|| Return to Stress & Health ||


"Are You EXPECTING?"

vine graphic

Dear Friend:

Don't let the title of this special report throw you off. This report is not about the subject of pregnancy!

Whether you're a male or a female, the question "Are You Expecting?" applies to everyone. As you may have already guessed, the answer is...

Yes, You Are!

We human beings are always "expecting." In other words, we are always having expectations. Lots of expectations. Some we are consciously aware of. Many others, we are not.

Expectations are always there, however, in the background of our daily experiences. Whether we are attuned to them or whether we are oblivious to them--which too often is the case--our expectations come into play in a multitude of subtle ways.

A Major Source Of Human Stress

Why focus on expectations? The main reason is that expectations are a common source of stress in our lives. They frequently create all sorts of mischief, including emotional distress, relationship conflicts, communication breakdowns, misunderstandings, distrust, and a wide range of other common problems.

Expectations produce stress in two main ways. One is that they are frequently untrue or unrealistic. The other is that most of the time, we are completely unaware of them. Individual expectations are not very complicated. They often consist of simple ideas such as "life should be fair," "people should be honest," etc. It's the fact they are hidden from our view that gives them so much power over us.

When we consciously or unconsciously harbor expectations that are much too high, we set ourselves up for failure. As a result, we end up feeling frustrated, angry, and personally demoralized.

On the other hand, when our expectations about ourselves, about life, or about others are too low, we experience decreased self-expression, underachievement, depression, resignation and diminished self-esteem.

When you become consciously aware of your hidden expectations, however, this can free you from being dominated by them. You can look at a specific expectation such as "Life should always be fair" and ask yourself "is this really true?" When you pause to think about this question for a moment, you will often see things in a much more accurate light.

Of course life isn't fair. Tornados aren't fair. Street muggings aren't fair. Death isn't fair. Betrayals aren't fair.

The point is, once you become aware of an untrue or unrealistic expectation, YOU gain the power to free yourself from it.

It's Really Just That Simple

It's really just that simple. But "simple" doesn't always mean "easy"--unless, that is, you have the expectation that it does! It's one thing to become aware of your unconscious expectations. It's quite another to know which ones are realistic and which ones aren't. This takes wisdom, yet most people have far more wisdom than they usually give themselves credit for.

Let's take a look at some common types of stress in our lives to see how frequently expectations are involved:

A. EMOTIONAL DISTRESS

Many of our moods and emotions are intimately tied to our expectations. If you frequently expect bad things will happen, you will probably feel demoralized or depressed. If you expect something horrible or dangerous to happen to you, you may feel frightened, anxious or worried. And when people fail to live up to your expectations about them, you can easily feel annoyed, disappointed, angry, or sad.

Positive, hopeful expectations can lead to positive emotions as well. Optimism, enthusiasm, confidence, and contentment are all maintained, in part, by persistent, positive expectations.

Love is a good example of positive, but sometimes unrealistic, expectations. When people fall in love, they are often temporarily overcome by positive, euphoric emotions. This intense positive emotional state often leads people to believe that all is fine and that their future is bright. When the realities of love, commitment, and relationships emerge, however, people are frequently caught off guard. As a result, they tend to suffer and their relationships sooner or later become strained.

B. RELATIONSHIP CONFLICTS

Expectations play other roles in relationship conflicts as well. Whenever we form a relationship with another person, we almost always have expectations about how both we and that person should think, feel, and behave. When these expectations are violated, stress can occur.

Friendships, for example, are based upon a mutually understood set of expectations. We expect our friends to be loyal, honest, and trustworthy. We expect they will never try to hurt us or harm us intentionally, and that they will always be responsive to us when we are in need.

When people who profess to be our friends don't behave in these ways, we feel angry and betrayed. Perhaps they were never our friends at all. Perhaps they were only out to use us. But our faulty expectations may have caused us to perceive them as being more committed to true friendship than they really were.

Marital Expectations

Marriage is another hotbed for hidden, unrealistic expectations. Most men and women have deep-seated ideas about how each sex should behave in a picture-perfect marriage. Often these expectations are not fully conscious, nor are they completely acknowledged and communicated between spouses. When one spouse begins violating the expectations of the other, however, an all too familiar negative spiral of disappointment, retaliation, and resentment can ensue.

NOTE: This is why in our book "How To Have A Stress Free Wedding...And Live Happily Ever After," Christina and I devote and entire chapter to helping engaged couples clarify and then communicate their deepest expectations. We provide each partner with a comprehensive, multi-item "Values, Goals, and Expectations Questionnaire" to assist them with this process. We also encourage couples to repeat this exercise every few years, since goals and expectations sometimes change over time.

C. JOB RELATED STRESS

Much job related stress comes from our lack of expertise in handling our emotions and from our general difficulties forming healthy, positive relationships. In addition, we also possess specific work-related expectations, such as those about our bosses, managers, co-workers, and employees.

We similarly have expectations about suppliers, vendors, and various service people we depend upon. Throw in expectations about our business partners, customers, the economy, local and national politicians, etc., and you see that the workplace is literally a bottom-less pit, teeming with all sorts of hidden expectations waiting to entrap us.

NOTE: One big unrealistic expectation being revealed in the workplace today is the myth of job security and/or corporate loyalty. Many people are finding out that the sting of losing their job is made worse by harboring old, outdated expectations that their length of service or their loyalty to one company would protect them from unfair treatment. As we have seen much too often in the corporate world of late, when money becomes tight, people are easily discarded.

D. PUBLIC SPEAKING STRESS

Much of the stress we experience when speaking in front of others comes from hidden expectations that most of us never recognize. For example, one good way to become anxious about giving a talk is to want everyone in the audience to like you and approve of what you say. Experienced public speakers know this is rarely an achievable goal. If you aren't very experienced, however, you can easily fall into this trap.

