The Trouble with Expectations

by | Apr 28, 2022


Years ago I attended a leadership and self-improvement retreat where one of the leaders said something that knocked my socks off.

He said: “expectations create unhappiness.”

I’ve thought a lot about this and I think he’s correct.

Think about when you’ve been angry, hurt, upset, frustrated, or disappointed. The root likely can be traced to reality not meeting your expectations.

For example, are there times when you expect your child to be a harder worker? Or more responsible. Better organized. More social. A better student. More thoughtful of others. Or whatever. When they don’t live up to your expectations it creates friction and frustration.

How about your significant other? Are there times you expect your spouse/partner to be more in tune with your point of view or feelings? Or that they help around the house more? That they spend less? Be less distracted? Communicate better? Be a better co-parent?

And there are our expectations for ourselves. To get to our goal weight. Drink less. Work harder. Get more done/be more efficient. Sleep more. Be happier. Be more successful — make more money. Be a better spouse, partner, and parent. Our expectations of ourselves can be the toughest of them all.

A book I once read put it this way: Happiness occurs when reality exceeds expectations. True. But what should we do? Just have super low expectations? If you don’t expect anything from anybody then you’ll never be disappointed? No. That doesn’t work either.

A better path is to “check your expectations.” Are they realistic? Do they really matter? If so, have they been communicated in a constructive (two-way) dialog or do you just assume the other person knows your expectations? (And what about their expectations of you — wouldn’t it be nice to know what those are?)

Another tact is setting aside expectations and practicing acceptance. It’s hard. Follow the advice of Buddha: “Serenity comes when you trade expectations for acceptance.” How might your relationship with yourself and others change for the better with more acceptance? Fewer expectations? Less judgment?

BTW – I struggle with the above – I am guilty of letting uncommunicated and unreasonable expectations of myself (most of all) and others cloud my happiness.

For some reason this topic reminds me of this (bizarre) song by Radiohead:


  1. I know some Radiohead and that song is new and strange to me. I’m gonna go back to a standard like my iron lung.

  2. I agree totally with this. I jotted this down a few years ago and your post made me look at it again:

    – Accept reality
    – Don’t delude yourself
    – Tailor expectations to correlate with reality, and counteract delusions


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