How to Deal with High Expectations

When we talk about how to deal with “high expectations,” what do we mean? Whether we’re worried about other people’s “high expectations” of us, or are besieged by our own high expectations of ourselves, we need to know what we mean when we use this phrase.

Having worked with clients and students for many years, I’ve noticed that we are often extremely skilled at deluding and torturing ourselves. How do we do it? We speak using virtuous-sounding euphemisms for what are actually harsh and fear-inducing judgments. In my opinion, that is the case with the phrase ‘high expectations.’

The notion of high expectations seems to sync nicely with the idea of “doing your best” or “being all you can be.” Who would argue with such apparently noble ideas? Isn’t it a good thing to expect the best of yourself, or for others to expect the best of you? Maybe. But let’s take a closer look at that idea.

If you’ve ever felt stressed out and anxious at work, you’ve probably experienced the tyranny of high expectations. When someone is always looking over your shoulder to see if you are going to succeed at accomplishing their “high expectations,” this noble label doesn’t encourage or inspire you. We don’t feel at ease, or spacious, or joyfully engaged in our efforts.

So why do we buy into the idea of other people’s high expectations for us? Because we don’t allow ourselves to question this idea or walk away from it. We construct this self-imposed prison built on a general fear and lack of clarity about our life. 

This issue of high expectations comes into play at home, at work, or at school –– with family and friends, with coworkers, associates, and teachers.

It’s not much of a problem with any of our relationships with others –– as long as we have real clarity about three key aspects of our life. Gaining clarity about them makes all the difference in our world.

Gaining Clarity about Expectations: 3 Key Insights

1. Confusion about Ownership. Family and bosses often have a subtle or not-so-subtle attitude of owning you, their employee or child. In order to live an authentic life, it is crucial to recognize that no one owns you. When you are authentically yourself, you easily recognize and honor what you genuinely like and dislike. Then it’s easy to say yes to what you genuinely want to say yes to, and to say no to what you want to say no to. But if you are caught in the game of being “owned” by others, you’re like a planet orbiting around someone else’s sun. This happens when the strong habitual posture of dependency we develop in childhood encroaches on what should be our experience of Authentic Adulthood. 

If we and our parents haven’t worked together to “cut the apron strings,” we enter into adulthood still in the psychological posture of a dependent  child. We act out behavior patterns that we should have outgrown. When we are under the impression that our life is not our own, then a parent, boss, or anyone else who doesn’t honor our autonomy, can easily take advantage of our immature state. 

To gain clarity about owning your own life, first discover your genuine values and interests. Then begin to honor those values and interests by honestly expressing your authentic yes’s and your authentic no’s.

2. Confusion about Adulthood. Whether it’s a family member’s disapproval, or the prospect of a boss firing you, fear of rejection presents a powerful obstacle for many of us. But this fear only gains power when we lack clarity about our adulthood. Without this clarify we are easily pulled away from our true values and aims. So how do we live an authentic life? We practice staying present in genuine Adult consciousness. 

Of course, human “adulthood” is defined differently in an economic context than it is in the context of our psychological health. But here we are referring to adulthood as an internal framework through which we navigate our world relatively independently, with a basic sense of courage and confidence. 

So how do we know if we’re confused about our adulthood? We need look no further than the fear of rejection.

The only person for whom rejection is a real existential problem is a child. 

A child is not equipped to care for and support herself. Thus, our definition of “adult” here is one who is self-supporting and self-validating. When we go into fear of rejection, or into any fearful state, we are regressing into the psychological state of a frightened child who knows they can’t handle this experience. The child expects to be told what to do and hopes to be rescued. An Adult, however, meets the world with courage and self respect. No matter what happens, the Adult does not abandon or compromise their true values and aims.

Can you see how, if you accept being “owned” by others and thus are afraid of their rejection, the phrase “high expectations” becomes a tenacious trap? The threatened child believes that only if they perform “well” –– by living up to the high expectations of their “owners” –– can they survive!

3. Confusion about Performance. Let’s assume that you have become free from a sense of other-ownership and free from fear of rejection by others. That’s great! However, you still may lack clarity about how “you” work, what makes you tick, and how best to engage the world. You may not know what it means to you to perform at your best. And, in the absence of judgment by others, what does “your best” mean? 

When you are living as an authentic Adult, you know what your genuine interests are. Then doing your best means engaging in those activities with whole-hearted joyful focus. You are genuinely interested in your activities. You focus on them because you made a genuine choice to serve your true aim by means of this activity –– not to please or avoid displeasing someone else. As an authentic Adult, you understand that life is a learning curve and mistakes are gifts, not stigmas. 

Mistakes show you where you lack knowledge. Mistakes also alert you when you’ve lost focus and attention. Such wakeup calls can be dramatic and even painful, but they are never biased; they are not nasty, judgmental punishment. Mistakes are simply the law of cause and effect giving you feedback about how you have fallen off the learning curve. As an adult, you simply learn the lesson and begin again –– this time a bit more intelligently. You keep a sense of joyful self-encouragement. Mistakes are how we learn! The law of cause and effect is always at our side to guide us and wake us up.

As you unpack these insights you will easily leave behind worrying about fulfilling the “high expectations” of others (living in fear and confusion). You will discover and feel Life creating you and meeting you and guiding you, inwardly and outwardly, moment by moment, day by day, in every way.

Life does that! Not your parents and not anybody else, either. You are completely free to enjoy getting to know Life, your true support, while becoming your own best friend.