Expectations, Adaptation and the Link to Happiness
Christopher Knippers, Ph.D.
Our expectations in life color every experience we have in life. Our expectations can be a double-edged sword; sometimes leading us to pursue achievements in life that we would not have otherwise pursued, but other times leading us to profound disappointment in life. Some people are good at adapting to the disappointments and adjusting their expectations without becoming cynical, but others develop a cynical or depressed outlook.
Our success in relationships, work, and all aspects of life is significantly effected by our expectations and our ability to manage disappointment when some aspect of life does not fulfill our expectations.
For example, romantic couples are often disappointed when their relationship is no longer “exciting” and the rush of hormones of a new relationship start to subside. You may stop being hypnotized by the other person’s charming qualities, and they no longer get a pass for having any human defects. The relationship becomes at least a little more routine, seeing each other is no linger quite the thrill it used to be, and sex eventually becomes somewhat routine. The relationship might even seem disappointing, so it seems that a terrible mistake was made by ever thinking that this person could be “The One.” After all, “I expected that they would have some flaws, but certainly not these flaws.” In relationships that succeed both partners are able to gradually accept that their loved one has a particular shortcoming they had always hoped they wouldn’t have to deal with, and they focus on qualities they appreciate. While at the same time, they maintain reasonable boundaries such as, “I will never allow myself to be abused; or to live with an addict.” You can’t be faulted for having boundaries in any relationship. Expect disappointments in relationships; but not abuse.
Addictions of all kinds are often driven by unrealistic expectations. Some people are always chasing a higher high in life, not realizing that life can’t always feel great.
We all have certain expectations in life. Most of us likely have fairly realistic expectations. One of those realistic expectations that keeps us sane is the expectation that not everything we expect or want in life happens; or at least not in the timeframe we might expect. In other words, most people are able to adapt to disappointment, and keep moving forward in some productive way. Some will try harder at what they were pursuing, or will try another pathway to the goal that was blocked; others will set new goals. Some might just wait patiently for the right timing for pursuing their goal again. A small percentage of people give up and are bitter or depressed when their expectations are not met.
A few people respond to disappointment by going beyond severe depression, to suicide. There are many reasons why people take their own lives, and we still don’t completely understand the suicidal mind. A major disappointment can lead to a feeling of being forever trapped in a hopeless situation in life. This is a very common impression that suicidal people report. Many times a situation is indeed traumatic and would be difficult for most anyone to endure. It would take a long period of time, support, and other resources for any person to come to terms with certain traumas or losses which cause a few people to give up all hope. Most people are eventually able to adapt to the overwhelming trauma or loss, and go on to lead productive fulfilling lives.
There is a subcategory of suicidal ideation that stems from people having unrealistically high expectations of themselves and of life. They buy into the myth that “you really can have it all.” Some people get through adulthood with these plaguing expectations, never really admitting to anyone just how high their expectations are nor how disappointed they are in themselves and their life. They define themselves by their disappointments and perceived failures to achieve perfection. They have learned that others really would not understand their high expectations, and would indeed judge them or even shame them for having such high expectations. But one day in secret and often without warning, they decide that they have lost the stamina to continue reaching for the highest stars. They realize that all of their successes and accolades over the years have not ever been “enough” to satisfy their expectations of themselves or of life. Facing this disappointment every day when they look in the mirror is just too much for them. They don’t say a word, because “no one would understand.” Therefore, many high-achieving people take their own lives in despair and utter disappointment, even at what some might say is the height of their success. There have been many celebrity deaths in recent decades which might fit this scenario.
The only lesson for those of us who have a very high-achiever in our lives is to never ever judge them for their high expectations; but to gradually give them messages that you value them for just “being,” not for “doing” nor for whatever they have achieved. “I just love your company, and would love you even if you had never achieved all the status.” “What I love is your humor, your smile, your open attitude about your anger and sadness, your willingness to just be human and have flaws.” And, if you are the one who has overly high expectations of yourself, chill out!
I began letting go of my overly high expectations of myself when I was in my late 30’s after I received my first book contract with a major publisher. I was so very proud, and thought, “Oh, my parents are finally going to be extremely proud of me!” I excitedly called them and told them the great news. There was silence at first, then they almost simultaneously said, “Well, did you get a contract for your next book?” I was stunned at first, then I threw back my head and laughed. It was literally funny to me. I had insight into why I was so hard on myself all my life, never feeling good enough. Please don’t get me wrong. My parents were wonderful, dynamic, loving people and I am actually very grateful for the high standards that they instilled in me, and for the genuine love they showed me all my life. They saw tremendous potential in me and believed that setting the bar higher was the way to bring that out. But, I have to admit the message that “You are good enough just the way you are,” was not explicitly communicated to me by them until many years later.
Adjusting your expectations of life can be a balancing act. You want expectations to be realistic but not too low. The measure of a realistic expectation is different for each individual; but know that an expectation of life or yourself which leaves you always feeling that you are not good enough indicates that your expectations are too high. By finding appreciation for yourself and your life in your current state is never wrong. Appreciation of ourselves and of life generally leads us forward and higher in life anyway; so placing some manufactured expectation on yourself is not really necessary to motivate you. What truly motivates people to fulfill their own potential is being able to appreciate oneself in the present. Then, you are able to see your potential, and move toward it with compassion for yourself when you don’t always reach the mark.
Appreciate where you are in life. Savor each moment of your life, appreciate yourself for who and what you are in the present, pay attention to the potential you begin to naturally see in yourself and in your life; and pursue your potential gently.
Christopher Kni[pers, Ph.D. August 17, 2019