Great Expectations – could be getting you into trouble!

Great Expectations

Unhelpful expectations often enhance a client’s sense of their problems.  Quality expectations, on the other hand, can be really useful in setting and creating plans.

Try this exercise: What should you realistically expect will happen in the following scenarios?  What happens next?

  • 1.        Things have been tough all day.  You get a call from your boss.
  • 2.       You find yourself in a difficult situation.  Someone unexpected drops in.
  • 3.       Your partner is upset with you. 
  • 4.       You have had a problem for a very long time. 




Have a look at your responses.   Were they positive, negative or neutral?  Were your expectations moderate or grand?

The truth is that we cannot know the future.  How we create expectations can impact upon how we process our experience.  Anxiety often is supported by negative expectations. When these are grand, the negative expectations can become the basis for catastrophic thinking.  Big, negative thoughts of what the future will bring.

Depression, on the other hand, often involves small expectations which are negative.  People who have depression may not allow themselves any ‘big’ hopes or expectations.  Thinking about the past, they think the future is negative and their hopes and expectations are often hopeless and helpless in nature.

How people imagine their expectations plays a big part in how they create the problems in their lives.

A critical issue with expectations is not their size, or their nature, but how they are determined.  People with realistic expectations have clear criteria for working out what they should expect.  How did you decide what your expectations would be in the exercise?

Some useful criteria could include:

  • ·         What experience do you have with similar situations in the past?
  • ·         What would be possible for other people to achieve in the circumstance?
  • ·         What range of possibilities exist – from the most positive to the most negative?  From the most modest to the grandest?  What probabilities can be applied to each option?



Some unhelpful criteria that people use are those built on fantasies, guilt, shame, the past, the worst case scenario or the very best case scenario.

Having clear criteria for deciding what your expectations should be allows you make realistic expectations and plan accordingly.  You will therefore have a greater chance of your expectations being met.

One problem for people is that when expectations are not met, they can become regrets and disappointments.  When people are running a model of perfection, missed expectations often create a sense of failure. 

To have expectations is one thing.  The ability to realise that expectations are only really ‘guesses’ about the future – and therefore any expectations that someone has can never truly be anything more than a guess at best – can allow them to be put into proper perspective.  Expectations are useful for making plans, but unrealised expectations  need to be let go.

As you think about your expectations, do you have appropriate criteria?  Can you use them to develop valuable plans?  Can you let unfulfilled expectations go, or do you carry them around as personal failures? 

Realistic expectations are truly ‘great expectations’.