Understanding high expectations and how to manage them

It’s hard to understand and manage high expectations. I have high expectations for my birthday every year. I love my birthday. I always say that your birthday is the only day the truly focuses on just YOU. Every other holiday is spent focusing on other things or celebrating for different reasons. Your birthday is all about you; unique and wonderful you.

I started at a new company about 5 years ago. I have always had friends at work and decorated their desks on their birthday, brought them a card or did something to make them feel ultimately special. I think it’s important.

But at this new company, I didn’t really have friends. So, for the first 3 years that I was there, my desk never got decorated and nobody at work even acknowledged it was my birthday. Every year, I went home disappointed and let down.

What happens when we allow our high expectations get the best of us? We’re disappointed. Every. Single. Time.

Where do high expectations come from?

There’s a saying that goes: “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” I believe this to be true.

Merely expecting something to happen won’t make it happen, yet we do it all the time. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget noted that young children have trouble distinguishing their outer world with their inner world. Children, therefor, many times believe that thinking specific things will directly correlate with a response. Piaget referred to this as “magical thinking” and he also believed we outgrew it by age 7.

As adults, we continue to participate in “magical thinking” every day. Prayer and meditation are forms of magical thinking. Our beliefs are backed with the expectation that what we wish to happen will come true. For many adults, it’s very hard to let go of the idea that praying and manifesting what you desire may not make it happen for you

Expectations can come from multiple places. Let’s talk about 3 that I think are important.

1.     It’s always been this way, therefore it always will be.

2.     Everything happens for a good reason.

3.     It’s what you would do.

Research on moral psychology states that expectations among people are often based on an unsaid social contract. That means, that without actually verbalizing our high expectations, we concoct stories in our heads about what is an attainable expectation and therefore become severely disappointed when said expectation is not fulfilled.

Let’s take a moment to examine the places that expectations come from.

It’s always been this way.

It’s great that something has always been that way. But also, the only constant in life is change. Every day, every minute, life changes. People change, circumstances change and there’s no “always” anymore.

Expecting things of people because it’s always been that way for us is dangerous. It’s a solid path to let down and disappointment.

As we evolve, we grow up and we change. We make new friends, we invite new people into our lives and yet, we expect that these new people are going to fulfill the expectations of what has always been. These are new people with different lives, perspectives and personalities. It’s natural that they will approach circumstances differently than you have.

When it comes to someone who has always been in your life; a parent, or sibling for example, their lives change. They move, get a new job, get busy, forget things, and just plain change as every day goes by.

If we’re pro-change – self growth and transformation and stuff – then why would we expect that the people in our lives wouldn’t be changing, too. While they change, their priorities and perceptions change as well. It’s not “always been like this” for them or for you anymore. To expect anything different is setting your high expectations up for disappointment.

Everything happens for a good reason

I call straight out bullshit on this one. I cannot approach life with the feeling or belief that every single thing that happens, happens because it was “meant to be”.

This explanation falls so flat for me that I almost can’t even describe it. My dad got sick and died when he was just barely 58 years old. What do you think my expectations were for his life?


Yes, I expected him to be here when I bought my dream home. I expected him to watch his grandchildren grow up. I expected him to always be the strong man in my life. I expected him to live to a ripe old age of 95 and die of natural causes.

Instead, he got ripped away from me when I was only 32 years old. I have so much more life to live and the expectation was that he did, too.

So, if anyone approaches me and tells me that that circumstance happened for a reason, I would basically immediately cut them out of my life. Not really, but pretty close.

Let me explain to you my take on “everything happens for a reason”

I have a tattoo on my arm that says, “you are exactly where you’re meant to be.” In my opinion, this gives the power back to me. Good stuff is going to happen. Shitty stuff is going to happen. How I react to it is the determinant of where I wind up in my life – thus, the foundation for my expectations.

I chose, after my dad died, to pick up, grieve, and continue to live my life. We always have a choice. I chose to use his death to fuel me to understand more about myself and the people around me. I chose to allow his death to tell me that life is short, and it can end unexpectedly, so it was up to me to live to my fullest.

