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Managing expectations

Do you ever find yourself confounded by how your expectations of others don’t match up with the reality? Eleanor Tucker explores our unconscious assumptions: where they come from, what they mean – and how we can manage them

by Psychologies

A few years ago, an old friend of mine, Alice, told me some exciting news – she’d got a job working for the same company as me. I was as delighted as her; we got on well socially, so I couldn’t see a downside to her being in the same office, especially as she’d be in a different department.

On her first day, we headed off to lunch together and I gave her the lowdown on the best sandwich shops. On the second day, she went out with the two women who sat near her instead, but we hooked up for a trip to the coffee shop in the afternoon. On day three, I didn’t see her at all. And that was that. From then on, she just waved at me if we happened to be entering the building at the same time.

I was disappointed; I enjoyed spending time with her and was looking forward to having someone to talk to at work who knew me in other contexts too. The fact is, I expected more from her, and I couldn’t help but take it personally. But I didn’t want to mention it, for fear of coming across as a bit desperate or needy.

Looking back, it occurred to me that the problem was perhaps mine. Were my expectations of her too high? I asked media psychologist Emma Kenny for her opinion. ‘Expectations exist because we are brought up with an egocentric perspective,’ she explains. ‘It’s about survival; in some ways, high expectations are protective as we are less likely to encounter destructive or abusive relationships with such an attitude. But the level of expectation in a relationship can mean the difference between sink or swim.’

Seeing things differently

In the case of Alice, Kenny explained that I needed to be realistic and think about her world, not just my own. ‘The majority of human beings fail to look at things from the other person’s perspective and this leads to personalising and internalising when friends or partners fail us. Instead, if we actually look at what’s going on in their lives and explore the pressures they are facing, we can de-escalate our difficult feelings and find ourselves in a more supportive context.’

Kenny was right because, after brooding for about six weeks, I managed to broach the subject with Alice on a work night out, full of Dutch courage (OK, Italian – we were drinking Prosecco). And it turned out, she had deliberately given me a wide berth because she hadn’t wanted to ‘muscle in’ on my established group of work friends, fearing she would cramp my style. I couldn’t believe how wrongly I’d read the situation.

This got me thinking about expectations. Where do they come from? And what do they say not only about the relationships we have with our friends, partners and parents, but about ourselves? I decided to ask around to find out what expectations we have – and how we feel when they’re not met.

Present danger

Travel writer Cathy Winston told me how, when she first started going out with her now-husband, he always made a big fuss about how good he was at buying presents.

‘It was Christmas and I had put a huge amount of thought into something really personal for him, while he kept giving me knowing little smiles. Then, on Christmas morning, he gave me a voucher for a massage. I was so taken aback, I said out loud, “Is that it?”’

What Cathy struggled with was the fact that, for her, the perfect present is something special that has had a lot of time and thought invested in it and demonstrates that someone knows you really well. ‘Although I do enjoy a massage, it felt like a spur-of-the-moment gift that could have been for anyone – even if that wasn’t true. What I expected from him was something that really showed we had a connection, not something I saw as generic. That’s why I felt so let down.’

Alexia Leachman, life coach and part of the Head Trash team, thinks that when we are affected like this by expectations, it’s because of how we choose to interpret what’s happened. ‘It’s common in relationships. If our other half gets us a practical birthday present, like a new set of saucepans, instead of a nice piece of jewellery, we immediately assume that they don’t love us. Whereas, in their head, they might be thinking, “She likes cooking and she’s always talking about how rubbish our saucepans are. I’ll get her a new set, she’ll love that.” They are thinking about your needs and what would make your life better – so it’s the interpretation that’s causing the issue. Once we focus on what we are grateful for – a fabulous new set of saucepans and a partner who has recognised your love of cooking – the lack of jewellery becomes less relevant.’

What about our parents? As author Harper Lee wrote: ‘You can choose your friends, but you sho’ can’t choose your family.’ She should have added that you can, however, manage your expectations of them to make life a little easier (although To Kill A Mockingbird wasn’t a self-help book). An ex-colleague of mine, Laura, knows all about this.

At her 40th birthday party, her mother said she wanted to make a speech. Laura couldn’t wait to hear it, and was ready to witness an outpouring of how proud her mother was, with some amusing anecdotes thrown in to balance out the raw emotion. ‘But instead, her mother stood up, thanked the caterers, asked who owned the Audi blocking the entrance, then wished Laura happy birthday, almost as an afterthought. She was devastated.’

Getting vocal

This is a familiar scenario to Kenny. ‘High expectations of our parents are rife in the generation that was brought up in the 1960s and 1970s. Our parents saw their job as looking after us. But we want more – for them to be vocal about their feelings. The problem is that they never had this from their own parents. We need a dialogue that we might not necessarily get, because they’re just not used to it.’

So if expectations are so crucial to the success of our relationships, how can we manage them better? Kenny suggests a reality check. ‘This involves being honest about what we put into relationships, as we often have unrealistic beliefs about what another person can do for us. Communicating our needs is also key – and unfortunately, most of us do this when we are in a reactive state. When we calmly and constructively communicate what our expectations and desires are, whether it’s to a friend, partner or parent, we can be pleasantly surprised.’

Alice and I had a reconciliatory sandwich the day after our drunken chat (which I should now perhaps call a ‘reactive state’), and we were firm work friends until I went on maternity leave the following year. But looking back, I wish I’d thought more about my expectations. As Kenny says, ‘Remember that everyone is doing the best they can and nobody is setting out to fail you. When you start to think like that, things get a lot easier.’

Photograph: iStock