Have you been here?
You’ve been working for your boss for quite a few years. Everyone is saying you’re on the career fast track. Your boss trusts you. You know this because they come and ask your opinion on things way over your pay grade.
The time of year when promotions are handed out is approaching.
You begin to imagine sitting down for that conversation and hearing you are a shoe-in for the manager role.
You start to think about what you’ll change once you get that official manager title. How you’ll start coaching junior team members who are currently technically your peers. How you’ll work on the team culture. How you’ll help take things off your bosses plate.
You also start to think about how you’ll spend that extra pay check. How you’ll upgrade your wardrobe. How you’ll be able to drive in once a week instead of public transport.
Then the performance review conversation comes:
“I don’t think now is the right time to put in your business case.”
Of course, this hurts in the moment. You thought you were ready. So you deal with that mismatch in expectation. You ask your boss what development areas you need to work on for the promotion.
But somehow, in the days and week after that conversation, work is just that little bit harder.
You show up at work the week after promotions and suddenly all your colleagues’ questions seem like interruptions instead of opportunities to coach. Your boss asking for your opinion seems like taking advantage of your time when you’re not earning enough to be responsible for those decisions. Your work on improving the monthly team meeting seems like a project that the “actual boss” should be doing.
All of these things that seemed like opportunities before you were let down now feel like burdens.
What happened? And why is it so hard to flip back the switch?
The expectation build up
As we go through life, we create expectations about everything we do. No matter how careful we are not to “get our expectations up”, it’s something we can’t avoid doing.
We decide we are going to do something in the future. We develop at least a rough idea of what we expect that experience will be like. It happens everywhere:
Friendships: We meet someone and begin to build an idea of who they are.
Romantic relationships: We marry someone and begin to build ideas about who they will be, how they will behave and what they’ll help out with around the house.
Careers: We start a job and we begin to build ideas about what we should be responsible for, what we are good at and what people *should* recognise about us.
Now there’s nothing wrong with having expectations. Expectations help us assess whether an opportunity is going to meet our needs or move us closer to our goal. They also give us motivation to push toward things we expect will be good.
However, one of the issues with expectations is that they tend to hang around, especially when they go unmet.
Again, this in itself is not a problem. We can deal with unmet expectations from time to time.
The problem comes when we let unmet expectations build up over time.
When we only deal with part of our expectations
If we’re self-aware, we do deal with part of our expectations. We identify thoughts we had that are our own personal expectations, not a given right. We give ourselves a pep talk about why we need to let go of these expectations. Sometimes we talk to others about why our expectations weren’t met and how we can change this in the future — either by setting our expectations differently or asking the other person to behave differently.
But I think often there are layers of expectations that we don’t recognise and deal with as easily.
When we don’t get the promotion we expected, it reveals our motivations behind all those “development” tasks were tied with the promotion.
When our partner doesn’t do the housework the way we expected, it reveals we expected our home to be a certain way and now it’s not.
When someone doesn’t accept feedback the way we expected, it reveals we hoped to influence their behaviour more than was in our control.
And then we have to deal with those things that aren’t the way we expected them to be.
The consequences of unmet expectations
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” - Proverbs 13:12 NIV
If our expectations fall through repeatedly, we build up all of these broken expectations that can weigh heavily on us. We tend to store these unmet expectations in our head, perhaps as a way of “learning” from them. But by just keeping them in our head, it becomes less of a lesson and more of a way of score keeping and comparison in our life, career and relationships.
Not only that, but the things we were doing in anticipation of what we were expecting become reminders of being let down and having our hope deferred. So not only do we store these unmet expectations but we constantly rehearse them as we are reminded of them or the situations are repeated.
This heaviness can contribute to a sense of languishing. It can cause us to lash out at our partner or colleague when our expectations are contravened yet again. And it can cause us to let go of bigger dreams.
Hit the reset button
If this is resonating with you, can I encourage you to reset your expectations?
Even when others are responsible for what happened, and even when we know we need to have those hard conversations to get our expectations met next time, there is still work for us to do in resetting our expectations.
The reason why a new relationship or new job feels so much easier is, at least in part, because they are both unburdened by the disappointment of unmet expectations.
We can reset our expectations for our existing relationship or job, or whatever other area of life where we have built up a burden of unmet expectations.
Each of these steps works really well for journalling, but if you aren’t much of a writer, you can also do a mind map or run through the exercises verbally on a voice note or by talking to yourself out loud. I do recommend actually putting these thoughts out there, not just running through this in your head. By writing or speaking these things out, you keep yourself accountable to actually completing the whole process and you can let go of having to keep track of these things in your head. Which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid.
1. Recognise where the burden lies
The first step is to recognise where a burden of unmet expectations lies. You will be able to detect these where you feel frustrated with a scenario, where you feel you want a do-over in an area of your life, or where you have lost motivation for something that used to be highly motivating.
2. Acknowledge what the expectations were
Once you’ve identified an area of heavy unmet expectations, acknowledge exactly what those expectations were. Write, mind-map or speak out a list of the expectations you had.
Listing out these expectations helps get them out of our head. But also sometimes we realise that our list when written or spoken is shorter than it feels when it’s in our head. This already starts to lighten the burden.