Reflecting back, think about the monumental moments that happened in your life and how you reacted to them. That’s what is really making up who you are at this point and allowing you to define your own expectations instead of placing them in the hands of “destiny” or “everything happens for a reason.”

It’s what you would do.

This is a big one for me, and it’s something I catch myself on ALL THE TIME! I am thoughtful by nature. I started out this blog saying, I always decorate my friends’ desks for their birthday. I expect the same thing in return. When it doesn’t happen, I’m totally disappointed. But I set my own high expectations.

When I have a day off, I do the laundry, clean up the house and the kitchen and make a nice dinner. If I expect (which I have done many times) that my husband do the same thing on his days off, imagine my disappointment when I walk in the door at the end of the day and the dishes are in the sink and no dinner is on the table.


It’s not that he doesn’t care – it’s just that he doesn’t think like I do. He could be super excited about a woodworking project he was completing and instead of sharing in his delight, all I can do is try to manage my high expectations and the fact that the house did not look like it would if I was home.

There are a couple other places that expectations come from. Maybe you’ve asked for it, so you should expect that it happens. Sometimes, that just isn’t reality. Not everything we ask for can be met to our desire. Or perhaps you’ve really worked for what you want. That comes with the path to achieving ultimate success.

Success is a series of failures over and over again as we get closer to the thing we want. The thing we want or expect may wind up not being what we had thought in the first place, thus leaving us with very disappointed expectations along the way.

How dopamine impacts high expectations

According to Psychology Today*, Professor Wolfram Schultz at Cambridge University in England links dopamine to reward circuitry. Dopamine sits in our brain and will prematurely send off primary rewards. When you’re going to get a reward, dopamine is released in return.

Unexpected rewards will trigger more dopamine release than expected rewards, but either way, rewards impact the brain chemistry in a positive way.

That being said, when you anticipate a reward, and your brain prematurely sends off reward dopamine, the level of dopamine drop can affect your mood and alter your behavior exponentially, sometimes for days or weeks at a time.


The link between dopamine and happiness is a great explanation for a good state of mental being and awareness. When you’re happy, you operate at a higher frequency. You can almost feel a palpable buzz to you. It’s a high – like a drug. And happiness in your actions and behaviors links directly to you taking positive action and proactively working towards what it is you desire – thus reaching your own high expectations.

The article in Psychology today states:

Perhaps the elusive search for happiness is really a search for the right levels of dopamine. From this perspective, to create a ‘happy’ life perhaps you should live a life with a good amount of novelty, create opportunities for unexpected rewards, and believe that things are always going to get slightly better.

Setting the right level of expectations

It’s a balance. You’re never going to get everything you want. If you did, you would never have anything to work towards. The best way to set the right level of expectations is to first identify what they are and why that expectation exists. Then consider the worst possible thing that could happen and try to identify some middle ground in which to set your expectations on.

Identify the expectation: It’s my birthday and I am excited for my desk to be decorated and for everyone to shower me with love and attention.

Why the expectation exists: I always decorate my friends’ desks, so they should definitely decorate mine.

Worst possible thing that happens: Nobody even remembers it’s my birthday all day long and not one person says anything to me, sends me a text message or calls me. I go to bed feeling lonely and depressed and like nobody cares about me at all.

Identify the middle ground: My family will remember my birthday, and so will a select number of friends. I know certain people in my life are not always the most reliable, so I should not expect them to contact me. Then when / if they do, I am pleasantly surprised, and my brain will release higher levels of dopamine. I can also expect not to have my desk decorated or have people make a big deal of it at work. Then, again, if it actually happens, I am pleased and surprised

Managing and understanding high expectations takes time

Understanding and managing your expectations take time. It definitely will not happen overnight. It’s going to take time to identify what you expect from different people, where that expectation comes from and not only identifying and dealing with the disappointment but understanding why you’re disappointed and how to level-set your expectations for future events.

It can take years for this to be a success and sometimes, some expectations are just never able to be managed. Also understand that by managing expectations, that doesn’t mean you’re never going to feel a level of disappointment, even when your “non-expectation” isn’t met.

Be gentle on yourself during the journey and ask yourself the questions that matter. How will you manage it next time? What can you do differently, and is there anyone you can talk to about how you’re feeling as you go through this process?