The Expectation Trap: Breaking Free from Resentment
Could your expectations be making you miserable?
Expectations are another name for the “shoulds” that we apply to ourselves and others. All of us have expectations, but we might only become aware of them when they are unmet, and we feel hurt or resentful. If they’re unrealistic, expectations can create more problems than they solve.
Some say that “expectations are premeditated resentments,” and I get it. When we tie our peace or happiness to someone else’s behavior, we allow them to hold power over us and potentially hurt us. Since our level of peace and happiness is directly proportionate to the expectations we maintain, it’s a good idea to check our expectations and make changes where needed. Have you ever considered that your expectations might be unrealistic?
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Finding Happiness in Imperfection
Our expectations stem from our desires for certain people’s behavior, including our own. Some of our expectations may be realistic, while others may not.
It’s common to tie our worth or perceived value as a person to the expectations we hold. For example, if I expect my friends to acknowledge my birthday and they don’t, I could end up feeling unloved, forgotten, or uncared for. So, it’s equally important to share our expectations with others rather than requiring them to read our minds. If it’s important to me to be remembered on my special day, then it’s my responsibility to ensure that others know about that expectation, or I may be sorely disappointed.
Expectations can be too high or too low. Holding on to these kinds of unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others is potentially damaging because it sets everyone up for failure. Unrealistic expectations are rigid; they don’t leave room for unexpected change or and they don’t allow flexibility. They are often fear-based. Maybe you’re afraid of losing something or someone or of someone taking something from you.
High expectations may be difficult or even impossible to achieve, leading to disappointment and feelings of failure and the “not good enough’s.”
Low expectations for ourselves and others can lead to the same kinds of feelings that high expectations do when they’re not met. Ironically, if we’re people-pleasers, we may purposefully or subconsciously set low expectations to avoid feeling disappointed. Either way, expecting too much or too little can lead to feeling resentful, angry, or hurt when that expectation isn’t met.
It can feel like an expectation is fair, reasonable, and realistic, but experience has shown that it can’t be met. Time to change that expectation! Flexible and adaptable expectations work best. Releasing unrealistic or unhealthy expectations brings peace.
If we use words like “never” and “always” when we think about our expectations, it indicates that they are unreasonable. Those expectations are unrealistic because they are rigid and lack space for change or flexibility. They use “black and white” (“all or none”) thinking.
If you’re unsure if an expectation is appropriate, seeking a trustworthy person’s perspective and feedback can be helpful.
Becoming aware of our expectations and detaching from the outcomes reduces the chance of feeling resentful in the future. When we practice detaching from outcomes, our fears and resentments can begin to diminish.
The Power of Managing Expectations
You know that how we interact with others is a choice. And how we interact with others, and the expectations we place on them, can make or break a relationship. For example, suppose we expect something from others without communicating about it or empathizing with their current situation. In that case, we may end up dealing with misunderstandings and feeling disappointed, resentful, angry, or hurt.
Mind reading was a regular expectation in my family of origin, and it caused a lot of misunderstandings, hurt feelings, anger, and resentment. It’s easy to believe that people in our lives will “just know” what we want or need at any given time. If they know us or LOVE us, they should just KNOW what we want or need without having to be TOLD, right? Not only do we expect them to know what we need and want automatically, but we assume that they’ll do those things too. When they don’t know the expectations and don’t follow through, we feel resentful. How ridiculous is that? And how unfair is that to them?
If we grew up in a dysfunctional or unhealthy environment, we might assume “bad things” will always be part of our lives. We may now be adults who expect the worst of others, or we may live fearfully.
Changing your attitudes about what you expect will change your life. Over time, you’ll become less likely to feel disappointed, angry, or resentful.
Breaking Free from Unrealistic Relationship Expectations
Releasing the fantasy of “perfect” relationships is crucial here. Social media contributes highly to this fallacy of perfection; posts showing others’ fabulous lives and “perfect” relationships can keep us focused on what we’re “missing out” on, contributing to unhappiness and resentment. Remember, there is no such thing as perfection. Perfection doesn’t exist. If you find yourself striving for perfection, do yourself a favor and stop struggling to achieve a non-existent standard. Continuing to hold onto unrealistic, unachievable expectations will only keep you stuck and unhappy with yourself or your relationships. It’s a no-win condition.
Setting boundaries and saying what you mean while meaning what you say will also go a long way in eliminating the potential for resentment to set in. A tool I have found useful when someone asks or requires something of me is asking myself whether I can do the thing without resentment. If my answer is no, then I don’t do it. I don’t offer explanations; remember, “no” is a complete sentence. I simply state that I’m sorry, but no, it’s not something I can do at this time. Maybe another time.
As you evaluate the expectations you have for yourself or someone else, try not to judge or label your feelings about them as good or bad. Feelings are neither good nor bad; they simply provide information. It will be useful information that you can repurpose in other areas of your personal development journey.
We’re always growing, so setting flexible expectations means that they can grow with us. Setting healthy expectations is possible with awareness, acceptance, self-compassion, and boundaries in place to maintain safety. Letting go of outdated, unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others can be a positive step in healing relational trauma.
The Power of Letting Go: Releasing Your Expectations for a Happier Life
- Examine an expectation you have for a specific person. Is your expectation realistic? How do you know? How can you change it if it’s not?
- How important is this expectation? Is it worth sleepless nights? Is it worth feeling angry, hurt feelings, or resentful? Is it worth losing or damaging the relationship?
- Let go; detach from the outcome. Let others be who they are. Notice how this feels. Is it pleasant? Do you feel the need to control? Why or why not?
- Let go of expectations around what people say (or don’t say) or what they do (or don’t).
- Let go of outcomes. How does it feel? Scary? Anxiety-provoking? What can you do about that?
- Make “letting go” of expectations a process. It’s not an event.
- Focus on progress, not perfection.
- Trust the process.
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About the Author
Drawing from her personal experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional household, Diane Metcalf has developed effective coping and healing strategies. With the assistance of professional therapists and mindful personal growth, she has honed her skills and now happily shares them with others who are interested in learning and growing.
As an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer, Diane is well-versed in topics such as narcissism, family dysfunction, abuse, and recognizing warning signs. Her extensive knowledge is drawn not only from her personal experiences, but also from her work in human service fields, including domestic violence, partner abuse, and court advocacy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Diane’s transformational books on healing and personal growth, such as the highly acclaimed “Lemon Moms” series, offer emotional support and guidance in understanding narcissistic traits and healing past wounds. Her approach emphasizes self-awareness, intention, self-care, and establishing healthy boundaries as essential components in the healing process.
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This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.