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Five Steps for Coping with Unmet Expectations

Unmet expectations seem to be a recurring and inevitable consequence of human relationships. Therefore, handling them with minimal distress is essential for our well-being and sustaining relationships over the long haul.

Perhaps I’m a slow learner because it has taken me years to recognize that my expectations are internally generated beliefs about how others should respond to my needs and admit that they frequently have no basis in reality.

Entitlement and Narcissism

I’ve come to realize that expectations are incredibly self-centered. The person who creates them believes the world should revolve around their needs. Expectations, in this sense, are the ultimate expression of entitlement and narcissism.

My late husband always set his expectations very low or at zero to avoid disappointment. As a result, he was seldom disappointed. Probably because of my tendency toward perfectionism, I often set my expectations too high and, in the process, set myself up for disillusionment.

Is disappointment avoidable or inevitable?

A Personal Example

I recently finished writing a four-book fictional autobiography, which can be viewed through the prism of expectations.

The first book, Blackbird, can be seen as the memoir of a child, Jane Bertram, as she grows up experiencing the pain of inadequate parenting. The child’s expectation of her mother’s love is unmet, much like the story of J. D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.

In the second book, My Mother’s Daughter, Jane is chagrined to see how she fails to meet the needs of her children. In the third book, The Perfect Mother, Jane, with the benefit of maturity, realizes how her mother met her needs in ways it took the fullness of time to recognize and appreciate.

In the final book, The First and Last Lesson, which will be available in late summer, Jane finds a way to resolve and accept her failures to meet others’ needs and the shortcomings of those she loved and who loved her.

Water Is Not Dry!

The four books reveal how much of life’s suffering is self-generated. Buddha was right. Having wants and needs that will not or cannot be satisfied is the source of much needless suffering.

Expecting the impossible and then being disappointed when it doesn’t materialize seems to me to be a definition of insanity. Isn’t that like expecting water to be dry?

Five Steps

Managing one’s expectations is a skill that I’m still learning. In a nutshell, here is what I try to practice:

  1. Awareness: Becoming conscious of hidden or implicit expectations is essential. If expectations can be examined in light of reality, there is less danger of being blindsided when they aren’t met.
  2. Recognition: Acknowledging disappointment, sadness, or even a sense of loss when expectations aren’t met allows the feelings to surface and be examined. Even more critical, surfacing them enables them to pass like a dark rain cloud rather than remain overhead.
  3. Investigation: Looking for the hidden opportunity in each disappointment must become automatic. There’s wisdom embedded in the saying about clouds having silver linings.
  4. Creativity: Different ways to meet a need can be explored. Resourcefulness is required to clear a path littered with unmet expectations. Resilience is a skill that can be learned.
  5. Preemption: Expectations can be managed proactively. Listen to the internal chatter that writes “contracts” with others, expecting them to fulfill an obligation to you, even when they don’t know what you want them to do. Tear up those contracts.
Recognize and examine expectations

“I Do My Thing and You Do Your Thing”

Perhaps I’ll even remember the following quote from Fritz Perls from the ’60s. Perls, a psychiatrist who developed Gestalt therapy with his wife, Laura, wrote:

I do my thing and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you, and I am I,

and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.

If not, it can't be helped.

How do you handle your unmet expectations? I hope you’ll send me a comment and let me know.



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