How To Lower Your Expectations (But Not Your Standards)

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High expectations will ruin your peace and happiness.

That’s a bold opening statement, isn’t it?

But high expectations are often unreasonable expectations.

You think you should be able to do a particular thing. Why shouldn’t you be able to?  You’ve done something similar before.

You know that your partner should have done that other thing differently. Why wouldn’t they? Don’t they know better?

Life wasn’t supposed to work out that way! You put in so much work, and it all just evaporates in an instant because things didn’t go how you predicted! How is that fair?

It’s not fair, but few things are in the major scheme of things.

The bedfellow of high expectations is high standards. Shouldn’t you have high standards? Shouldn’t you strive for the best? Don’t you deserve the best?

Not really. To say that anyone “deserves” the best is entitlement. Why do you deserve the best? Why do your deserve better than other? There’s always someone or something better; better looking, better paid, better skilled, better talented, better, better, better. There’s always someone better.

Everyone always talks about the best, being the best, having the best, or trying their best, but people rarely talk about what happens when your best isn’t that good. Sometimes it isn’t going to be. You can do your best and still fail. You can do your best and suck at what you’re doing. You may also just be wrong about how you’re going about it.

So, what’s the best way to approach expectations and standards?

Low expectations, reasonable standards.

Why should I have low expectations?

Every person has a metaphorical emotional battery. That battery is tapped for energy every time your emotions come into play. Positive emotions typically help recharge it. Negative emotions typically deplete it.

Therefore, we want to recharge our battery and conserve our energy to be there for us when we need that power. You don’t want to drain yourself dry by constantly churning through negative emotions, which can be far easier said than done if you live with depression or anxiety.

So what happens when your expectations aren’t met? Do you feel happy? Joyful?

Probably not.

You probably feel sad, angry, or disappointed that things did not go how you expected them to go.

You spend valuable emotional energy every time you don’t reach that bar of your expectations. And if your bar is too high, you’re going to spend a lot of time disappointed, angry, sad, or upset.

On the other hand, if your bar is low or barely existent at all, it’s just another thing that happens. You don’t have to get sad or upset about it. It’s just a problem to deal with, and then you move on to the next thing.

Do I need to spend emotional energy on this particular thing? How does investing in my emotions help me? Does it help me accomplish my goals or meet my needs? You can still pursue whatever goals or needs you have without the emotional investment.

Low expectations are invaluable for maintaining your peace when dealing with people. The fact of the matter is that people are messy creatures. Many of them just aren’t that good. So it shouldn’t be all that surprising when someone doesn’t do the right thing or makes a bad decision. Unfortunately, bad decisions are really easy to make.

But what about reasonable standards?

Standards, which can otherwise be stated as boundaries, are about defining what you are willing to accept. It’s a line that you draw in the sand where you say, “This is the line. Do not cross it. If you cross it, there will be a consequence for that.”

That is different than an expectation. An expectation is actively projecting those lines and barriers out on other people. The problem is that you can’t, and shouldn’t, try to control what other people do. Chances are pretty good that you don’t want other people telling you how to conduct your life, right?

Let me illustrate this through an example.

“I expect you to be faithful in this relationship and not lie to me.” That certainly sounds like a reasonable expectation, but it’s still an expectation. You’re defining your partner’s behavior through this expectation. And what happens when that expectation is not met?

“I won’t be in a relationship with someone who is unfaithful or lies to me.” That’s a standard, a boundary. Instead of communicating what you expect the other person to do, you’re clearly stating what you find unacceptable and the consequence of that action. You resolve yourself of the other person’s choices and decision-making because you can’t control them. It’s not yours to own.

The reasonable standard puts the responsibility of the other person’s behavior in their own hands, where it belongs.

“I expected you to be better.” And now you’re sad and disappointed because they aren’t.

And yes, it’s still going to hurt if your partner betrays your trust, but the emotional load is different between those two perspectives. It shouldn’t be a great surprise when someone does the wrong thing. The wrong thing or nothing is what people most often do.

8 Ways To Lower Your Expectations

1. Never assume.

Never assume that a situation will work out. Never assume that a person will make the right choice and do the right thing. Never assume that the thing is handled, and you can ignore it.

Try to catch yourself when you’re making assumptions and replace those thoughts. Instead, think something like, “I need to wait and see how this is going to go.”

The truth is that humans are terrible at predicting things. And ‘assumption’ is really just another word for prediction. Remind yourself that you, too, are lousy at making predictions.

Focus more on staying in the present that you’re dealing with. Mindfulness is a helpful practice for battling assumptions.

2. Avoid thinking in transactional terms.

Fight feelings and thoughts of being owed anything. No one is owed or owes anything to anyone. Other people don’t, life doesn’t, the world doesn’t.

It doesn’t matter how much you give to others, how kind and generous you are, how great a friend you are. Other people may not appreciate it or even realize how much you are doing for them or how you are putting yourself out.

Avoid giving or doing anything in the belief that you will get something back in return. Life rarely works that way.

Often, we get what we’re given, and we just have to learn to be happy with that. The good news is that it is possible to be happy with very little when you aren’t thinking about how everyone is letting you down, and life is screwing you.

3. Embrace gratitude.

Gratitude is so powerful for shifting your mindset. It helps you focus on what you have and the things that you can actually touch. That helps you adopt a more positive, accepting perception of the world around you.

