Three Steps for Dealing with Unrealistic Expectations


By Sarah H. Elliston


On this episode of Big Blend Radio’s Quality of Life Show, Sarah H. Elliston, author of “Lessons from a Difficult Person: How To Deal With People Like Us,” shares advice on how to deal with unrealistic expectations.

Unrealistic Expectations….why do we have them?  Millions of reasons.

We set ourselves up for letdown when we have an expectation that something will occur in a certain way and it doesn’t.  We invest our emotions in our picture of what we expect and if that isn’t what we see, we are disappointed.  We may blame others and feel cheated. We can spend time feeling angry and powerless.

Can we avoid this?  We may not be able to change our expectations but we can avoid negative feelings by following three steps:

Step One: Decide how you are feeling and if it is worth sharing with others.  Will it change anything for you to tell others how disappointed you are?
My experience is that it doesn’t really help the situation.   I was dating a man who loved the opera and I liked most forms of music so I agreed to attend Aida – I knew some of the music and had also directed amateur theater so I thought I would enjoy studying the set and lighting.  I expected to enjoy the evening.

I arrived to find it had 5 intermissions.  I couldn’t believe it.  I said, “We will be here all night,” and he replied, “Yes, isn’t it wonderful?”

I had to work the next day and I didn’t think it was wonderful, and said so.  This was in the time before Uber and I wasn’t sure how to get home by bus.  I muttered and grumbled and got through the evening into the middle of the night in an unhappy mood.  It didn’t help our friendship, probably ruined his evening and certainly tainted me forever learning to like opera.

I hadn’t thought about how to act in that kind of a situation. And felt justified in my reactions.

I didn’t know that there is a Step Two: After identifying the feeling, you can decide if that’s how you want to be feeling.
At a weeklong retreat, we had an evening out.  The idea was to go out into the world and practice the actions we had been learning about to see how they worked.

I was invited by Tim, the leader, to spend an evening with him and his fiancé, Susan.  I had planned to swim and dine with others but didn’t want to say no to Tim.  I accepted his invitation and regretfully informed my friends.  I felt torn but anticipated some special time with Tim and Susan, after all they had singled me out.  I felt valued and excited about having private time with them.

Arriving at the car to travel to their house, I found they had invited another participant, Steve, to join us.  While I knew and liked him, I had thought the invitation was for my special time.  As it turned out, Steve and I were expected to do some hiking for an hour or two before joining Tim and Susan for supper.  I was surprised and annoyed.  I found myself fading out of the conversation and feeling sorry for myself.  I wanted to say, “Take me back.”

I remember while there, there was happy chatter, I looked out the window of the car and asked myself, “What are you doing?”  I responded (to myself), “I am sulking because I thought this was my individual time.  I am angry and resentful of Steve and mad having my time with Tim diluted.”  I knew that telling them this would create unnecessary drama.  I felt like a spoiled child. So, I asked myself, “Do you want to keep feeling this way?”  Obviously not.

Step Three was next: Could I take a deliberate deep breath and a step back? With thought and care, could I change the way I was reacting?
I asked myself, “What can you do to enjoy this time, to be here right now and not wrapped up in internal pouting?” 

Still feeling grumpy, I decided to actively get into the present time and change my feelings. I looked out the window and counted the different kinds of trees I could see.  We were in the Connecticut River Valley and I found a myriad of greens.  I looked at my shorts and felt the fiber.  I counted the stripes in my jersey.  I reminded myself that Tim and Susan invited me to spend time with them; they valued me. I pinched myself gently in the leg and acknowledged the simple pain. The pain meant I was in my body. I was aware, no longer brooding.  I identified the music of the laughter of the others and joined in.  I brought myself into the present moment and I laughed with them.

Laughing has been called internal jogging and it is a healthy activity.  It changes our body chemistry and if we can keep it up for 20 – 30 seconds, we can feel positive effects.

I took a deliberate step back from my disappointment and then a deep breath. It was a conscious, considered action. The laughter was a gift.   I felt better and had a great time for the rest of the evening.

This moment stands out for me because I actively practiced something I had learned about and changed how I felt.

These steps are part of Choice Theory, developed by Dr. William Glasser.  It states we choose our feelings, thoughts, physiology and behaviors.  We are not always aware that we are choosing them and I found this to be one of the first times I actually stopped to identify what I wanted to feel and then figured out what actions would change my feelings.

Give it a try.  When you find yourself at a social or family event where it is not turning out as you hoped, think of the steps:
One: Ask What am I doing?  What am I feeling?  Would it do any good to share this?

Two: Is this what I want to be feeling? Do I want or need to stay here?  Do I want to change how I feel?

Three: Take a deliberate mental step back.  Become a literal detective about your surroundings.  Count the colors or special items in the room.  That gets you thinking more and feeling less.  List three things you like about yourself.  Find yourself physically there by pinching yourself or pulling your hair or touching your clothing.  If you can, spend some time laughing.

I encourage you to follow these steps and choose activities that will lead you to enjoying the event, even if it is not what you expected. 

Sarah Elliston is the author of “Lessons from a Difficult Person – How to Deal With People Like Us”. A faculty member of the William Glasser Institute, Sarah is a highly successful workshop leader and trainer, who is certified in Values Realization, Parent Effectiveness Training and Reality Therapy.


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About the Author:

Sarah Elliston is the author of “Lessons from a Difficult Person – How to Deal With People Like Us”. A faculty member of the William Glasser Institute, Sarah is a highly successful workshop leader and trainer, who is certified in Values Realization, Parent Effectiveness Training and Reality Therapy

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