“Are my expectations healthy?”

“Are my expectations healthy?”

By Brianna Riddlebarger

Whether you realize it or not, you have expectations of yourself and others in your life - at home, at work, in your extended family, from your friends, and even from strangers! For example, when you’re changing lanes while driving, you expect someone to either slow down or speed up so you can merge. Or when others are changing lanes, you expect them to use their blinker. 

These might be obvious. But the point is that you carry a list of expectations of the important people in your life on deeper levels. And it’s important to acknowledge which of those expectations are helpful and which are not helpful. Once you acknowledge and categorize your expectations, you then need to communicate them to others clearly. Without these steps, individuals and families find themselves in passive aggressive dynamics, repeated conflict, resentment, guilt, burnout, or feeling misunderstood.

Let’s break this down further:

What are some examples of unhealthy expectations?

  • One person does all the work - this can be something you expect from yourself or something you may unconsciously expect from others. This dynamic can look like a woman who feels like she can’t hire a housekeeper to help clean and that it’s her responsibility to do all the deep cleaning (perhaps because it was a dynamic she grew up with when she was young). This could also look like a husband who feels guilty and at fault anytime his wife is struggling with depression; he identifies as the fix-it person in the family, and he expects himself to make everyone else happy. An example of expecting another to do all the work could be a child who expects his parents to resolve whenever he’s struggling with boredom, irritability, or lack of motivation. 
  • Don’t cry, don’t feel sad  - parents can say this to their children when they’re struggling. Individuals also frequently repeat this to themselves because they feel embarrassed or ashamed of vulnerability. 
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy expectations - these are expectations where someone makes an assumption that ends up causing the assumed result. This is really common if there is already a lack of trust. A parent may say: “I already expect my child to lie to me”, and because the child knows his parent expects that of him, he begins to identify with that, and doesn’t bother trying to meet a different standard. Self-fulfilling prophecy expectations don’t allow room for someone to grow or develop, because one party limits that potential.

What about healthy expectations?

Healthy expectations are intentional and communicated.

  • Intentional: This means that any subconscious expectations should be brought to the front of your mind so that you can have intent and purpose behind it. Or, if your subconscious expectations are unhealthy, you shift it. Having clear purpose and intent with your expectations helps you set the stage to communicate them.
  • Communicated: If you don’t articulate your expectations of your loved ones, you can expect to be let down or disappointed at some point. Do not assume they are obvious, and do not assume that others can read your mind. Clarifying expectations and asking others what their expectations are helps create connection and reduce frustration. Imagine a college student who’s professor does not provide a syllabus laying out the grade scale, or an employer who doesn’t lay out specifically what it takes to get a raise or a promotion. It will be difficult to feel secure without those clear and communicated expectations.

The backbone of healthy expectations

When you are analyzing your expectations of self and others, here is a general guide to how you can assess if you’re on the right track:

  • They reflect your needs - your physical needs, emotional needs, spiritual needs, social needs, intellectual needs, and psychological needs. (Note- many also struggle to identify their true needs so this is also a helpful practice when thinking through expectations)
  • Everyone gets a say, everyone gets responsibility - this means you can’t have a list of expectations on everyone else and not from yourself. 
  • They are focused on safety and trust - the goal of expectations should be to have mutual trust and respect, and to make sure everyone is secure. This can include expectations related to managing money, parenting, cleanliness in the home, childcare, or shared time together.
  • They are discussed and agreed upon - have you ever miscommunicated with someone? Miscommunication conflicts are a perfect example of 2 different expectations that are clashing. Another example would be someone who is passive aggressive. Someone who is passive aggressive will frequently want someone else to read their minds about why they’re upset rather than communicate why they are upset and come to an agreement on the expectations.

Working through expectations is life-changing for reducing conflict in relationships, helping with communication skills, and with setting healthy boundaries. Discussing and reinforcing your expectations is a great way to build self-efficacy and self worth. You and your loved ones deserve to be seen and heard. It’s time to get started!

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