Ask a Therapist: On Unrealistic Expectations
Q: I hear a lot of “shoulds” and “should nots” in my mind and I often feel like I am letting myself and others down. Can you help?
A: It is common to find ourselves thinking about all the things we “should” do and measuring our success according to whether or not we fulfill those expectations.
However, thinking something is true doesn’t necessarily make it so. It is helpful to evaluate the reasonableness of the expectation behind that “should” and to moderate our thinking and behaviour accordingly to be more balanced and healthy.
Setting unrealistic expectations or high standards is another form of cognitive distortion that doesn’t serve us well. When we set exaggerated performance criteria for ourselves we are constantly measuring our worth against those standards which can move us into an unrelenting perfectionism or self-criticism. We may also have a tendency to hold others to similar standards and thus spend time judging them and expecting them to perform according to what we have deemed acceptable or right.
Our high standard setting can also infiltrate our thinking from outside sources. We regularly assume, without evaluating, that the expectations of others should also be ours. Instead of pausing to think about the value and relevance of the expectation for our lives and circumstances specifically, we continue to live as if it cannot be challenged or changed. Of course, we do have the power to choose our way forward, even when a thought pattern is well-worn in our neurobiology. The truth is that we can form new pathways that are healthier and more compassionate to ourselves and others.
External sources of high standards can include parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, or even friends! Generally their words were not intended to discourage but our perception may be that we can’t make a mistake or fail without dire consequences. When evaluating the value or helpfulness
of a particular expectation consider the question, “who says?” Then decide if that voice in your head still matters and if you actually agree that the expectation is good. It may be that you are still trying to prove your worth against the outdated expectations of others that you have carried with you.
If you have an abundance of “shoulds”, “ought”, and “musts” coming up in your thinking or in your communication to others, you may also have a strong inner critic. In this case, you will come up with your own ways of dictating what ought to be done whether others have contributed to that thinking or not. The inner critic can be loud and highly unforgiving and shaming. Therapy can be an essential tool to help someone develop tools to manage and overcome the unhelpful critic’s voice because it is not easy to do so on your own.
While not all standards or expectations are unhelpful, some certainly are and rooting those distorted patterns out of your thought life will lead to greater mental health. When you find yourself striving to meet over-the-top expectations, consider a gentler, more gracious approach. Self-compassion – which is essentially speaking to and caring for yourself in the same way that you would for a beloved friend – can change the relationship you have with your expectations and can provide a healthier perspective on what truly ought to be heeded.
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