Disrupting Unhealthy Expectations

How to break the negative cycles of behavior that destroy relationships

Last week we talked about the difference between healthy and unhealthy expectations. Expectations become unhealthy when they are unrealistic and have high emotional investment. When this happens and your expectations aren’t met, you will be severely disappointed.

This is why managing expectations are important. They are subconscious and invisible filters that directly impact how we perceive the world. They influence and even distort how we experience life. In this way, expectations affect our mental health.

Therefore managing expectations is an important tool we can use to pay down Emotional Debt and fits into the “Prevent” stage of PAALP (Plan-Act-Assess-Learn-Prevent).

By managing our expectations, we can interrupt cycles of severe disappointment and break negative patterns of behavior. Let’s take a look and apply this tool in the following two areas of relationships:

  • Expectations of Self

  • Expectations of Others

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Managing Expectations of Self

When we have unrealistic expectations of ourselves, we are creating an environment to tear down our self-esteem. The disappointment we feel when we fail ends up lowering our confidence and breeds self-criticism. If this cycle of negativity repeats enough, it will turn into hypercriticism and even self-hate.

One of the tools I’ve used to help break this cycle of negativity is acknowledging that there are things that I’m good at and things that I’m bad at.

In a previous letter, I shared a story that I would get angry when I played pick-up basketball and that it was rooted in having unrealistic expectations of myself. Everytime I failed to live up to my own expectations, I started beating myself up. This eventually turned into hypercriticism and low self-esteem.

I paid down this debt by reframing the expectations I had of myself. I acknowledged that I was getting older and therefore slower. I acknowledged that I was coming back from an injury and would need time to practice. By recognizing my biological and physical limitations, I realized it was unrealistic for me to think I could go back to the level I was playing at before.

Another tool I used to help break this cycle of negativity was positive self talk. Rather than beating myself up everytime I made a mistake, I told myself that it was okay to make a mistake. That I just needed to practice more. That I’ll do better next time. By replacing hypercriticism with positive self-talk, I was able to enjoy pickup basketball again.

Managing Expectations of Others

When we have unrealistic expectations of others, we are damaging the relationship. Our disappointment seeps into the way we interact and view the other person. The damage we inflict on others can be especially harsh if we hold positions of power such as a being a boss, parent, or a significant other.

However, the disappointment can affect us as well. It can breed anger, frustration, and resentment in the relationship because from our perspective the other person is constantly letting us down.

Explore the Expectation

One of the tools I’ve used to break this negative relational pattern is to ask myself, “Why do I have this expectation? What is it that I really want from them?”

The reason for this is that expectations communicate desire. For example:

I expected you to do the dishes.

This statement isn’t about the dishes. It more tied to the feeling of disrespect or perhaps sense of betrayal because they did not keep their promise. Therefore what this expectation really is communicating was a desire for respect.

I expected you to be there for me.

This statement expresses a deeper issue of not feeling cared for. Therefore what this expectation really is communicating is a desire to be loved.

I expected you to get straight A’s this semester.

This statement sets a high standard based around performance between a parent and a child. If you’re Asian, you’re probably very familiar with this expectation. The underlying desire that is being communicated is that the parent wants what is best for the child. Another one could be to build up a good reputation as a parent amongst their peers.

Accept Their Limitations

The next step in this process is to develop a realistic and objective perspective of what the other person can or can’t do. This is crucial. If we don’t do this, then we are introducing unfair standards into the relationship and creating an environment engineered to foster disappointment and criticism.

The truth is sometimes people simply can’t do what we want or need. Sometimes this is something they can work on and sometimes it’s not. Accepting this truth will help to decide whether to continue with the relationship or move on.


By discovering the underlying desire of our expectations and understanding the limitations of the other person, we can strategize ways to prevent negative cycles within the relationship from recurring. This can include:

  • Finding alternative ways the other person can meet your desires.

  • Accepting that it isn’t possible for the other person to meet your expectations.

  • Ending the relationship.


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