The Expectations Game: Achieving Balance for Emotional and Mental Health

Managing expectations is a huge factor and key skill in maintaining one’s emotional and mental health. This very significant lesson hit home years ago when writing my dissertation on stress and change. The questionnaire I administered on the primary sources of work stress had two clear winners: expectations of self and expectations of others. Not long after that, the late Dr. John E. Jones, a brilliant thinker, writer and mentor, introduced a model of anger he co-authored which clearly states that the trigger in anger is always an unmet expectation. This gave me lots to think about because while the downside of having expectations is apparent, it is also clear that they are a necessary part of life and play an essential role in achieving goals and creating positive change.

Since expectations can wreak mental and emotional havoc and since they are also critical for accomplishment and satisfaction, the central question focuses on how we learn to use them for good without getting trapped, and how to find the joy amid this ever shifting expectations game. Rasheed Ogunlaru has a wonderful response to this conundrum. “Live your life, sing your song. Not for expectations. Not for the ovations. But for the joy of it.” It is our hope that the three ideas we offer can help you experience resilience, growth, satisfaction and as Ogunlaru suggests, joy.

View your expectations as your lodestars. Viewing expectations as your lifelong companions accompanying you on all of your life’s journeys can help you gain a more even perspective. They are a normal part of life like the air we breathe and they can serve the function of guiding, inspiring and teaching you. Looking at them in this vein, with less judgment and pressure attached to the outcomes and more matter-of-factness to the whole process, makes them less demanding and detrimental. Expectations just are, and they can be friends, motivators and teachers if used in a healthy way. Mark Twain very cleverly said, “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.” Even if what we get is weather, they can still contribute as lodestars as long as we do not bemoan what we get.

Be flexible – It is the key to helping expectations work for you. Brandon Sanderson in The Way of Kings, perfectly captures the essence of this second idea. “Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them the more likely they were to crack.” Having expectations as lodestars but not as definitive, must-have destinations is helpful. As you live, plan, dream and create visions, your expectations often change for many reasons. Letting them go, or changing shape without being judgmental and harsh about yourself regarding these changes, is a healthy and effective way to learn a “go with the flow” philosophy. When all the messages from the universe are saying “Change your expectations and rethink them,” hanging on to them or criticizing yourself because you want change is not wise. Being flexible is. Pat yourself on the back for noticing the clues; for taking in new information and for actually using it. And finally, kudos to you for recognizing that expectations are a necessary starting point but are not the destination itself.

Create a non-judgmental philosophy of balance that you actually live. Welcome your expectations as a sign of vitality, energy and even passion for many of the things you want to experience or accomplish in life. For your final gift to yourself regarding expectations, acknowledge that both you, and those from whom you expect things in various parts of your life, are human. You will not always come through and neither will your colleagues, family members, friends, neighbors or others on whom you have placed expectations. We are all human and usually trying to do the best we can do. Jodi Picoult hits the nail on the head when she says in Nineteen Minutes, “There were two ways to be happy: improve your reality or lower your expectations.” We think she is onto something here. Both are good options under different circumstances. It is important and necessary to hold self and others accountable for results as you learn, adapt and attempt to improve your reality. It is equally important to have some patience and benevolence toward self and others as real life sets in and remember that not all expectations can or should be met. Balancing focus and flexibility is a winning combination that leads to greater acceptance of what is. Knowing when to push and fight for something and when to let life be what it is falls under the heading of wisdom and I love the simplicity of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.”