can flow both ways! From the expector towards the expectee as well as from the expectee towards the expector!

“Expectations are premeditated resentments”

-Common 12-Step program message


Our expectations of ourselves can cause negative self-judgment. With respect to ourselves, it is not unreasonable to hold ourselves to a certain standard and to expect that we undertake various actions. Setting goals and processes for ourselves and expecting follow through is how we can improve and get better. However, when our expectations of ourselves concerns factors beyond our control, those expectations are unrealistic.

For example, consider a salesperson who has set an expectation to be the top-producing salesperson at her company in the 3rd quarter. She ends up being the third highest producer and feels horrible about herself and spends a lot of time beating herself up over not being the top producer.

The salesperson’s expectation was not reasonable. Her goal was focused on something where some important factors were out of her control, the biggest being how well the other salespeople sold. She can only control her own actions and her own process.

How to Manage Expectations

A key to managing expectations is not necessarily to lower our expectations of others or ourselves, but rather to question whether its fair to have an expectation in the first place. This is easier said that done. It is a different way of looking at life and those around us. It involves acceptance of people as they are and involves more communication and coaching, rather than burdening ourselves and others with expectations. Using the yard care example from above, if the wife replaced her expectation of the husband keeping the yard to a certain standard with discussions with her husband about why she thinks keeping the yard up is important and getting him to make it a goal of his own, resentment could be avoided.

Spend the next few days noticing those things about which you have expectations. Is is possible to move forward without an expectation? Realize that having expectations about things over which we have no control is often destructive. What would you put in place of expectations?

If we are going to have expectations of other people, it is paramount that we communicate those expectations and reasons for them. Expectations that are not communicated are much more likely to be unfulfilled. For example, if the wife tells the husband that she really likes for the yard to look nice and she expects him to trim and weed often, that expectation is more likely to be fulfilled than if they never have the conversation.

Feeling resentment based on uncommunicated expectations is a very interesting phenomenon. From Dr. Johnson again:

Expectations among people are often based on an implicit social contract. That is, without actually verbalizing expectations about give-and-take in a relationship, people construct stories in their heads about legitimate expectations of each other. So, people in a relationship have a “deal” in which the specifics of the deal are never really talked about. It is hard for someone to live up to your expectations when they don’t know what they are, but you still might see this failure as a violation of your social contract.

Many thanks to Dr. Jack Groppel of the Human Performance Institute for first educating me on expectations and resentment.


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