High Expectations: How They Can Hurt You and How To Cope With Them
There is a fine line between high expectations and striving to be the best you can be. The two terms are often used interchangeably. However, one phrase is accompanied by feelings of anxiety, lack, and unneeded pressure, while the other is a form of healthy progress and personal growth.
We are led to believe in order to become great, there must be a large amount of expectations felt. But with an abundance of expectations prevalent in our lives, how do we deal with the negative thoughts and emotions they can create?
Two Types of Expectations
High expectations can disguise themselves as being necessary tools for success. Having been someone who regularly places large amounts of expectations on himself, I understand completely how untrue this belief is.
The reason expectations are often seen as important is due to the misconception that somehow they will motivate us to work harder. But more truth lies in the fact that high expectations serve a negative purpose rather than a positive one.
When high expectations are placed on us, by either ourselves or others, automatically we are in a position of stress. This is due to the reason expectations exist. We are given expectations as a measurement for reaching a certain level of success. If we fail to do so, then we have fallen short and can feel as if we’ve lost the esteem of ourselves and others.
When we go beyond healthy goal setting and the desire to better ourselves, we find expectations.
Expectations make us feel like we are not enough. There would be no need to have these expectations unless they were thought to be a sign of status, success, or worthiness. What this type of thinking results in is us tying our self-worth and sense of identity to external accomplishments.
I do not believe that all expectations are negative, only the ones that are taken to an extreme where the word high can be used to describe them. We can and should hold certain expectations about how to act and behave. That is not what I am referring to when discussing high expectations.
Rather, high expectations are usually placed on us in terms of athletics, education, or work. So, I guess you could say they are performance-based expectations. Getting a specific type of job, reaching a certain level in your sport, or getting into a top-rated school are some examples. These are all areas where high expectations are typically seen.
There are two types of high expectations that we can experience: those put on us by other people and those instilled in us by our own making.
When we feel expectations from outside of ourselves, these are known as external expectations. The typical kinds we will feel come from other people, usually those close to us, and society as a whole.
We can feel expectations put on us by our parents, teachers, bosses, or coaches. If you’ve ever dealt with these, then you know exactly how impactful they can be.
These expectations put on us by those we admire cause us to feel inadequate and unworthy unless that certain expectation is met.
External expectations can also come from society as a whole. This typically has to do with what our lives should look like by a certain age. Any alteration to the status quo can result in you feeling as if you’ve fallen short of what is expected.
Expectations that we put on ourselves are known as internal expectations. It’s hard for me to say which expectations are more difficult to deal with for other people, but I know from my own experience that internal expectations hold more weight in my mind.
The reason for this is how internal expectations are derived.
The pressure I put on myself was always much more than the pressure I felt from other people. In my mind, I had to succeed in order to feel good about myself. That is a key factor in internal expectations, we only like ourselves in relation to our latest accomplishment.
Once I began to place high expectations on myself, I then felt as if others were doing the same. This resulted in me placing even higher expectations on my performance because I felt I had to live up to the expectations of others.
What ensued was a vicious cycle of elevated expectations. The more I felt others were placing expectations on me, the more I expected of myself. Once I would reach a level of expectation, immediately another was formed.
This pattern of continual pressure did not improve my performance, as I would tell myself, but rather had a negative impact.
Negative Impact of High Expectations
Having to deal with high expectations can have a tremendously negative impact on our lives and performances. Constantly feeling like you must strive to attain a specific level of achievement in order to feel good about yourself is a tireless process.
What comes to my mind a lot when thinking about high expectations is the phrase, “I have to succeed or else.” Or else can take on many different forms depending on the individual. For me, or else meant I would feel ashamed of myself.
If I failed to perform well, I believed my coaches, teammates, parents, and friends would think poorly of me. As a result, I would feel completely ashamed of who I was, since I had not lived up to my own expectations.
This highlights one of the main ways high expectations impact our performance. It all lies in the fear of not living up to the expectations we feel are placed on us.
Two studies help to show just how impactful the fear of not living up to your perceived expectations can be.
In one study, tennis players were tested to see how they respond to expectations. What the authors of the study discovered was if the player began the match poorly, there was a much higher chance of them quitting or claiming to be injured.
In another study, students were asked to compete in a trivia challenge. They were told that money would be given upon correctly answering questions, but their performance would also be publicly ranked.
One group was then told that the questions would be easy, this promptly increased their expectations for how they should perform. After completing twenty questions, the participants had the option to switch trivia topics. This would cause them to lose money but would improve their public ranking.
The group that was told the questions would be easy were more likely to report feeling embarrassed and switch topics during the game.
