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Expectations vs. Standards

April 6, 2017

In day to day life, it seems to be a common theme for most of us to strive to control and minimize the frustrating, annoying parts of life, while trying to maximize the rewarding ones. Inevitably, despite our best efforts, we often have to face that dreaded "d-word": disappointment.

First, what exactly is disappointment? To put it in terms of a scientific formula, D = E - R, i.e., disappointment equals the difference between our expectations and reality.

So how do we avoid disappointment? Simple. Just continue tweaking expectations based on the cumulation of our experiences so that they come closer and closer to matching the true reality of a given situation. Easier said than done, unfortunately, since more often than not, our subconscious minds love to get in the way and blind and trick us into adamantly holding onto our unrealistic expectations based on unresolved events of the past. For example, if Joan's father never gave her the time of day, she may find that as an adult, she can't figure out why she keeps attracting emotionally unavailable men who ignore her every plea for attention and intimacy, feeling so starved that she will desperately do anything for the most meager crumb of emotional connection (as she did with her father), yet continually find herself disappointed because each partner repeatedly fails to meet her needs (surprise, surprise). Joan may mistakenly believe deep down that if she just approaches her partner the "right" way, she will get what she so desperately craves, never recognizing that she keeps picking carbon copies of her father for mates (see Freud's "repetition compulsion"). Until she sees that, it is unlikely that she will be able to more accurately match her expectations with reality, and will therefore continue to suffer through one disappointment after another.

It may be safe to say that expectations, especially false ones, are driven by unconscious fears: fear of not being safe, fear of not being good enough, fear of disappointment (ironically), and fear of [insert emotional wound here]. Just like a starving mouse may risk being seen by the cat (or worse, simply be so blinded by hunger that all safety precautions go out the window) in a desperate attempt to get that scrap of food in the middle of the kitchen, so might we be so hungry for a certain outcome that our sense of reality becomes distorted, leading us right back to more false expectations and another round of disappointment.

One may be tempted to simply decide, "Well, I just won't ever have any expectations at all, that way I'll never be disappointed ever again." Sounds easy enough. The problem is, however, that that still doesn't close the floodgates to the unhealthy attraction patterns set in motion by the unresolved unconscious baggage that will continue to find you and mercilessly pound on you, like a swimmer caught in heavy surf.

The key to closing the gap between expectations and reality lies in adopting standards. According to Merriam-Webster, standards are "ideas about morally correct and acceptable behavior, [or] something that is very good and that is used to make judgments about the quality of other things." When someone adopts standards, they are saying in no uncertain terms that they demand and deserve a certain level of quality in something, be it in a romantic partner or office furniture. Setting standards creates a filter that rules out anything that does not meet those standards, much like a breakwater that creates the calm conditions needed for a harbor or swimming hole (thereby saving our unfortunate swimmer mentioned above).

In other words, standards come with a healthy recognition of self-worth, and can help to break a dysfunctional cycle of tolerating unacceptable behavior from others. Once, say, an abusive individual is finally recognized as such, when before, lower or no expectations would only serve to essentially give the vault code to the thief, standards will serve to never even allow that thief into the bank in the first place.

If this resonates with you, if you think you may have a "thief" in your midst that you can't seem to get rid of, it may be worth consulting with a trusted friend or associate, or you may want to work with an unbiased therapist or counselor who can provide you with an objective assessment of what may be going on in your life that is perpetuating unwanted chaos.


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