high expectations

We live in a time of high expectations which can lead to stress and low mood. The expectations I mean come from within ourselves, initially, but they are really rooted in our upbringing, education and the social values which surround us.

Our high expectations are often unrealistic because they are too general to be meaningful or realistic.

The “You can do anything you set your mind to” message is intended to inspire us on and to goad us into achieving our aims. But it’s a false promise. It’s a nice thought, but we are not all equal, we are not even equally capable! This is not a ‘fault’, it’s a fact. Telling yourself (or your kids) that anything is possible is well-intended and it can be inspiring, but saying it doesn’t mean it will happen. High expectations are often false expectations, they are too general to be meaningful or realistic, so take care when offering this advice.

We make demands on ourselves, and so do other people when we this can be compounded by the regular implanting of inflated aspirations. The hype that surrounds us leads to some nasty habits which can de-energise and deflate you.


The modern mantra of you-can-have-everything-you-want-if-you-just-try-hard-enough is as well-intentioned as it is aspirational. But there’s a serious downside. First, like all aspirations, it’s not to be taken literally.

We all know it’s not true, but we hope that, in our case, it could be. Aim towards it, but bear in mind that it is an indication of possibility, not a promise of success.

Second, If you DO believe it, it must also apply that if you don’t succeed then its because you haven’t tried hard enough. Absurd though this idea is, we unwittingly buy into the belief that if hit your target; find the perfect partner; get the dream job; pass the exam etc. etc.),

If you believe the propaganda which says try hard enough and you’ll get what you want you’ll be at risk of a big disappointment. While ‘trying hard enough’ might serve you well as inspiration, take it too literally and you could be setting up unrealistic expectations.


Then, there are the expectations we are brought up with. If you were lucky, your carers and the teachers will have fed you a positive message about how beautiful/smart/deserving/you are. But this should also have been tempered with opportunities for failure. Learning how to pick ourselves up and get back in the game after setback, disappointment or rejection, is just as vital as learning how to succeed.

Some would say MORE vital, since it is learning how to deal with the bad stuff which makes us more resilient. No bad stuff (or over-protective carers) equals no opportunities for learning and growth.


Measuring ourselves against someone else’s achievement can be another self-sabotaging habit. Just as limiting can be the impossibly high expectations that some parents have for their children. They may achieve their parents’ expectations but at the cost of never having the chance to find their own way.

Don’t get me wrong

I’ve been helping people set and achieve their goals for most of my adult life. We need ambition to get out of bed in the morning, and the guru-talk about finding purpose and pushing yourself is valid. But, as we regularly see with high-achievers who unexpectedly fail (or are dropped from the team, past their sell-by date, or whatever), if you are not prepared for it failure can lead not just to setback, but also to mental health problems.


I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.