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Are Your Expectations Out of Line With Reality?

Depressed people often have unrealistic expectations of others, often without any basis other than mistaking their own fears for truth. Here’s how to revise these expectations. From Depression Is Contagious by Michael D. Yapko, Ph.D.

What single factor most influences how you gauge whether your relationship with someone is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, worthwhile or a waste of time? The answer: your expectations. When you have unrealistic expectations of other people, you are at high risk for getting hurt, disappointed, and depressed. It’s easiest, perhaps even reflexive, to blame others for your disappointment and self-righteously say, “That person let me down.” Maybe that person did let you down, but it’s at least as likely that you let yourself down by having unrealistic expectations to begin with. An awareness of your own expectations and the ability to determine whether they are realistic are vitally important skills to develop if you want to avoid suffering the hurts in your relationships that can lead to depression.

Your expectations for how others will see or respond to you can be entirely imaginary, yet still control your actions. Consider these points:

  • Depressed people expect to be rejected by others, leading them to be shy at least and to have a diagnosable social anxiety disorder at most.
  • Depressed people expect others to view them badly so when they are given a compliment or are acknowledged in some positive way, they view it as insincere or gratuitous, thereby minimizing or ignoring its merits.
  • Depressed people expect to be judged negatively by others, leading to harsh and debilitating self-criticism and paralyzing self-doubt.
  • Depressed people expect others to know how they feel and even expect others to feel the same way, leading to despair and even a sense of betrayal when others inadvertently hurt them by responding differently than expected.

The evidence is substantial that depressed people too often have unrealistic expectations of others, often without any basis other than mistaking their own fears for truth. They set themselves up for inevitable hurts simply by expecting the worst from others, which further compounds their depression. If you expect yourself to be treated badly, and allow it on the basis of your expectations, you will be. But, not because you deserve it, only because you allow it.

Pause and Reflect: Are You Aware of What You Expect?
Before you interact with someone, do you consider what you want from him or her? Typically, we want things like gentle support, or a fun, playful response, or an assurance, or an accurate piece of information. If you know what you want before you get into it, how might that influence your response as the interaction unfolds?

Given how much our expectations determine our level of satisfaction with nearly everything from relationships to movies to jobs to restaurants, we all need to become skilled at recognizing what we want — and therefore what we are likely to expect — before we interact with someone. What you want and expect is what makes you vulnerable to disappointment when it isn’t forthcoming.

Learn by Doing: Define Your Expectations
On a sheet of paper, make three columns. Label the first one, “What I want from so-and-so” (think of a specific person you will be dealing with); label the second, “What evidence is there that so-and-so can do this?” and label the third column, “Revised expectations.”

Think of at least half a dozen interactions with various people you expect to have in the next few days. In the first column, be specific about what you want and expect from the interaction. They may be things such as support, information, sex, fun, money, or a specific course of action you want someone to take. Simply articulating these wants and expectations can be very helpful. The next step is to articulate what you know about this person, what specific evidence you have that this person has the power and will to provide you with what you want or expect. The great danger, of course, is in wanting what someone either can’t or won’t provide. That’s how disappointment and hurt happen. Now, if you realize you need to revise your expectations once you’ve thought this through, state your revised expectations in the third column. As you’ll likely discover, what you want may be understandable, even reasonable…just not from that person.

Michael D. Yapko, Ph.D., author of Depression Is Contagious (Copyright © 2009 by Michael D. Yapko, Ph.D.), is a clinical psychologist and internationally recognized expert who lectures widely on depression, psychotherapy, and clinical hypnosis. He is the author of ten books, including Breaking the Patterns of Depression, Hand-Me-Down Blues, and Suggestions of Abuse. He lives with his wife, Diane, in Fallbrook, California.




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