Guest post by Robert P. Holloway, M.D.
Our expectations color all our experiences. They lead us to anticipate, to compare and to reflect. We are pleased when we meet our expectations and are disappointed when we don’t. This could pertain to a simple experience like watching a movie to throwing a holiday party to a high stakes performance. Our expectations before the activity can lead us to have a wide range of emotions from anxiety to excitement. When we experience anxiety, it could range from mild to being overwhelmed.
We can have expectations about anything, but we tend to be reflective and overly critical when our expectations are too high. Examples of times when people set themselves up for excessive stress include holidays, birthdays, performances and tests. Some holidays pack more symbolism than others. Both birthdays and the passing of the old year tend to cause us to reflect on ourselves. We think of what we've accomplished and what we wish he had and hadn't done. We think of numbers like pounds and dollars, and such. We can usually keep these numbers in perspective, but sometimes they weigh too heavily on us.
We start to think of the big event and have a chance to set reasonable expectations for ourselves or unreasonable ones. If we don’t have goals at all then we don’t tend to try anything, but if our goals are too high we tend to set ourselves up for disappointment. In addition, our level of anxiety that we have when we’re facing our goals can influence how successful we’ll be.
Some anxiety is a good thing. Studies show that people with low levels of anxiety don’t try as hard as people with moderate anxiety and they don’t tend to be as successful. This would explain the stereotype of the couch potato. However, people with high levels of anxiety tend to perform poorly too. These people are either too anxious to try and paralyzed by fear or simply choke under the pressure of performing.
When we face planning for a special event like a holiday party or a new year we have the power to set our expectations and then the power of deciding how we’re going to react to the reality. There are several types of thoughts that can get us into trouble. One example is putting a condition on happiness. Thoughts that can tip us off that we’re setting ourselves up start with “It just has to be,” “I’ll be happy if,” “I’ll just die if,” and “All I want is.” These extreme thoughts are illogical and yet we can allow them to be very powerful. Another dangerous type of thought is one that dismisses our accomplishments. If we don’t enjoy our accomplishments then we don’t allow ourselves recovery and this is unhealthy for us.
If you can’t enjoy a holiday party or a special event if it isn’t perfect, then you are trying to control too much and you’re cheating yourself out of joy. We can set our goals high and try to accomplish them, but if we are powerless over our expectations then we become overburdened. This type of thinking might be as mild as being irritated by someone failing to come to a special event or being obsessed over whether everyone was enjoying the food. However, if this type of extreme thinking continues it can push us into a state of depression.
If we start discounting our accomplishments and focusing on our failures then we run the risk of becoming trapped inside our own heads with our critical thoughts. We have to remember to let our failures and disappointments go as we let the old year go. It is normal to feel some regret and want to change things, but if we start ruminating on our failures we need to do something to stop. This could be as simple as talking to a trusted friend and starting some self-improvement activities. However, if we notice that we’re unable to let go and our daily functioning is slipping, we may need to seek professional help.
In summary, it is healthy to have some expectations and to set goals or resolutions, but it is unhealthy to set ourselves up for disappointment or obsess about our failures. If we approach this with a sense of balance, we can enjoy our lives and our loved ones more fully.
Guest post by Robert P. Holloway, M.D.
Dr. Holloway practices child, adolescent and adult psychiatry in private practice and at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. In addition to his work, he's on the board of Let’s Erase The Stigma Educational Foundation (lets.org) and is President-Elect of California Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace one-on-one medical advice from your health professional.