Recently I saw the movie, 500 Days of Summer. In one scene, after the main character, Tom, has broken up with his girlfriend and she has invited him to a party (as friends), we are shown two juxtaposing scenarios: one is what he expects to happen at the party involving jubilant scenes of reconciliation, and the other is the reality of what happens. Needless to say, they are vastly different. It is easy to see the funny side of Tom’s false expectations. What about our own?
So often, we have expectations about how events will turn out. From what we can expect on holiday (sunshine, romance, beautiful beaches) to what we expect from ourselves (positivity, the ability to perform at all times), what can psychology tell us about managing our expectations?
In my clinical practice there are two classic types of expectations playing out along gender lines. Firstly, women who expect to do it all – run the home, act as taxi for the kids, maintain a full-time or part-time job, keep up with friends, and generally be super-mum or super-achiever, and when they fall short of these expectations they feel like failures.
Alongside them are men who expect to progress up the ranks of their companies, accumulating status symbols along the way, which all works out until the company gets bought by an overseas company and restructured.
A typical example (let’s call him Bill) would have spent the last 10 years in the banking industry, working 50 to 60 hours a week, getting home late, going in at the weekend and sacrificing family time and pleasure time in the full expectation of landing a top job, an eye-watering salary and all the status and perks that go with it. There seems to be an unquestioned assumption that the expectation will be met.
The notion of high standards and pushing oneself are assumed to be always good, no matter how much anxiety this engenders, no matter how this ends up unbalancing people’s lives in favour of work and no matter if the situation changes so that the standards are less relevant.
Setting high expectations may be a good strategy, if you can also allow the experience to be different to what you imagine. Often, setting high expectations comes at a high cost, the painful thud as you fall back to reality. Often in clinical work, I ask clients what it means about them if their expectations aren’t met. A sense of not being good enough is the common answer – which we then evaluate for accuracy. For example, is it really true that kids would rather have the latest gadgets rather than have their dad available? Do your friends really care if the dinner is not the most complicated recipe? Is it more important for brides-to-be to have everything just so or keep relationships with parents and in-laws?
It is having flexibility in our expectations and being willing to change track without self-blame that has been shown to increase wellbeing. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset outlines the difference between a growth and fixed mindset, which details how our high expectations can work for or against us, depending on how attuned we are to learn from them.
Dr Mary Grogan is a clinical psychologist and director of Change It Psychology in Auckland, New Zealand.