The Art of Managing Expectations: Why It Matters
In a world driven by narrow definitions of ambition, desires, and endless possibilities, it’s no major surprise that managing expectations is becoming a vital conversation we need to be having.
It’s been a topic I’ve covered with clients in workshops and 1:1 coaching since I first set up, but I’ve noticed it’s come into sharp focus over the last two years. It’s also a path I’ve needed to walk for myself as well.
What are you trying to live up to?
I don’t think I always recognised the impact of expectations, nor would I have labeled them as that. They’re sort of, just, there. The expectation of school reports, exam results, career decisions, relationships, day to day interactions…they’ve all been there.
Last year I went to a spa for the day with some family. My Auntie chuckled on the WhatsApp group that I would be rocking up with my organised weekend bag neatly packed with compartments and bags within bags, whereas one of my sisters would be there with her bag for life if we were lucky. We all take the joke, but it speaks volumes about the expectations our family has for each of us.
They can be overwhelming, tough to live up to, hard to move past and be a source of exhaustion and resentment. They’re not all bad of course and we have our own experiences with them – but this has been mine.
I will often hear examples from clients that include (but definitely not limited to):
- Feeling like they can hold on to the routines they had whilst on parental leave
- That returns are meant to be difficult
- Careers with families are tricky / not an option
- Solo parents will have extended family support networks
- Parental burnout isn’t something to talk about in the workplace
- You don’t need support with older children
And of course, we could sit here and a) pick apart why all of those are damaging and b) list a million more. But for now, let’s not do that. Let’s have a look at what the transformation is when we DO take time to manage expectations…
Why it matters
1. Cultivating positive relationships
We can probably agree that cracking communication and understanding are the pillars of healthy relationships, can’t we?. When we manage our expectations, we set the stage for open and honest dialogue with others. By clearly expressing our needs and boundaries while understanding perspectives of others, we foster an environment of mutual respect and trust. This enables us to navigate potential conflicts with empathy and compromise, ultimately strengthening our connections and reducing disappointments.
These relationships that are going to thrive happen in the workplace, at home, with friends – pretty much whatever type of relationships you have in your life.
2. Enhancing career success
Expectations play a pivotal role in our professional lives. By managing them effectively, we can set realistic goals and work towards them with clarity and focus. Unrealistic expectations often lead to frustration and demotivation when our ambitions are not met. I doubt it’s a great surprise to many of you when I say this is a frequent conversation I have with parents in the workplace. ‘I need to hit the ground running’ or ‘I need to be back up to speed within the first week’ are phrases that send a shiver down my spine for all the wrong reasons.
By setting achievable milestones and acknowledging the incremental progress we make, we cultivate a positive mindset that fuels our drive to excel. Specifically managing expectations in the workplace fosters better collaboration, effective teamwork, and improved overall performance. Who doesn’t want a bit of that for EVERYBODY in their team, we don’t have to badge this as a parent only issue.
3. Reducing Stress and Anxiety
Unrealistic expectations can create a breeding ground for stress and anxiety. I looked through feedback from Strong Returns® over the last few years, coaching notes and other workshop feedback that had audiences of parents further into the work life juggle and there was a clear theme – out of hand expectations were causing anxiety.
When we set overly high standards for ourselves or others, we place undue pressure on everyone involved. This can lead to a constant sense of inadequacy, fear of failure, and an overwhelming feeling of being overwhelmed. That’s a lot of overwhelm we don’t need.
By managing expectations, we can set reasonable benchmarks that reflect our capabilities and circumstances. This empowers us to approach challenges with a calmer mindset, reduce stress levels, and help us manage that tricky imbalance that life faces us with.
4. Promoting emotional wellbeing
Expectations have a profound impact on our emotional well-being. When we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves or others, we increase the likelihood of disappointment and frustration. This negative emotional response can overshadow our accomplishments and hinder personal growth.
The aim here isn’t that we remove emotions. It’s important to remember they can co-exist, side by side even when they seemingly look to be opposites. However, we do want to keep them in check. By embracing a more realistic and flexible mindset, we create space for self-compassion and acceptance.
Managing expectations helps us appreciate the journey (I know, I know, I need a less cheesy word but I’ve got nothing right now) rather than fixating solely on the outcome, allowing us to experience greater contentment and fulfilment.
5. Fostering resilience and adaptability
Life is unpredictable, and things don’t always go as planned. That’s one of the earliest expectations I WISH I’d have clocked. It set me up to be a recovering perfectionist for (probably) the rest of my life to be quite honest.
By managing our expectations, we develop resilience and adaptability, crucial skills for navigating the ups and downs of life. When we accept that setbacks and obstacles aren’t unusual, we become better equipped to adjust our expectations and bounce back from adversity.
This resilience enables us to embrace change, learn from our experiences, and grow stronger in the face of challenges.
What can we do for ourselves then?
A managed expectation sets us up to empower ourselves to communicate wonderfully, reduce stress levels, and promote emotional well-being. But where to start? Well, as lots of you know I like to keep things practical. Here are some of the coaching questions and ideas I continue to test myself and with clients:
- Define in as much gorey detail as possible what expectations you’re carrying. Sometimes they’re hanging in the ether and we don’t actually give ourselves the courtesy of bringing clarity. When we actually say these things out loud or write them down, it can take a bit of the sting out. I have one client who voice notes things a lot – she finds they hit harder when she hears them rather than having them whirring around her mind.
- Are they true? Are they 100% true? There’s a lovely booked called Captain Snout and the Superpower Questions (other retailers are available) that’s technically geared towards children, but trust me when I say adults will take a lot from it too! You don’t need to invest any cash of course, the premise of the book is that we sometimes need to challenge our unhelpful automatic negative thoughts. Is that 100% true as the chaser to a sharp expectation statement can be just the thing to stop us in our tracks.
- What would you say to a friend? A very favourite question in my neck of the woods. We’re often kinder to others than we are to ourselves aren’t we? So why not take a step back and give yourself the treatment you would a pal. We’d probably spot the inner critic, the harsh words we ply ourselves with and the unrealistic expectations, a heck of a lot quicker and with more compassion. It’s time to be our own friend.
- What does it look like in practice? Take yourself for a walk down the path ‘this is what it would look like in reality to live up to this expectation’. Paint it in glorious (if a little painful) technicolour. We do sometimes have to live the reality to actually spot the pain points. Hopefully what follows is some gentle action to put in boundaries / have some conversations / face into where an expectation is coming from.
This isn’t an overnight fix kind of situation (sorry). It could however be a beautiful, albeit messy, work in progress. I think it’s important that we MANAGE OUR EXPECTATIONS WITH THAT!! Caps fully intended there.
Wherever you’re up to with your expectations I hope this gives you inspiration to challenge. Maybe even a bit of validation if you’re in need of it? Let me know if you have any questions and if you need support on setting boundaries you can head to the Parent Support hub for further resources.