When Your Expectations Make You Unhappy, Do This

Should is a dangerous word. 

Whenever I catch myself saying life should be a certain way, I pause and quickly challenge that thought. I know it’s an unhealthy place to be. When we stew in what life should be like, we dodge responsibility for changing what life is currently like. 

“Should” language often arises from our expectations. And our expectations have a tricky way of compounding our unhappiness.

Not only do we add misery to ourselves by focusing on the gap between reality and our expectations, but we stay in that space, zapping ourselves of the power to change anything. 

Maybe, your expectations about your marriage, your work, your kids, your finances, etc. is draining you of hope and joy because it’s not a reality.

Your expectations do not have to be a source of dread and stress for you. When you notice your expectations are making you unhappy, do these three things:

1. Take inventory of your reference points.

Imagine eating a bag of potato chips while a can of sardines sat on the table in front of you. You might not think anything of it, but your brain would actually enjoy the chips more while the sardines are there.

This happens because your brain is constantly building standards and comparing things to that standard. If a piece of chocolate were on the table instead of sardines, you would enjoy the chips less. This is because your brain would be comparing the chips to the chocolate. 

Research proves that these reference points are powerful for day to day enjoyment of life. 

Studies reveal that you would not enjoy your life as much if you didn’t have much money but watched celebrities on television enjoy their money. Our reference points influence our expectations of life.

To change your expectations, take inventory of your reference points. If you’re upset that you’re not as rich as the people you watch on television, maybe change the channel. If you’re upset you’re not as thin as the people you follow on social media, follow more diverse people.

Gain awareness of where your expectations are coming from, and you’ll gain the power to change them.

2. Shift your thinking.

Not everyone has the power to change their reference points. For instance, people might work with people who have much more money than they do. 

When you can’t control where your expectations are flowing in from, you can change your thinking.

Our minds assign meaning to events and circumstances. Our circumstances are neutral, but the thoughts that we think about our circumstances are what cause our emotions. This is why it’s critical to challenge our thoughts.

Researcher, Sonja Lyubomirksy, discovered that our circumstances only affect 10% of our overall happiness, while our thoughts and actions affect a whopping 40%. It is how we interpret neutral events that matters. 

What are ways you can challenge your thoughts?

First of all, you can reframe how you view the circumstance and shift your view to something more constructive. 

For instance, instead of sitting in the negativity of your financial situation, you can try and look for something you can learn from your situation.

So often we want to complain about unlucky the hand we’ve been given in life is. But this isn’t a constructive place to be with our thinking. 

Stop complaining that the hand you have is not a winning hand. Instead, start asking, “How can I win with the hand I’ve been given?”

Another way to challenge your thoughts about a circumstance is to look at what you have to own in a situation. Oftentimes, when we stew in the negativity of our unmet expectations, we want to point fingers at how others have done us wrong. 

But when we look to take ownership, we can give ourselves an escape route out of our negativity. 

Shift your thinking about your unmet expectations. Instead of blaming others or stewing in an unconstructive space, challenge your thoughts to be happy even though your expectations are unmet.

3. Identify your values.

Our expectations are often formed by other people in our lives. 

Your neighbors might have a fancy car, which gives you the expectation that you should have a fancy car as well. Or, you might want your marriage to be exactly like what you see in your friend’s marriage. 

But here’s the catch: they are living their life, and you are living your life.

You might meet your expectation of getting a fancy car like your neighbor, but it might not make you as happy as you might think. You might finally live the romance you see on Hallmark movies to find yourself annoyed by it.

This is because you have values that are different than other people’s values.

When you ignore your values, you end up following other people’s dream life instead of your own. But their dream life is not your dream life.

Keep your values front and center. And when unmet expectations dissatisfy you, ask yourself, “is that really what I value?”

You only live the life you want by paying attention to your values, not someone else’s. 

Change Your Expectations, Change Your Life

I do not think all expectations are bad. You might hear spiritual teachers saying to let go of all attachments because expectations are the source of unhappiness, but I don’t believe that’s the case.

I believe expectations can fuel our sense of justice in the world. Our vision of what life could be inspires fresh action in our businesses, our relationships, and our impact.

However, when we sit in the negativity of unmet expectations, we don’t help ourselves. We only hurt ourselves by compounding our negativity. 

Change how you interpret your unmet expectations, and you can change your life for the better.

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