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Managing people’s expectations of you

One of the hardest aspects of creating a work-life balance is managing the expectations placed on you. Let’s look at why this happens and how to manage it.

Young person feeling stressed by the pressure she is placing on herself

What are expectations and why do people have them?

Expectations are strong beliefs about the way things are or what might happen.

Every single person has expectations around lots of different aspects of our lives.

When our expectations are being met, our emotions are generally steady and stable. When our expectations aren’t met, this can trigger an escalation of emotions. 

This could be positive, e.g. a surprise like winning a prize in a competition when you didn’t expect to. 

It can also be negative, e.g. getting angry/upset when your WiFi signal stops working for no reason when you expected to work on your assignment all afternoon.

Expectations can result in pressure. If you have an expectation of getting good grades in your studies, you might pressure yourself. Others can put pressure on you as well, either intentionally or unintentionally, which can lead to conflict and feelings of stress, disappointment and even shame.

When expectations clash

We can sometimes clash with other people around expectations. This normally happens when there are competing priorities or our needs conflict with someone else’s needs. 

One of the main reasons this causes issues is because people often feel their happiness or wellbeing depends on their expectations being met, e.g. a parent wanting what’s best for their child and having an expectation that they will go to university to secure a good job in the future.

A lot of our social relationships are based around implicit (unspoken) social contracts, which means that we hold beliefs around how others should behave and treat us, without ever discussing this. This can include ‘quid pro quo’ expectations, such as, "If I do this for them, they will do it for me."

We often make up stories in our own head about these expectations. For example, you might have an expectation that if you support a friend when they are feeling down, they will return the favour.

Society places expectations on everyone

Our expectations and self-esteem are also linked! Our self-esteem (how we feel about ourselves) is based upon our beliefs about ourselves that are formed through recurring experiences with the world.

Some expectations are for the greater good, like the expectation we won’t physically harm one another.

But some expectations can hurt. For example, an expectation that everyone has to have a 9am-5pm office job to be a meaningful member of society is both outdated and harmful. Some people cannot or choose not to work 9am-5pm, or even work at all, but this doesn’t make them not-meaningful to society. 

There can be consequences when you don’t meet societal expectations. For example, you might not get a home loan if you don’t have a full-time, permanent job – but short-term contracts might be a defining feature of the industry you work in.

Societal expectations add additional challenges, as they can change how other people view or treat us and can lead to disadvantage and discrimination.

‘Cognitive dissonance’ is when you hold two or more conflicting beliefs at the same time.

A common example is that many people love their pets and feel compassion towards animals, but are also comfortable eating the meat of some animals.

How cognitive dissonance plays a part in expectations

Cognitive dissonance can make people feel uncomfortable and they will sometimes try to change their behaviour or their belief in order to try to restore balance.

For example, someone might believe in flexible working, but judge people who work from home as being ‘lazy’.

Sometimes, people will act out and blame others or become aggressive when cognitive dissonance occurs, especially if that person somehow played a role in challenging their belief (even just by virtue of living their own life according to their own values).

Beliefs don’t always stem from evidence; they often come from a need to believe, which means people hold a lot of assumptions (beliefs without evidence).

Rather than challenging their own beliefs with evidence (which can be difficult and confronting), some people take it out on someone else. For example, believing you are smart, but failing a test might result in you blaming the teacher.

Managing others’ expectations

Sometimes, pressure is well-meaning. People who care about us might want what’s best for us, but they base this on their own needs and beliefs.

Challenging their expectations can be hard, but it can ultimately help them grow as a person. And living your life to meet other’s expectations rarely makes you happy.

Here are some things that might help:

  • Challenge a belief by expressing polite doubt. The easiest way to do this is to raise the possibility of other opinions and then share your thoughts with an “I” statement, e.g. “I may see things a bit differently, but I think that…”
  • Propose options. This can be especially helpful if you need to negotiate changes or challenge the way something is being done in a workplace. Being able to make a researched, rational argument for alternate options, including possible positive outcomes, can really help
  • Make it easy for people to change their minds. People are often shy to change their minds in case they are judged, viewed as a hypocrite, or rejected by their peers. By allowing others to make mistakes, people can feel safe to change their minds. You might even share an example of a time you realised you had made an assumption, to demonstrate and normalise flexible thinking.
  • Ask questions and be curious. Asking questions in a way that is open and expresses genuine interest and curiosity is a great way to get people to either share the reason behind their beliefs, or actually start to challenge or think differently about their beliefs.
  • Be assertive. People often put pressure on you because they are worried about their own needs not being met. For instance, you might want to return to study and work less, and a parent or partner might be unsupportive as they are concerned about having to work more hours to make up the financial difference. Manage your boundaries, communicate assertively and aim for a win/win solution.
  • Accept you can’t always influence other’s beliefs or behaviours (even using reason/evidence). If someone is not open to empathy, flexible thinking, or evidence, there isn’t much you can do. This might mean rethinking your relationship with them, or how you interact with them.

If you’re having trouble balancing school, work, and other parts of your life you’re not alone.

You can always talk to us about the pressures and expectations you’re facing, whether from others or yourself.

Give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email anytime, for any reason.

This content was last reviewed 19/06/2020

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