When expectations become toxic

Some types of expectation might be regarded as contractual; an expectation on the part of someone that they have a right to get something or give something as a result of some agreement that is binding on them in some way. I pay for something and I expect to be given the item or the service I have paid for. These tend to be seen as pretty acceptable forms of expectation, and would usually be regarded as quite reasonable. Most of us would identify with these and other similar expectations, and, when they are not met, there will be a certain clarity and logic associated with them not being met, and we would be able to make a case concerning why we think the expectation should be met.


We are all familiar with the different kinds of expectation that we seem explicitly or implicitly exposed to every day, in whatever context we might be spending our time. They are a feature of our lives. Expectations of events happening at anticipated times; deliveries as promised, trains and buses running to their timetables, callers on time. We might also have expectations that we will be treated courteously and with sensitivity by those we meet in our daily lives.

Types of expectation

Another type of expectation will be those intended to have some control over what we think, feel or do. These might be regarded as motivational and assumed to be in the best interests of those of whom the expectations are held. Headteachers in our schools will speak to parents and students about the high expectations that the school has of its students. Teachers in the classroom will be expected to communicate these expectations more directly to students.

In companies, there will be a range of expectations that employees will be subject to, ranging from behavioural protocols and targets that they are expected to meet. There is an edge to these expectations that was missing from the more benign examples above since not living up to these expectations could lead to criticism from those who regard them as reasonable, and a sense of failure in not meeting them. These expectations are considered the raw material of motivation in many of our institutions. They will be how managers foster compliance with the way they seek to meet their various aims. So, it seems we are surrounded by expectations; we cannot escape them. Some of us will internalise them, replicating what others have imposed upon us, removing the necessity for them to be enforced; we might recognise this as socialisation. They are a feature of modern living that ensure we are motivated to achieve common goals.

It seems generally regarded that expectations are a good thing. They are how society ensures compliance with its norms and within its various institutions; taken for granted social and inspirational norms.

How expectations can affect us

Expectations certainly impact on all of us. They are intended to be self-fulfilling prophecies, and we are all to some degree influenced by them; our self-esteem may well be founded upon living up to them. Some leaders in education suggest that high expectations have a formative place in our schools since students will be more inclined to conform to its norms and achieve higher grades when there are high expectations held of them; reinforced by sanctions if necessary. There seems to be evidence to suggest that some teachers will be more supportive of these students than those for whom expectations are low. They will be more inclined to give more accurate, helpful feedback and will be more patient in teaching them because they believe it is time well spent, and these students tend to be more successful academically. Conversely, there seems an acceptance that letting your doubts cloud your belief in someone practically ensures failure. Our expectations influence and bend reality. They can change people’s lives; they shape what happens. They become a feature of our thinking and emphasise success or failure, winning or losing.

There is then a strong case for the effectiveness of expectations; they have a significant place in motivating individuals to become better, more efficient students, employees, citizens; people.

To continue our focus on school life, it is generally recognised that the school environment is one very much shaped by expectations - a culture of expectations. Students will be aware of the expectations that the headteacher and senior management hold, reinforced by their class teachers and parents, that they will comply with behavioural expectations of the school and be successful in meeting study and academic goals. Some students, those we might recognise as self-aware, confident, and resilient, will recognise that this is the way it is, and although they may find the emphasis on results discomforting, it is what they have always known and they can, for the moment, live with it.

For some, however, this will be a particularly challenging situation to be in. If their experiences at home or in school have been such that it is only when they meet the expectations of respected others that they receive any significant affirmation of their intrinsic value as a person, then the pressure to achieve will be intensified. Their need to be accepted and valued becomes contingent on their meeting the expectations of the school, parents and other significant others. Students who feel this weight of the expectations to comply and achieve will seek ways to mitigate the uncomfortable feelings this generates; either an anxiety-ridden push to meet expectations, or they will develop less predictable strategies and behaviour patterns that reflect disaffection with school, or acute anxieties associated with school life.

The potentially damaging impact on students of this culture of expectation is not confined to students. Staff in the school will be aware of the significance of targets and goals to school life, and they know that these expectations generate the criteria against which they will be judged. There will be whole school goals and targets which will be broken down into departmental targets and further tuned to include targets for individual teachers. So, teachers are in a similar position to students, and their professional standing will be contingent on their success in meeting targets.

Some staff will be quite philosophical about this, but for others, vulnerable, probably well-motivated enthusiastic teachers, this can be challenging and result in them feeling similar pressures to those of students; but their professionalism will usually confine their reactions to remaining within the restraints that the school’s, possibly implicit, expectations of staff professionalism are. Teaching staff who do not meet expectations, be they regarded as 'reasonable' or otherwise, will feel responsible. This adds another dimension to the discomfort felt by staff.

Under these circumstances, expectations have the potential to cause psychological harm to a significant section of students and staff in the school. This seems to be recognised, and while efforts are made to reduce the impact on mental health through the implementation of wellbeing programmes, many of these programmes fail to fully recognise the role that expectations play in creating the situation, tending to be remedial interventions to facilitate coping rather than seeking to change the culture.

The weight of such expectations can be further increased, and the term toxic seems an appropriate term to use of them when used either intentionally or from some sense of necessity to more directly manipulate and control others. These expectations carry with them consequences that are damaging whether the expectations are met or not. As an individual, if I continually seek to live up the expectations of significant others, then I cease to live my own life; I am no longer free to be myself. I will now review my behaviour concerning the expectations that are held of me. There will be a tension associated with this; I am no longer living my own life. I will be playing a game, since the way I behave will not be a true reflection of the way my thoughts and feelings are directing me.

If my expectations are of how another person should behave, I will be basing them upon a belief that the way I perceive something to be is the way it should be. My expectations will be reasonable to me, and when they are not met, I have the right to be angry and punish this lack of respect for my 'reasonable' expectations. I am inevitably going to be disappointed in those of whom I hold the expectations since they will never be able to live up to them. If over time those labouring under the influence of these expectations arrive at a position where they too regard these expectations as totally reasonable, i.e. internalise them, then they will be adding the criticism of their voice when they fail to live up to them. When expectations are being met, they can generate a sense of achievement and fulfilment in the workplace, harmony in our close relationships, and when not met result in a sense of failure.

We have explored degrees of expectation, some quite benign while others seeming to have the potential to distort our very humanity. Expectations have a place in modern living, but their potential to damage our mental health, to the point of becoming toxic, must be acknowledged.

Awareness of the potentially damaging consequences of expectations on our lives is important when assessing our quality of life. Any authentic sense of wellbeing and happiness in our lives must be grounded in our acceptance of ourselves as we are, not compliance with our own or other people’s expectations.

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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Bilston, West Midlands, WV14 6AS
Written by Bernard Howell, Med. Msc. (Counselling)
Bilston, West Midlands, WV14 6AS

I am a person-centred counsellor committed to the principle that we all have an inner tendency that can help us to find meaning in our lives. I regard my role as counsellor to support you in gaining access to this tendency. When we are able to do this, we are better able to resolve issues in our own...

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