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  • Emily Burnham

Managing Expectations: Filling the Gap Between the Real and the Ideal

Updated: Jan 18

You’ve probably heard someone say—and maybe have said it yourself: “I just don’t have expectations anymore. That way, I can’t be disappointed.” But what are expectations, and why do we have them in the first place? Expectations are the feelings of anticipation and hope that accompany our desires, goals, and dreams. They give us a sense of purpose and direction as we work through the sometimes-murky present into a bright future with open possibilities. Expectations are often idealized—and why wouldn’t they be? No one wants to put in the time, energy, blood, sweat, and tears to accomplish a subpar goal full of challenges, setbacks, and disappointments. It makes sense that we picture a future outcome that is perfect and free from conflict or worries, then work towards that goal.


Then reality comes crashing in, unpredictable and often stark, smashing our idealized expectations into unrecognizable pieces. That doesn’t mean we should stop having expectations—desires, goals, and dreams. It simply means we must balance our expectations with a healthy dose of reality, noting the gap between our idealized outcomes and reality and choosing to move forward anyway. In other words, we learn to manage our expectations. One role of a manager at a restaurant or store is to oversee how their employees interact with customers, stepping in when needed to solve problems that can satisfy conflicting parties. In the same way, we can set parameters around our expectations so that when contention, struggles, or unanticipated setbacks occur, we can continue moving forward with a positive outlook.

Here are six skills to adopt that can help you manage your expectations:

1) Embrace flexibility.

What is most likely to shatter: a clay pot or a rubber ball? Obviously, the clay pot is more susceptible to breaking because it is rigid and fixed in place. Rubber is more flexible and bendy, allowing it to bounce back after hitting a hard surface. As we set goals, it is important to include flexibility for missed deadlines or setbacks. That way, we don’t shatter and crumble in the face of our rigid goals. Make a habit of adding built-in gaps between scheduled events. This added “grace space” serves as a built-in buffer that allows stress-free setbacks and brief moments of self-care.

2) Use past experience to set realistic goals.

It’s common to dream big and expect more out of ourselves than we can realistically give. Do you ever find your to-do list piling up, but at the end of the day, only the most critical items are checked off? So you push the other items to the next day, but at the end of that day, you again notice that many items were not done. Use this as a learning experience to see how many tasks you can realistically accomplish in a day, and use that knowledge to set goals within a realistic time frame. If you continue to set idealistic goals to study for four hours every night and consistently fall short, change your goal to match your real-life experience.

3) Focus on the journey, not the destination.

It’s a cliché you’ve heard countless times in a dozen different ways—from a prophet’s words to “find joy in the journey” or Miley Cyrus’ singing it “ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side; it’s the climb.” As we shift our focus away from fixating on the end result, we can begin to notice the small steps of progress we are making and take pride in those small changes. Personal growth takes work and change, both of which require you to sit in discomfort. In moments of discomfort or discontent, we learn the most valuable life lessons; hence, we can learn to appreciate the value of setbacks in the journey instead of solely focusing on whether the destination is reached.

4) Cultivate gratitude.

Research shows that people who regularly practice gratitude are happier than those who do not. Gratitude allows us to appreciate the present moment and the blessings we have, giving us brief moments of positivity. When practiced regularly, these “brief moments” of happiness accumulate into a lifetime of happiness. By focusing on what we have rather than what we lack, we can find contentment and joy in where we are at, whether or not we end up where we expected to.

5) Lean into learning opportunities.

Put more meaning and importance on learning and personal growth than on tangible achievements. Sure, tangible achievements make you look good, but what gives those things meaning is the work, sacrifice, and effort spent in achieving that outcome. As you emphasize the importance of learning from difficult circumstances, the disappointment from an unrealized expectation diminishes. These opportunities allow us to practice and experience self-reflection, resiliency, and adaptability.

6) Practice self-compassion.

Power floods into your life when you become your own Number 1 supporter. Who else is going to have your best interests at heart better than you? If you can take opportunities to build yourself up when everything seems to be going “wrong,” you will not only come out of those situations stronger, but you will also be an incredible model to others on how to treat you and how they should treat themselves in similar situations. Yes, you will feel frustrated or disappointed when you experience very real and heavy setbacks from your goals and expectations, but that is part of the beauty of human experience: feeling a wide range of emotions and learning from the knowledge and input we receive.

Managing expectations helps us close the gap between the “real” and “ideal.” Our lived experience often falls short of what we imagined or planned for, but learning to manage our expectations allows us to live a rich, meaningful, and joyful life regardless of what life throws our way. Don’t let your history of crushed expectations keep you from opening up your heart once again to your dreams and desires. Yes, you will undoubtedly experience disappointment along the way of achieving your goal, but you will also experience opportunities to practice resilience, flexibility, self-compassion, and gratitude, all of which lead to personal growth and satisfaction.

About The Author

Emily Burnham is a marriage and family therapist intern at CLEAR Counseling in Chandler, AZ. She graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in psychology from Brigham Young University. She is currently working on her Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy through Capella University. When she's not at work or school, you can find Emily playing pickleball with friends, listening to an audiobook, or riding around on her electric unicycle.

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