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Are your expectations reasonable? How our expectations can result in hope or despair

Expectations are personal beliefs about future happenings. They are predictions based on preconceived ideas, knowledge, needs or wants. A primary purpose of expectations is to prepare us for action. Often the choices that we make are based on the expectations we hold for how the situation or decision will affect ourselves, others or the world around us. Expectations are seen to affect how people think, feel, and behave. They affect our thought processes involved in attention, interpretation, explanations and memory. Expectations guide how people interpret information, particularly information which is uncertain.

Expectations can vary. Some are reality based.

For example: The December holiday is coming up and each year we alternate families to host the Christmas meal. This year it is our turn to host so I expect that we will be hosting a meal for everyone this Christmas. Similarly, my grandmother is 96 years old. She has been suffering with illness for many years and we expect she might not live much longer.

Sometimes our expectations are based on our own set of beliefs or thoughts about a situation. These thoughts may be false, distorted or based on previous experience and expectations. For example;

After completing matric a student applied for a BCOM at university despite having a low mathematics mark. She was not accepted into the course. Thereafter she has been reluctant to apply to university expecting not be rejected if she reapplies.

Most importantly, expectations are often seen to affect how people feel, including attitudes, thoughts and feelings towards people and situations. Brene Brown said that “expectations are resentments under construction”. This is an incredibly powerful statement and one which I agree with strongly. When we develop expectations, we create a detailed story of how things are going to look and feel, as well as how the people around us are going to respond. For example;

I am going to smash this exam. It’s a guaranteed A. My parents will be so proud, and I’ll be top of the class.

If I lose 10kg before summer, I’ll look fabulous in that bikini on the beach. It’ll be the happiest summer and ever and no doubt people will be shocked to see how good I look.

BUT… what if you don’t get that A? What if you don’t lose those 10 kgs? We see hope turn into despair and disappointment and even shame in one foul swoop. Although our expectations may be well-meaning and hold the intention of doing better or achieving something great. If they are left unchecked they are loaded with potential for shame and self-criticism. Brene Brown talks about “Stealth Expectations”; the ones we don’t even know we have that set us up for significant disappointment. Stealth expectations stem from long standing patterns of expectation which have become ingrained in how we view and interpret the world around us. For example:

As a young child, I witnessed that love and affection were products of success and achievement. Therefore, going forward I always held the stealth expectation that achievement would result in being loved and accepted.

Expectations are human nature and can be a powerful driving force for motivation and achievement. If we have no expectations of ourselves and others, then we may not be willing to do more, or allow others to violate our boundaries. Perhaps through previous disappointment you then choose to set incredibly low expectations because then, whatever happens won’t be disappointing. So, what is the answer? Where is the middle ground?

Realistic Expectations – are attainable, realistic, logical and fair. They provide an element of hope without the significant risk of disappointment, despair or shame. What is ‘realistic’ is relative to each person and needs to be developed by asking yourself a few questions. This process can help to develop realistic expectations for either yourself or your child.

  1. What are your values?

Do I value popularity or status? Do I value monetary reward? Do I value myself?

What do I want to show my child? What do I value about them? Is it perfection or effort?

  1. Check your expectations

Is your expectation based on an outcome that you cannot control for? Has this expectation worked for me in the past? What is underlying this expectation? Is this expectation truly attainable in the given time frame, with my abilities and resources currently available?

For example: Susan only started taking Afrikaans this year. She expects to get an A for the mid year exam. She gets an A for every other subject so of course it would only be logical to get an A for Afrikaans as well. If she doesn’t get an A then her streak will be broken and she will no longer be seen as the cleverest person in the class. However, Susan’s parents are both European and have limited knowledge of Afrikaans so they would not be able to help her. Susan does not like getting help from other students and does not have enough time for extra lessons – Does Susan’s expectation sound realistic?

  1. Reflect on the emotions

Many times our expectations are based in fear and create high levels of anxiety. We may fear not being good enough, looking foolish, letting others down and so on. It is important to consider whether our expectation of the outcome and situation is based in emotion.

  1. Identity the most realistic outcome.

Considering Susan’s example above. What would her most realistic outcome be. She has limited resources and support, has only been doing the subject for a few months and appears to be emotionally connected to the outcome. The most realistic outcome would perhaps be obtaining a pass and finding out which areas are most difficult and require further understanding.

By considering the above questions we can rationalise what is an attainable, logical expectation that has limited risk for disappointment or shame.

To illustrate the above I would like to reflect on a conversation with myself. One that I have had to have in preparation for the festive season where my family will be coming over for Christmas. Family events have often held high expectations for me and often unrealistic or even stealthy ones. Inevitably after the event there is some level of disappointment, some powerful self-criticism and judgement. I have had to reality check my expectation. After asking the relevant questions, this is what I had to say to myself…

“When the family come over for Christmas I can only prepare as well as I can and do my best to provide a lovely meal for all. I can ask people to help by providing snacks, drinks or decorations. I can ask for extra hands to help set up on the day, some people will be available, others won’t. I can open my home and have a lovely meal with family and friends. However, what those 10 other people bring with them in terms of their expectations or attitude is not within my control and to expect everything to go ‘perfectly’ may be unrealistic. I will aim to enjoy the time spent with family and know that I have welcomed them into my home with open arms. The turkey might be dry, it might not. The drinks might not be chilled enough, or they might be. IF things do not go as planned, my reputation as a host will not be irreparably damaged, my family will not love me any less, and my worth is not measured on how well I can host a Christmas meal. I choose to measure the event on how much we laugh, the company and the memories made. This expectation is fair and reasonable.”

I urge all parents to help your children and teenagers to understand the difference between realistic and unrealistic expectations. We can only do this by understanding the expectations we have ourselves. Self-esteem is intrinsically linked to self-expectation and if we want our children to have a positive self-esteem we can do this by fostering healthy realistic expectations or ourselves and of them and teaching them to do the same for themselves and others.