Anxiety and expectations

The Collins dictionary says "Your expectations are your strong hopes or beliefs that something will happen or that you will get something that you want", or "A person's expectations are strong beliefs which they have about the proper way someone should behave or something should happen".


How much do we depend on our expectations being delivered? What kind of expectations do we impose on ourselves and others? How much strain and stress do those expectations cause? And are we expecting too much from ourselves and others? Are our expectations realistic?

Our expectations will affect the way we live. Some will say that these expectations set a high standard of behaviour; positive expectations or goals are, of course, healthy. Others, like Ajahn Brahm (a Buddhist monk), and John A Johnson, PhD ('The Psychology of Expectations'), will say that these expectations can place stress on ourselves and others; we are trying to make others be what we want them to be, rather than allowing others to be who they truly are.

We apply that same principle to ourselves. As we grow up, we are asked to conform to parental, educational, societal, and cultural expectations, and this is useful as it helps us get along with each other with normative standards of acceptable behaviour. Unfortunately, these standards can come with a heavy price tag of blame, guilt, and shame when we are found to be imperfect or fail to meet the required levels of expectations.

Each person will view expected standards in a different way depending on upbringing, experience, personality, and context.

As we filter behaviours through life experience, we may or may not agree with or uphold a generally accepted expectation. For example, the film Billy Elliot tells the story of a young boy and gifted dancer who came from a coal mining community, and whose father forbade him to dance. It was not proper for a young boy to dance! It was just not acceptable! His father and brother thought he would be considered gay if he became a dancer. However, Billy continues to dance behind his fathers back and finally wins through and attends the Royal Ballet School.

How does failure in getting our expectations satisfied cause anxiety?

It all seems to be in the neurochemical pathways that pump out cortisol under stress and dopamine when calm. Cortisol makes the body ready for fight or flight. Muscles contract, the heart beats faster, and the brain focuses only on the danger. There is difficulty in accessing the reasoning mind. In this state, there is only reactivity. There is an unpleasant emotional sense of fear, anger, resentment, disappointment, or even betrayal. Imagine Billy Elliot's coal mining father and his reaction to his son's desire to dance. Imagine the thoughts and feelings as cortisol flooded his mind and body.

How does getting our expectations fulfilled make us calm?

Using the Billy Elliot story, let us explore his internal desire and expectation of dance. He knew that dance excited him; his teacher saw his talent and he hoped to become a dancer. His internal hope/belief was to dance, and with that internal expectation, he achieved his dream despite his father's differing expectation. He was true to himself and must have been satisfied and happy with the outcome, with dopamine flooding his body and mind.

Anxiety often comes with negative thought patterns, such as "I am not good enough", "I can’t cope", "I am a failure", "I fear saying the wrong thing", "I must not make a mistake", "no one really likes me", and "I am not worth it". Each thought causes stress, with resulting physical tension, butterflies in the stomach, tightening of the throat and chest, rapid and shallow breathing, and increased heart rate. Cortisol is being pumped around the body and brain. There is an expectation that failure will happen.

Experience tells the anxious person so. They will be looking for evidence to show that their thinking is right. A neural pathway is set up, and the brain is wired to fail in some way, say the wrong thing, not cope, or recognise not being liked. This is a vicious cycle that needs to be understood properly. Adjustments need to be made to expectations of yourself and others, with a sense of kindness being brought into everyday life and relationships.

With the help of counselling, talking to a wise friend or someone who has been through this experience, you can discover your story and work out how expectations have affected your life, rediscover yourself in a new way, and move forward in the way you want.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Horsham RH13 & RH12
Written by Gina Howard, MBACP reg
Horsham RH13 & RH12

I offer an initial free 30 minute assessment session. This is a time for me to find out more about you the issue that is troubling you and for us to see how we can work together. Your story matters to me and as a qualified counsellor and a caring human being I want to help you cope with whatever you...

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