The Cost of Unrealistic Expectations

Dr. Mansoor Ahmad ✉

The goal of success is often accompanied by the common advice to work hard and aim high. But when we take a closer look at how we think and how society operates, we find a more complex picture. Yes, hard work is crucial for achieving our goals, but setting our expectations too high can backfire. It can lead us down a path filled with emotional struggles, insecurities, and sadness, and sometimes even cause our relationships to fall apart.

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The Dual Nature of Expectations

Having high expectations, especially when they are realistic and supported by a solid work ethic, can indeed push us to achieve great things. This combination can act as a powerful engine, driving us towards our goals and helping us reach levels of excellence we might not have thought possible. However, the danger lies in letting our ambitions grow beyond what is realistically achievable. When our dreams and goals inflate to the point where they are no longer grounded, we risk setting ourselves up for a host of emotional and psychological difficulties.

Take, for example, the story of Elizabeth Holmes founder of Theranos, a now-defunct health technology company that promised to revolutionize blood testing by making it more accessible and comprehensive with just a few drops of blood. For a period, Holmes was hailed as an innovator and received vast amounts of investment.

Holmes harboured the ambition to revolutionize the healthcare industry with a groundbreaking device that aimed to make blood testing significantly easier and more comprehensive. Her vision and the company's promises attracted massive investments, and for a time, Holmes was celebrated as a visionary. However, the technology Theranos promised was fundamentally flawed and failed to deliver on its lofty promises. The fallout from these unmet expectations was catastrophic, leading to one of the most dramatic corporate downfalls in recent history. This episode starkly illustrates how ambitions that are not anchored to the practicalities and possibilities of real-world science and technology can lead to monumental failures.

In a similar vein, the entertainment industry is littered with tales of individuals whose high expectations brought them more sorrow than joy. Consider the iconic Marilyn Monroe, she was a legendary actress and cultural icon of the mid-20th century, known for her beauty, talent, and charisma. Despite her success and public adoration, Monroe battled with personal demons, insecurities, and a pervasive sense of unhappiness.

Her story is often cited as a cautionary tale about the costs of fame and the discrepancy between public success and personal fulfilment. Monroe's life underscores the idea that societal markers of success, like fame and wealth, do not necessarily equate to happiness or contentment, highlighting the complex nature of human satisfaction and the importance of inner peace.

Both examples underline a critical lesson, while ambition and high expectations can be forces for good, driving us towards personal and professional achievements, they must be tempered with a sense of realism and self-awareness. Unchecked expectations, especially those detached from the realities of our circumstances or the limits of current technology, can lead us into cycles of disappointment, unhappiness, and even despair. The challenge, then, is to pursue our ambitions with vigour while remaining firmly grounded in the practicalities of our environment and our own limitations.

Impact on relationships

When we set the bar too high in any area of our lives, the fallout isn't just about our own disappointment or sense of failure. These unrealistic expectations can also weave their way into our relationships, affecting how we interact with those closest to us. This is especially true in romantic partnerships, where expecting a partner to meet every single one of our emotional, psychological, and even material needs is both unrealistic and unfair.

In societies that value individual achievement and personal fulfilment above all else, there's a trend towards placing immense pressure on romantic relationships. We often look to our partners to be our best friends, passionate lovers, career advisors, and more—all rolled into one. While it's natural to seek support and companionship from a partner, believing they can be the sole provider of all our needs places an unsustainable burden on the relationship.

The result of these unrealistic expectations can be a deep-seated dissatisfaction. Over time, this dissatisfaction can erode the foundation of the relationship, leading to constant frustration and resentment. In many cases, this dynamic is a significant factor contributing to the increasing rates of divorce and separation in highly individualistic cultures. When the reality of a partner's capabilities falls short of the lofty expectations set upon them, it is not just the relationship that suffers; both individuals can feel a profound sense of failure and disappointment.

How to find a Balance?

The antidote to the pitfalls of high expectations is not a renunciation of ambition but a recalibration of our aspirations. Herein lies the art of setting 'realistic expectations' – goals that challenge and inspire us but remain anchored in the realms of possibility. This approach enables us to embrace the journey of hard work without becoming disillusioned by the outcomes.

Mindfulness and gratitude practices offer powerful tools for cultivating contentment with the present while striving for future goals. By grounding ourselves in the moment and appreciating our current achievements, we can guard against the discontent bred by constantly looking ahead.

Moreover, embracing the philosophy of 'detached involvement'—investing fully in our endeavours while detaching from the outcomes—can lead to a more fulfilling life. This perspective allows us to experience the joy of effort without being overshadowed by the fear of failure.

A Blueprint for Happiness

The secret to a happy life lies not in the relentless pursuit of high expectations but in finding joy in the journey towards our goals. By embracing hard work, setting realistic expectations, and cultivating a mindset of gratitude and detachment from outcomes, we can navigate the tightrope between ambition and contentment. In doing so, we not only safeguard our emotional well-being but also open the door to a life marked by genuine happiness and fulfilment.

The writer is a  Ph.D. in Psychology

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