Great expectations: How to keep them from creating unhappiness

Learn how balancing your expectations with reality can help you manage frustration and build resilience.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Expectations. We all have them. It might be an expectation of coming home to a clean home at the end of the day. Or the expectation of a great meal when you finally get to try that new restaurant you read about.

Sometimes life lives up to them. Other times, not so much.

Expectations help you plan for what's coming up and can make you feel excited about the future.

But they can also lead to disappointment and frustration when your expectations aren't met and your hopes are dashed. And when they involve another person, misaligned expectations can diminish the quality of relationships.

Use these strategies from Mayo Clinic resiliency expert Stacy Peterson to check in with your expectations and prevent them from creating feelings of unhappiness.

Communication is key

Many times, feelings of frustration arise between people who have mismatched expectations. It can start small. "My husband is amazing. But he doesn't notice or pay attention to the same things I notice, like putting dishes in the dishwasher," Peterson says.

If it's constantly bugging you, that's a cue to ask: "What are my expectations? Have I shared them?" Peterson continues, "You can't change someone else's behavior, but you can make a request."

But there's a right way to make your request.

  • Have a conversation at a place and time you feel emotionally neutral. That's not when you're coming home from a stressful day at work and the kitchen is a mess.
  • Consider bringing it up over a cup of coffee or something pleasurable.
  • Use "I" statements. For example, "I feel so energized when the kitchen is clean. I'm asking for help to keep it that way." Initially it might feel awkward. But it takes the emotion (and blame) out of it.
  • Invite collaboration. "If we were to work together on maintaining a cleaner kitchen, how would you be able to help?" This can make it feel less like an attack and help align expectations.

Know when to let go (and what that means)

If you're constantly feeling resentful or frustrated, consider your expectations. "I think about this equation: 'Disappointment equals expectations minus reality,'" says Peterson. You can't change your reality, but you can adjust your expectations.

Negative emotions are part of life. But if they're happening again and again, think about how you might shift your expectations to align with what's possible right now.

You might feel hurt that your adult child doesn't call or visit as much as you wish. But that frustration isn't going to promote forward movement, says Peterson. You may not be able to make your child visit as often as you would like.

What you can do is adjust your expectations. You may not like it, but aligning your expectations to the reality may help lessen the disappointment you feel. Sometimes you have to step back and recognize the limits of what you can control.

Letting go of certain expectations can be hard. But it doesn't mean lowering them. There's a difference. You're not saying it will never be; you're saying this is where things are at right now.

Focus on what you can control, not what you can't

Didn't get the promotion you thought you were a shoo-in for? Anniversary date was kind of a letdown? Being able to roll with disappointments in life is an important part of resilience.

Go ahead and feel disappointed. But then find a way to move on in a productive way. Ask to sit down with your boss to talk about what skills you could focus on growing to prepare you for the next promotion opportunity. Plan another date with your partner (with less pressure for the "perfect" evening).

The thing about expectations is that there's always another one around the corner.

July 11, 2019