Expectations: The Root of All Unhappiness

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All of us of us have expectations.

We hold expectations of ourselves, others, circumstances, and what we want out of life in general. Managing our expectations is key to our happiness. We need to have realistic expectations, of ourselves and others, if not to be met with never-ending hurt and disappointment.

At a basic, simple level we are unhappy when our expectations of reality exceed our experience of reality (Nat Ware). 

The further away reality is from our expectations the more miserable you can expect to be.


I feel there are some common expectations held by unhappy people: that others MUST treat them well, that they should NOT have to deal with difficulty or hardship, and that they MUST do well.

This type of thinking is toxic and a recipe for misery.

Yet what about the specific expectations we hold for ourselves?

When you were a little boy or girl, did you want to grow up to be a baseball player, a super star, or a singer? At some point you probably gave up that dream for something more attainable (unless you are Derek Jeter, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Adele). When our dreams are out of reach, we feel stress, frustration, and anxiety. Many of us abandon our dreams, feeling they are impossible.

Carl Rogers, one of my favorite psychologists, referred to this gap as it relates to our self as incongruence.

Incongruence is when our desires and feelings are not aligned with our actions.

Maybe you always wanted to be a doctor but felt you can never do it and are now a med tech. You can’t bring yourself to go back to school to further your career, even though you always felt you can be more. You WANT to do more. But can’t motivate yourself to do it.

Maybe you want close relationships in your life, yet find you keep people at arm’s length. You can’t bring yourself to apologize to people you may have hurt or put yourself out there to build new relationships with people. Still–you WANT to have intimate relationships but aren’t willing to put yourself out there with people to obtain them.

Maybe you want to be healthy and in shape yet find yourself overeating and not exercising. You can’t bring yourself to change your diet or will yourself to even exercise for 15 minutes a day. You WANT to be healthy but can’t seem to muster the willpower.

Maybe you want to be financial secure yet find you are not saving enough for the future and are unwilling to live within your means. You repeatedly spend more than you should and procrastinate making a budget. You WANT to get your finances in order but can’t get your spending habits in line.

And the list goes on and on. You are in a state of incongruence when there is a gap between your ideal life and your REAL life.

Incongruence is going to cause psychological pain.

We all want our ideal self and actual experience to be consistent and overlap as much as possible. If you recognize yourself in one of the examples above, you are probably unhappy with the current state of your life.


Many psychological problems may arise when we are in a state of incongruence.

Expectations are the enemy of happiness.

We can see how our expectations of ourselves can lead to unhappiness, but what about our expectations of others?

Often our expectations of others leads to disappointment and hurt.

We all heard that the secret to happiness is LOWER expectations. Some even would probably say NO expectations is the real key to happiness in your relationships.

This is not to say you shouldn’t have standards. Standards are different from expectations. The two are not interchangeable.

A standard is a principle of how you will conduct yourself and behavior you will accept from others. It is a norm. For instance, a common standard people have is they would not scream or curse in public NOR would they find it acceptable to witness someone else engaging in such a manner. This isn’t an expectation-it is a standard of what is acceptable. Our standards are our values.

An expectation is how we would like people to behave or a situation to turn out. For example, an expectation would be if you expect your boyfriend to text you every day, regardless of how busy he is. Sure, it would be nice, but it is not a standard. It is an expectation of how you are expecting someone to ideally behave. They are more like unspoken rules. Expectations are in large part our ideals.

The reality is no one cares about our expectations except us. 

The simplest example of this truism is the golden rule. We think if we treat others well we will be treated in kind. I think we all have experienced otherwise.

The problem with expectations is they are often unspoken. You just expect people in your life to meet your expectations. But people have their own expectations that they live by which may be in conflict with yours.

Often we he hold expectations of others that we ourselves don’t even fulfill. We all have encountered someone with high expectations of others and little to no expectations of themselves.  These are the do as I say, not as I do types. Perhaps from time to time this has been you. Human nature can be hypocritical.

Nevertheless, there are going to be a few people in life whose expectations we are driven to fulfill. We try to anticipate expectations for important relationships in our lives. Most of us try to be cognizant of the expectations of our spouse, partner, boss, clients, kids.

But even in the these important relationships expectations are unmet and expectations can gradually slid into a sense of entitlement.

The problem with expectations is it can sour relationships if not managed.

As a society, we are living in a time where many who walk amongst us are profoundly unhappy.

And many of these people are unhappy by their own making: their expectations.

If you want to be happy, you are going to need to keep your expectations in check. Both of yourself and others.

Start to be mindful of the vicious expectation conflict cycle. Be mindful of how you interpret situations and other people. This is where lots of problems start since they are entirely subjective. If you identify a problem, you need to carefully consider your response. Pay mind to what you expectations are of the person AND the situation to determine if they are realistic.

If you hold an expectation of someone and they do not meet it you have a few options. You can end the relationship. You can address it. You can act passive aggressive. Or you can decide it isn’t a big deal and let it go.

All our interactions with people have the opportunity to weaken, strengthen, or remain neutral in our relationship with them.  This is why it is so important to examine your underlying expectations. You need to ask yourself  if you are being reasonable. It is reasonable to expect to be treated with civility and basic human respect. It is unreasonable to expect people to do as you expect them to do according to your rulebook. We need to be able to catch ourselves when we begin to drift into unrealistic expectations.

If it is an issue with respect or some other type of basic standard, that really isn’t a relationship you should be too concerned about, if a lack of basic respect exists. If it is a more superficial issue, remember people rarely behave exactly the way we want them to.

Remember the magnitude of unhappiness you experience will be proportionate to your thoughts and how you choose to interpret things.

As a therapist, I find many people come to counseling because their expectations of others are not being met. This is causing pain and problems for them. I work with them using CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) which focuses on changing THEIR thoughts and behaviors including their expectations. I gently remind them we can’t change others, we can ONLY change ourselves.

I find it is helpful to work with clients to improve their coping skills, tweak their expectations, and look at what role they are playing in creating unhappiness in their life.

Try taking some time to reflect on your expectations. Of yourself and others. It can be the beginning of a happier, more satisfying life.

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If you enjoyed this article and are interested in seeking counseling with me:


Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC


590 Franklin Ave.

Suite 2

Nutley, NJ 07110



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