You might want to do this two or three times spaced out over time (over a morning, afternoon and evening sitting, or on three separate days) just to make sure we catch all the expectations. Sometimes after we list the obvious ones, we recognise some deeper, less obvious expectations that are actually weighing even more heavily on us.
3. Uncover the identity associated with these expectations
Usually our expectations are tied to some kind of identity. Housework expectations linked to our identity as a “tidy person.” Career expectations tied to our identity as a “high achiever.” Relationship expectations not only tied to our identity as “not just a housewife” but also our perception of our spouse's role in our life or our perception of their identity.
This is part of why unmet expectations weigh so heavily. They are confirming or denying parts of our identity which can be painful to have confirmed or denied.
This step is about noting what identity is being confirmed or denied by each of the expectations you’ve listed. You can do this by writing an identity that you associate with each expectation next to that expectation (e.g. “I thought I would be a manager by now” = denies my high achiever identity; “I thought my spouse would clean the house while I was out but they didn’t” = denies an equal partnership identity). Or you can flip it and write down what you believe about yourself and then identify which expectations confirm or deny those beliefs.
4. Reflect on which expectations are worth keeping
Not every unmet expectation is a wrong expectation. Some things were worth hanging out for, even if they didn't come to pass. So next we will go through each of our expectations and assess whether it is worth keeping now.
This is not about whether the thought was “good” or “bad” in a black and white sense. Instead, in two stages we will identify the expectations that are actually useful to pull us toward the kind of person we want to be.
The first stage is to take your list of identities and expectations and weigh up which identities are actually important to us. If we used to think we had to be a high achiever to be useful, but we’ve realised that’s someone else’s definition of success rather than our own, that helps us realise that expectations associated with being a high achiever are no longer serving us.
Then, once we’ve figured out which identities we actually care about, we should reflect on the expectations associated with those identities to check whether those expectations are realistic or useful. For example, if being in an equal partnership is important to us, is it actually realistic or useful for your partner to have the same standards and approach to tidying the house as you?
5. Act on the expectations
Once you’ve inventoried your expectations, you can act on them. You will have three different categories of expectations by now:
Expectations associated with an identity that’s not important to you
Expectations associated with an identity that’s important to you but that isn’t served well by that specific expectation
Expectations associated with an identity that’s important to you and is served by that particular expectation
For categories 1 and 2, you will need to go through a process of letting go. Sometimes just recognising these expectations don’t serve you is enough. Sometimes you will need to allow yourself to grieve those identities and associated expectations that you were holding close even though they didn’t reflect who you consciously wanted to be. Take sometime to do this. And recognise that any emotions associated with letting go may come up again. When they do, you can remind yourself why you don’t need to carry those expectations and identities any more.
For category C, you will most likely want to keep these expectations. However, if something has already happened to let you down in these areas, you will need to take some action.
Often this involves having an honest conversation with the second party to the expectation. Talk to your boss about why you haven’t been promoted. Discuss with your partner how you’re going to split the housework.
Or you may need to create a plan for yourself to increase the chances of success next time.
And other times it might be about holding onto hope for just a bit longer, despite evidence to the contrary.
6. Create your reset scenario
And that is where the last step comes in handy. Once you’ve reduced your expectation burden and removed the ones that aren’t serving you and had the conversations where someone else needs to help you, you can create a reset scenario.
This scenario is a statement that you use to remind yourself to hold your expectations lightly in the moment.
For example, you might want to picture what it would be like to approach a situation as if it was new. You'd do this by asking yourself: “If this was a new X (job, relationship, class, etc) how would I respond?”
Another scenario you might use is reminding yourself that life doesn't happen on a standardised timeline. You can do this by saying: "I'm not behind schedule. Every individual's path is different."
Or you can come up with your own scenario and reminder that you want to use to lighten the load of expectations.
Now, if you haven't done the work in steps 1-5, step 6 is going to feel a lot like toxic positivity. So if that's how you're feeling, I'd encourage you to go back to the first five steps again.
Optional: Keep on top of your expectations
Now you definitely can reset your expectations on a periodic basis such as once a year or once a quarter. But you can also reduce the amount of expectations you build up by addressing them more often.
One approach to this might be to keep a log of expectations in a journal. Each day write down 1-3 things you were anticipating that day (not just events you expected to happen that day, but also things that expect for the future that you thought about that day). Make a quick note of which identity these expectations are serving and whether they are denying or confirming that identity.
This reflection can help you stay conscious of how your expectations are shaping your response to the present and hold those expectations a little more loosely.
One last thing
In this article I talked a lot about resetting our expectations of our workplaces and relationships. We should also reset our expectations of ourselves. And we should reset what we think others expect of us too.
You’ll know if you need to do this if you notice yourself using “I should…” sentences a lot.
The process here is the same:
Recognise where you have burdened yourself with unmet expectations
Identify what these expectations are
Acknowledge exactly what these expectations were with identity statements
Reflect on which expectations you want to let go of and which you want to keep
Act on the expectations you want to keep
Create your reset scenario with a new identity statement
Go, free of unmet expectation
All up these six steps will take between 15 and 60 minutes. If you do this once a quarter, that is four hours to walk through your year a little less burdened by expectations that may not actually be serving you.
"Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?” - Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
If you resonated with the story at the start of this article and want to assess whether your expectation of a promotion to a new leadership role is realistic, you can download my promotion readiness self-audit here.