Growing up, you probably had caregivers or teachers who encouraged optimism because they wanted you to explore possibilities and enjoy success. Maybe they assured you it’s possible to achieve anything you set your mind to.
As an adult, though, you’ve likely encountered the harsh truth that you can’t always achieve your dreams through sheer willpower.
Experts generally consider optimism a beneficial trait. It can improve your ability to cope with stressful situations and manage physical and emotional distress.
But it’s important to recognize that optimism doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome.
You can’t control every situation in life. When your expectations for yourself — or anyone else — fall in areas outside your control, you’ll probably end up facing some disappointment.
Curious about the impact of unrealistic expectations? Looking for guidance on maintaining a more balanced perspective? You’ll find some tips below.
When do hope and optimism become unrealistic expectations? There’s no cut-and-dried answer, but looking at some common examples can offer some insight.
But first, let’s clarify what expectations are: They’re things you want to achieve or believe life will grant you.
Some of your hopes might reflect things you can absolutely achieve. For example, this would be a perfectly realistic expectation: “With good communication, my partner and I can work out most minor relationship conflicts.”
Other expectations, like the ones below, might be slightly less grounded in reality.
It’s a common belief that throwing yourself into something will yield positive results.
Maybe when you show up at work, you really show up. You come in early and stay late. You give 100 percent, volunteering to help coworkers and speaking up with new ideas.
And yet, someone with more seniority gets that promotion. When your annual review comes up, you get plenty of positive feedback but only a small salary bump.
Most people want to believe that effort pays off, and that’s understandable. Without this expectation, you might feel less motivated to try. But it just doesn’t always work out that way.
While effort can sometimes influence others, you ultimately can’t control anyone else’s choices or needs.
In social situations
Some people hold the belief that as long as they’re kind, people will like them. Kindness goes a long way, and it’s safe to assume most people will have more positive regard for a kind person than an unkind one.
But plenty of factors also affect the way people feel about others, including:
- body language
- communication styles
So, someone could respect your kindness without actually liking you.
In life, you’ll meet plenty of people who have vastly different personalities. Maybe you’re that rare person who likes everyone you meet, but this tends to be more of an exception than a rule.
At the start of a new relationship, you might find yourself thinking “I’ve never felt this way before — I don’t see how we’d ever fight.” But it happens, even in the strongest, healthiest relationships.
You and your partner are two unique people, so you won’t always agree. If you have a few opposing viewpoints, spending a lot of time together can make these differences stand out even more clearly.
The good thing about conflict is that it’s an absolutely normal — even healthy — part of relationships. After all, disagreeing means you’re comfortable enough with each other to express your opinions and frustrations.
A more realistic expectation might focus on practicing good conflict resolution to address any major disagreements.
Expectations can certainly have some benefits.
Maybe you need certain things from your relationship, like increased intimacy or more spontaneous romance. You prioritize finding ways to discuss these (realistic) expectations with your partner, which strengthens your partnership.
With less realistic expectations, you might expend plenty of effort without seeing any progress. Failing to meet an expectation — winning the lottery, falling instantly in love with the person of your dreams — can set you up for frustration, self-judgment, and potentially even depression.
Disappointment is a natural part of life, but when you consistently expect too much of yourself, you set yourself up for burnout. Continually failing to meet your own expectations can prompt guilt and shame in the shape of unhelpful beliefs, like “I’m not good enough” or “I just don’t have what it takes.”
If you feel like you’ll never be able to accomplish what you want for yourself, eventually you might stop trying.
Expecting more from others than they can realistically provide can:
- strain your relationships
- fuel conflict
- leave you angry and resentful
You might begin to lose faith in your loved ones, even when they did nothing to betray your trust.
Curious where your expectations fall?
These key signs can help you recognize patterns of unrealistic expectations:
- You feel stressed and upset when things don’t go as planned or your routine deviates slightly.
- You find plenty to criticize in yourself and others.
- You fixate on small details and find it very important to get everything right.
- When things go wrong, even in minor ways, you feel let down and frustrated.
- You have very specific visions and find it difficult to accept other possible outcomes.
- When others don’t fall in line with your plans, you feel irritated and resentful.
It’s normal to feel all of these things from time to time, but if they play a recurring role in your life, it may be time to rethink your expectations.
If you’re realizing that some of your expectations veer toward the unrealistic side of the spectrum, these pointers can help you reframe them.
Do some self-exploration
Expectations often stem from visions other people have for you. You might absorb these and carry them forward, even when they don’t really align with your personal hopes.
As you begin to reconsider your expectations in life, consider whether they truly resonate with you.
Would achieving those goals fulfill you and bring you joy? If not, you may find it easier to let go and refocus your attention on reframing the goals that really matter.
Make room to appreciate what you have
Spending most of your time focused on what you want makes it easier to lose sight of what you already have. Dogged pursuit of a dream house, a seven-figure income, or the perfect partner can leave you with little time for loved ones, hobbies, and the small joys of life.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t have goals or expectations. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with seeking happiness, a stable income, and romantic connection.
Still, spending a bit less time reaching for the future and a bit more time living in the moment could help you notice ways you’ve already met some of these broader expectations.
Focus on what you’ve achieved
When you feel frustrated with yourself for failing to meet unrealistic goals, try taking a closer look at the things you have achieved. Revisiting past accomplishments can help you keep things in perspective.
Say you want to achieve fame as a musician, but your debut album has largely gone unnoticed. You might remind yourself about the great vibe you get playing local shows, the camaraderie among your band members, and the pleasure you get from creating music. Not every musician ever releases an album, so you’ve already come pretty far.
Trying to set more realistic expectations going forward? These tips can help.
Remember: You can only control yourself
When setting an expectation, it can help to first ask yourself whether you actually have any control over the situation.
People through the ages have tried and failed to predict the whims of life. Similarly, expectations centered on what you want others to do often fall flat.
For more realistic, achievable outcomes, try keeping your focus on the areas inside your control — your own actions and choices.
Know your limits
Even with the best intentions and the willingness to put in maximum effort, you may not find it possible to improve every situation or meet every expectation.
Effort can get you closer to fulfilling your dreams, but you might need additional resources you just don’t have access to, like unlimited energy or more hours in the day. That doesn’t make you a failure, it makes you a human being with normal physical and emotional limitations.
If you fail to meet an expectation, acknowledge that you did your best and offer yourself compassion instead of blame. Don’t forget to extend this compassion to others who happen to fall short of your expectations, too.
Share your expectations
Most people have some expectations in their personal relationships. Yet when the people in your life don’t know what you want from them, they can’t do much to accommodate you.
As in most areas of life, good communication can make all the difference. Discussing your relationship needs, along with what you’re willing to contribute, can help you collaborate to create expectations that work well for everyone involved.
Keep a flexible mindset
Here’s one thing to remember about unrealistic expectations: They tend to be fairly rigid.
In reality, circumstances can change rapidly, without any warning. These changes may open some doors even as they slam others shut. The more flexible you are with your goals, the better they can accommodate life’s unpredictability.
Advice like “dream big” or “reach for the stars” comes from a good place, but it can lead to expectations that fall short of what’s realistically possible.
You don’t have to scrap all your dreams, but it’s worth exploring what you really want from those goals. You never know — perhaps you’ve already achieved it.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.