Unmet expectations can steal your joy.

How Unmet Expectations Can Steal Your Joy

July 7, 2015|Posted in: Healthy Living, Random Observations

Comparison is the thief of joy. You’ve probably seen this little phrase pop up in your newsfeed time and again over the past few years. It’s one of those sayings has stuck with me, simply because it’s fundamentally true: You shouldn’t compare yourself to others. Be happy with who you are. Be present in the moment.

I tend to be drawn to these types of mantras, now more than ever. Life is short. You shouldn’t waste it on woulda-shoulda-coulda. Over the past decade or so, however, I’ve come to find that it’s not just comparison that can rob you of your joy. Expectations – those that you have for yourself or for others you care about – can also steal moments of happiness from your life.

“Wait, what?” you may be thinking. “Has she finally eaten one too many Chipotle burritos?”

Bear with me, my friends, and think about the definition of the word for a second. An expectation is the belief that you will or should achieve something. A strong belief that something will happen in the future. Synonyms include predictions, conjecture, assumptions, and hope.

Don’t get me wrong. Yes, I know that expectations are necessary. In fact, I think they’re super awesome, and I have plenty. We need them to move toward our goals. Without them, we might live a life void of hopes and dreams, or worse, a life of apathy. We might not care how others treat us, or how we treat ourselves, if we didn’t have expectations.

The flip side, however, is that expectations can rob us of living our lives to the fullest simply because they make us acutely aware of our shortcomings when they don’t pan out.

Being a word bird, I started thinking about this after a recent conversation with a casual friend who recently broke up with her boyfriend after many years of dating. Understandably, she’s broken-hearted and having a rough go of things.

“I’m 32,” she said. “I just expected to be married by now.”

There’s that dang word. Expected. I’m not minimizing her heartache or attempting to rationalize. When we’re 18 or 20 or 25, many of us “expect” to be married or have kids or be driving a BMW convertible by the time we’re 30. Or, if you’re me, you thought you’d be able to retire on a Hawaiian island by your 40th birthday. But…nope.

Are we arresting ourselves – arresting our lives – when our expectations go unmet?

If you had asked me 10 years ago where I expected myself to be in the present moment, I likely would have said:

  • I expect to have a few children. (I am incredibly lucky to have one beautiful daughter.)
  • I expect to have a new house. (We’re still in the same house.)
  • I expect to be financially sound. (I left a solid, full-time job to work for myself.)
  • I expect to have written a book. (I have several started, but haven’t completed one.)

…and so on, and so forth.

I could look at each one of these “expectations” as shortcomings, and sometimes, I’m not gonna lie, they feel like they are. Do we want more children? Yes. Will it happen? At this point in my life, it’s highly unlikely. Would I like to move to a new house? Yes. Will it happen? I sure hope so. Do I have a great job? Yes, I love what I do now, but I made more money in my 20s than I do now. Will I ever finish a dang book? God-willing, yes.

Here comes the “but.” BUT — if I don’t fulfill any of these expectations, does that mean that I’ve failed? That my life is a giant flop? That I shouldn’t be happy? That I should wallow in self-pity because my expected life plans didn’t resolve themselves?

Heck no.

Sometimes expectations seem to be under our control. For example, what if you expect to join the family law firm, so you go to college and study hard and ace all of your law-school classes. But what if despite studying hard, and despite multiple attempts, you can’t pass the bar? What if you do pass it, become a lawyer, but later find out you hate it? What happens to your expectations then? Should you curl up in a ball and cry, because you never “expected” to hate lawyering? What if you <cough> spend thousands of dollars <cough> to go back to school to get your teaching certificate <cough> and then find out that your most persistent desire is to be at home with your child?

Other expectations, like those we have toward marriage or parenthood, are less under our control. What if you expect to be married by age 30, but haven’t yet met “the one”? What if you expect to have a large family, but struggle with infertility? What if you expect your child to join the family business, but he decides instead to travel the world as a starving artist? What if? What if? What if?

Hey, I’m not a philosopher. I’m just a mama who’s trying to do right by her family and friends. But perhaps we should focus less on expectations and more on the Buddhist philosophy that we humans suffer because we continually strive after things that don’t produce lasting happiness. That cleaving to expectations (and material goods) is often a source of acute frustration and disappointment for many of us. Instead, let’s try to embrace the fluidity and imperfections of life — even when they fall way short of our expectations.

Feeling philosophical, too? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!

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photo credit: Suncoast parkway and a grassy path in Starkey Wilderness via photopin (license)


  1. onecommittedmama
    July 8, 2015

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    Haha! I think we ARE soul sisters! :)

  2. Gabrielle @ gabriellebogan.com
    July 10, 2015

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    Awesome post! I have plans to escape the corporate world to pursue my own interests and when I place expectations on myself to get out of here I feel like I’m locked up in a prison of doubt, fear and fatigue.

    I’ve noticed that taking things day by day and having a general goal allows me to enjoy life more. I am no longer so emotionally attached to the outcome because I am getting much happier in the process. Instead of focusing on the expectation of where I’ll be in 2 months I focus on the feelings I want to feel in 2 months. Because the truth is if I can allow myself to feel how I want to feel now then there’s much less impatience about being in my current circumstance. It really makes you think…

    • onecommittedmama
      July 10, 2015

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      Thank you so much for sharing! Since we’re such a “expectation-oriented” society, going with the flow is certainly a challenge. I’m trying to learn to live more for the moment, but it’s so hard…I’m a worrier by nature, so anxiety frequently rears its ugly head!

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