What these two studies reveal is how high expectations can negatively impact our performance. It also shows a key aspect that causes our performances to turn bad, and that’s where we place our focus.
As we feel the pressure to perform well, whether that be in school, sports, or our career, our focus begins to become fixated on the end result. This is known as outcome-oriented thinking.
In the two examples provided above, the research participants became overly worried about the result of their performance. So much so, that the tennis players were willing to quit and the trivia players wanted to relinquish part of their earnings.
The reason high expectations cause outcome-oriented thinking is that they become the only way to judge ourselves against the pressure. The end result is where expectations lie. What follows is a desperate attempt to live up to what is expected of us.
But in my experience, it’s not that we are trying to achieve what is expected, but rather avoid not living up to the expectations. To put it simply, our focus is on what we don’t want to happen instead of what we want to happen.
Either way, focusing too much on the end result completely takes us out of the moment. This hinders performance because we are not focused on the steps needed to be taken to actually achieve the outcome.
During baseball games, I would become solely focused on the outcome of my performance. How would my stats look after the game if I went 1-4? What would my fielding percentage be if I make an error? What will the team’s record be if we lose?
Each one of my concerns was grounded in the outcome and the fear of not living up to mine and other expectations. I would go onto argue that being obsessed with the end result actually led to me receiving exactly what I was trying to avoid.
So, to avoid suffering failure at the hands of high expectations, we must work on learning how to cope with this unnecessary pressure.
How to Cope with High Expectations
For the most part, avoiding all expectations is pretty impossible to do, especially when we have the desire to succeed. Pressure will be put on you from all sorts of external sources. As you feel more of a drive to perform your best, you’ll then begin to hold added expectations about yourself.
So, our goal should not be to eliminate all expectations. That would be a tiresome task with little return. What we want to do is figure out how we can handle all the external expectations we feel and alter the internal expectations we place on ourselves.
Step 1: Identify the Expectation Type
In working to handle the expectations that you feel, the first step is going to be to identify what type of expectations you feel.
Is the expectation coming from your parents, coaches, boss, or friends? Or is the expectation coming from within? This can be an interesting part of the process because you’ll often discover your internal expectations are driven by a perceived external expectation.
During this step, making a list of all the expectations you feel and then identifying the source of each one would be helpful.
Step 2: Define Your Or Else
Whenever we are experiencing high expectations, our behavior is driven by a fear of not attaining what is expected. This aversion to failure is driven by or else thinking. The consequence you are attempting to avoid by achieving the outcome is what I am referring to here.
This will be different for each of us, depending on what our expectations are based around and why we feel the added pressure. For me, my or else always involved a feeling. I knew that if I failed to play well, I would feel ashamed of who I was.
I believed that my coaches and teammates only favored me as much as my latest performance. This led me to put even more pressure on myself to succeed. I was so terrified of how I would feel that I placed incredible expectations upon my own shoulder.
For you, maybe it’s a feeling as well. Or perhaps you are afraid of not getting a good job if you fail to be accepted to a prestigious school. Whatever you define as your or else will be that which drives the fear of not meeting the expectations which are placed upon you.
Defining this fear will not make it go away, but it will remove some of its power. The knowledge of your or else will allow you to take a step back and examine it objectively. At this point, think to yourself, “Is this really something that I need to fear?”
Step 3: Learn to Love the Process
In describing how high expectations negatively impact our performances, I focused heavily on outcome-oriented thinking. This is where our focus is consumed by the end result of a performance, rather than being in the present moment.
The best way to counteract the effects of outcome-oriented thinking is to learn to love the process. This means falling in love with the work required to reach the outcome you are after.
By loving the process, we stay in the moment. If you are enjoying playing, performing, or training, you will be immersed in the act. Instead of focusing on what the end result will be, your attention is on the task at hand.
Through the act of staying focusing on the process, you take much of the added pressure off yourself. As you learn to love the process, you will simultaneously begin to allow the outcome to happen instead of trying to control and force the end result.
High expectations are prevalent throughout our lives. They can come from external or internal sources and have negative impacts on our lives and performances. These expectations automatically put us in a position of stress and take our focus out of the present moment.
We become so fearful of not living up to these expectations that we become consumed with outcome-oriented thinking.
In order to cope with high expectations, we must first identify the type of expectations we are feeling, define what we are afraid of, and learn to love the process. If you can do this, then expectations will no longer have a hold on your life.
Do you put a lot of high expectations on yourself? How do you currently cope with high expectations?
If you have any questions about high expectations or any other performance psychology topic, please feel free to reach out to me.
I hope that this article was helpful, and you have gained some powerful steps to help cope with high expectations.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all you do.
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Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.eli's story
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