How to Break Free from Suffering By Lowering Your Expectations and Gain Serenity

Part 4 of 5: Overcoming Unrealistic Expectations

Issue 59. January 26, 2024 ✨ Higher Power Coaching & Consulting

Photo Credit: Thomas Serer

Managing my expectations has been a HUGE part of my recovery and is one of the foundations of my emotional sobriety. I’ve learned that sometimes, in order to have the peace I desire, I lower my expectations of others.

When we manage our expectations, we recognize that the only thing we can change is ourselves. We can’t change people, places, things or institutions. The only thing you can change is you. If you’re suffering because you have an expectation that’s not being met, the way to end the suffering is to change your expectation.

Now you don’t have to change your expectations of course, you get to. However, if you don’t change your expectations, you will continue to suffer. I don’t know about you, but I’m done with suffering! I want peace. And one way I know how to get to peace is that sometimes, I need to lower my expectations. 

I can just hear some of you thinking, “People rise to the level of our expectations of them.” This is true sometimes, but not all the time. And if you’ve been suffering for years on end because your expectations are continually not being met, it might be a good idea to lower your expectations into alignment with reality.

As I mentioned in essay 1 of this series, it may be reasonable to expect certain behaviors in a professional setting, but it may also be unrealistic if that person has repeatedly shown you they’re not going to meet your expectation. If you hang onto the prospect of them changing, you may be waiting for eternity. I don’t want to wait long for serenity. To change that, lowering your expectations might just get you the peace you’re seeking.

As I’m writing this, what just popped in my head was something I heard well before recovery. I now know it’s a common saying in recovery: 

Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?

When I first heard this, I remember thinking, I’d rather be right! Which is really sad. Now I’d rather be happy. In fact, I’d rather have peace than happiness. You can go ahead and have your expectations of others, but if you’re suffering then that’s on you, not them.

Here are a couple of stories to illustrate what lowering your expectations might look like. I heard someone in recovery say that her amends to her brother was to lower her expectations of him. I immediately thought, “Oh my God! That’s what I need to do for my brother!” In that moment, I realized I expected him to be living up to his potential. I heard recently that someone’s “potential” is actually our idea of how they should be living. Yikes!

I expected my brother to have a job commensurate with his intellect. I realized that a HUGE part of my difficulty with my brother was that I was judging him for not living up to my expectations. When I had this realization, I lowered my expectations of him and accepted him as he is. I faced that “this is what’s happening – he’s not living up to his potential.”

When I thought about it, I realized that a huge part of his suffering is probably also because he knows he hasn’t lived up to his potential. I’m only adding to his suffering by holding that expectation as well.

Here’s another example about having an expectation of an organization. A client was involved with an organization where her attempts to communicate with them were not reciprocated. She got exceedingly frustrated because she believed they should communicate with her.

I told her that she could lower her expectations of others, but she doesn’t have to lower her expectations for herself. She’s allowed to have standards. But there’s a balance between acceptance of things as they are and having standards, then setting boundaries to ensure your standards are met. 

There’s no one right answer about what’s the right thing to accept and what’s the right thing to lower your expectations for. That’s something that’s individualized to the person and the situation. It depends entirely on what’s important to you, your values. That’s why it’s so important to be clear on your values, especially when it comes to setting boundaries. Your values signal you where you’re going to put the boundary.

It takes some experimentation. You may not know if lowering your expectations is right for you until you try it, then see how it feels. Does it feel like a situation you’re comfortable with according to your values? Then that’s “the right thing” for you in that situation.

In this situation with the organization that’s not communicating with her, it may be very “wrong” that they’re not communicating. But the reality is, it’s what’s happening. She can keep those expectations (that’s called having standards in your life). But if she continues to suffer by holding onto those expectations, what that might tell her is “This is not the organization for me.”

If she continues to have the expectation that communication will flow back and forth in organizations she’s involved in, and it’s not happening, then that tells her where her boundary goes. Maybe she needs to leave. If that’s not something she’s willing to consider, and she continues to suffer, then she gets to change her expectations.

She gets to face that these people don’t communicate well. But that doesn’t mean she can’t communicate well. She doesn’t have to change her expectations for herself. She can keep the flow of information going to them, knowing that they suck at communicating.

It’s really hard to know what the RIGHT thing is here. Maybe the organization is a well-oiled machine, and she just doesn’t have the hang of it yet. Or maybe she’s not communicating with the right person. Or, maybe she’s right, and they DO suck at communicating!

But the fact remains, they’re not communicating in ways that work for her. And she can’t change that, and it’s causing her to suffer. So… if she wants her suffering to end – if you want your suffering to end – you can choose to lower your expectation. Or you can decide, “This is not the right place for me,” and leave. Whatever you decide, know that if you’re suffering, only you have the ability to change that.

This is another example of how important it is to keep the focus on yourself. What are you doing or believing in a situation that is causing you difficulty? What’s your part? This was the greatest gift of my recovery – understanding my part and things. For many of the difficulties in my life “my part” was having unrealistic expectations.

Maybe in your situation, having unrealistic expectations of the people, places, things and institutions around you is causing suffering. It’s not what’s happening that’s causing your suffering, it’s not the circumstances that are causing suffering, it’s the expectation that there SHOULD be something different happening.

Keep the focus on yourself. That’s where your lever for change is. It’s only within you. And maybe that lever is to lower your expectations.

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