To go back to the previous example, no one wants to be cheated on and have their relationship crumble. However, it’s much easier to let go of that anger if you can instead focus on being grateful that you had the opportunity for the experience with them, all that you learned in that relationship, and that this end signals a new beginning.

Unmet expectations always lead to ill-feeling, while gratitude is itself a positive feeling. The two can’t exist at the same time.

4. Contemplate the worst-case scenario.

In the philosophy of Stoicism, there exists a practice called “negative visualization.” The idea behind negative visualization is to contemplate how things can go wrong, so you are already emotionally prepared to deal with them should they occur.

Instead of having that negative situation sprung on you out of nowhere, you’ve already thought about it, already have a plan, and you’re ready to find an alternative path to success if required.

For example, “I’m going to get this job because I interviewed in-house for it, I’m qualified, and I’m a hard worker.” But what if you don’t? You can pull that expectation back by contemplating not getting the job and your plan for moving forward.

5. Remind yourself that you have no control over the outcome.

Borrowing again from the philosophy of Stoicism, we have no control over the outcome. You can pour your heart and soul into a particular thing, and it just doesn’t work out. Maybe you mistimed it. Maybe you did a lot of hard work incorrectly. The reason is irrelevant.

What’s important is that hard work and high expectations don’t necessarily mean bountiful results. Do your best, as good as your best is, but don’t invest your thoughts into the payoff of what you’re doing.

Sure, it feels great when you succeed. But it’s also devastating when you don’t. And what good is that?

The key mental switch to make is to de-couple cause and effect; specifically, where you are the cause and someone or something else is the effect.

For example, you may perform some grand gesture of love for someone in the belief that they will see it and want to be with you. But the cause (the grand gesture) may have no bearing on the effect (them wanting to be with you) if they simply don’t feel that way about you.

Or perhaps you meticulously plan a vacation, researching hotels and places to visit to ensure you have a great time. But you get sick soon after you arrive and spend most of the time in bed. Your cause (the planning) did not lead to the effect you had imagined (a great vacation) because you just can’t control everything like that.

6. Don’t adopt other people’s expectations.

It’s good to question whether your expectations – specifically your high expectations – are in fact your own. Or are you taking the expectations of others or society to be your own because you aren’t thinking independently?

Perhaps you go to a restaurant or watch a movie specifically based upon the recommendations of others or hype in the media. Have you considered whether you like the type of food that restaurant serves or that genre of movie?

Has your tutor convinced you that you’re going to ace the upcoming exam because that’s what they expect you to do? Is that something either of you can guarantee?

Try not to allow yourself to believe something just because external influences believe it too. They can’t predict outcomes any more than you can.

7. Seek to empathize with and understand others.

The human struggle is real. Life is full of challenges and most people spend a good chunk of their time trying to get through those challenges. And because they are so wrapped up in their own difficulties, they may not have the time or energy to behave how you would like them to.

But by putting yourself in their shoes and trying to understand what they might be going through at any given time, you will be able to take a more realistic view of their potential actions, their behavior around you, and their treatment of you.

They might want to be a good friend or partner or whatever. They may try to live up to your expectations (knowingly or not). But they may fail on both counts because of stuff they are dealing with that takes away their attention and drains their own emotional battery.

People can only do so much for others, and it’s good to accept that fact rather than fight against it.

8. Learn from reality.

You can gradually lower your expectations by watching reality unfold and asking how it differs from your expectations. When faced with similar situations again, you can bring your thoughts back to this disparity between past expectations and past reality to bring your current expectations closer in line with your current reality.

Just try to remember that disappointment = expectations – reality. By lowering your expectations closer to reality, your disappointment will be reduced. And if you can cease to have expectations, this formula no longer has any meaning and disappointment will no longer be something you experience.

How do I set reasonable standards?

As previously pointed out, a standard is the same thing as a boundary. A reasonable standard is the same thing as a healthy boundary, so you can use any method of setting healthy boundaries that you want.

One way you can go about this is to decide what you absolutely cannot tolerate and hold yourself to that line. Your boundaries should protect your life and well-being.

“I expect my boss not to be an abusive jerk.” But you can’t control that. All you can do is define that boundary and decide what you want to do about it when it’s crossed. You could go to HR, you could push back, or you could find another job.

“I expect my partner not to cheat on me.” Again, a reasonable expectation, but something that’s entirely out of your control. Your partner is going to do what they’re going to do. All you get to choose is how you respond to it, should it happen.

Clearly defining your standards and boundaries will help you better navigate your relationships with other people and the world. So do take the time to understand what you are willing and unwilling to accept. Once you do that, you don’t really have to think about it when that boundary is crossed.

Bad things are going to happen to you. That’s why it’s so important to ensure you have a concrete, clearly defined idea of what is unacceptable to you. You don’t want to give permission to other people to treat you poorly by accepting or tolerating behavior that you find harmful to your health and well-being. That may require distancing yourself, severing contact, changing living situations, looking for a new job, or whatever else it is that needs to be addressed.

That being said, everyone is going to have some expectations. No one is ever going to perfectly fit into this neat little box where everything just kind of breezes past them. Nor should it. There are certainly times where you should be angry or upset about a bad thing happening. But the lower you can get your expectations, paired with reasonable standards, the easier it is to move past that bad thing and maintain your peace and happiness.

Still not sure how to stop having expectations of people and things? Speak to a counselor today who can walk you through the process. Simply click here to connect with one of the experienced counselors on BetterHelp.com.

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