Perfectionistic Expectations

Perfectionism is another major cause of public speaking stress. Perfectionism is actually a group of related expectations. Primary among them is the goal of giving an absolutely perfect speech. By attempting to accomplish this goal, people will often worry themselves sick trying to practice and rehearse every minor detail of their presentation. Not only is this a colossal waste of time and emotional energy, but it actually hinders your preparation and makes you more likely to make a mistake. It also tends to deprive you of sleep, which further increases your error tendency and makes you more anxious, nervous, and high-strung overall.

I have learned over the years that being a successful public speaker is far more easy than I had imagined. Once I discovered some of my "crazy" expectations about public speaking that I had somehow acquired, it was fairly easy for me to recognize what was wrong with these and replace them with more realistic, appropriate ones.

E. THE STRESS OF RAISING CHILDREN

One of my favorite topics is how parents can reduce the stress of raising children. As the father of an 8 year old, I am happy to report that so far this process has not been terribly stressful for me. Part of the reason for this is that I am blessed with a talented wife who has done a very good job of mothering. But another part is that I've let go of many expectations I previously had about children in general and my child in particular!

One good way for us parents to get stressed out is to have strong expectations about how our kids should think, feel, and behave. While each of us has ideas about how we would like our children to turn out, the little tykes almost never follow our game plans exactly. Hopefully we can instill healthy values, virtues, and morals into them, but beyond that--all bets are off. That's not to say we shouldn't have any expectations for our children at all. Just don't have the hope that most of your expectations will come true. Some, yes. But most, no.

Also watch out for hidden expectations you might have about yourself as a parent, your spouse as a parent, your parents or in-laws as grandparents, your child's teachers and school officials, and numerous other people connected with your child's growth and development. More often than not, these key people won't live up to our internal expectations. It may sometimes appear to us that these people are not truly committed to our child's welfare or to the welfare of children in general, but often they are. Only they do things differently than we might expect.

F. TRAVEL STRESS

Many people fail to realize how their travel expectations can lead to stress. From the very first moment we begin planning a trip, we envision the type of experiences we will have, and we almost always conjure up images of great joy and relaxation. Maybe a travel brochure caught our attention with vivid color pictures of the hotel or resort we've selected, a view of spectacular scenery, or a moonlight cruise to some romantic secluded site.

The Realities Of Travel

Unfortunately, the realities of travel often turn out to be much different than our idyllic preconceptions. From the traffic jam on the way to the airport, to the travel agency fouling up our reservations, to having our luggage lost by the airline--"travel reality" is often not quite the same as "traveling in our mind."

Don't forget, we also tend to have well-formed expectations about how our family members or other travel partners should think, feel, and behave while on vacation. These expectations are another hidden source of stress that can fuel both major and minor interpersonal conflicts.

NOTE: Also watch out for expectations about good weather, timely service, good accommodations, and the extremely dangerous idea that all will go well just because you want or need a peaceful vacation.

G. LITIGATION STRESS

Our legal system tends to create a tremendous amount of stress for many people. Whatever positive expectations you have about lawyers and the system, they're bound to be crushed when you lock horns in a legal battle. And if you are foolish enough to expect that the legal system will be fair to you, that lawyers have a sworn duty to always fight for justice and uphold the truth, or that the litigation process is designed to result in fair, honorable, and just settlements to most disputes, you're going to become angry and suffer major disappointments. Hopefully, the O.J. fiasco cured you of any such naive misconceptions about the legal system which you might have had.

H. PHYSICIAN STRESS

These are not the best of times for the 600,000 or so physicians in America today. While numerous forces are converging in our society to cause physicians increased levels of stress, not the least among these are our own outdated expectations.

Recently, while traveling to Durham, NC, I met up with my friend Dr. John-Henry Pfifferling, founder and director of the Society For Professional Well-Being, an organization that works with many physicians and other professionals who are undergoing stress. Dr. Pfifferling and I had a long discussion about this topic, and he shared with me a preliminary draft of an article he was preparing about the current revolution in health care and how it is changing and effecting the medical profession. The following is an excerpt from his opening paragraph, which I'd like to share with you:

"There are physicians who still have expectations of life-time job security, guaranteed income, autonomy, and physician-oriented work environments. When traditional expectations clash with changing reality, however, most people feel stressed. Physicians are no exception."

Dr. Pfifferling goes on to explain that the old medical paradigm, which granted physicians control, prestige, specialness, and professional autonomy, is now giving way to a new social and economic paradigm, in which physicians are becoming subordinate to the needs of patients, employers, and payers--losing their absolute autonomy and experiencing less and less direct personal control.

The reason I share Dr. Pfifferling's thoughts with you is because they again underscore the importance of expectations as subtle--but very real--causes of human stress and suffering. Of course there are many other ways in which expectations lead to stress in physicians and other professional groups, but we don't have space to enumerate them here.

I. HOLIDAY STRESS

Social and personal expectations are a major source of holiday stress. The holiday season is not a happy time for everyone. Yet we all tend to feel compelled to look and feel merry during this time.

The mass media and Madison Avenue fuel these expectations. If you are single, alone, or recently divorced or separated, the social pressures at this time of year can be quite stressful. Similarly, we all have expectations of how our friends and family members should behave during the holidays. When these expectations are not met, stress and interpersonal conflicts can easily arise.

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS

In summary, I have briefly tried to get across in this report that many different types of expectations, both individual and social, lead to stress in ordinary people.

These expectations are endless in number. The important things to know about them are: 1) they are usually unconscious and therefore hidden from our view; and 2) they are frequently untrue, unrealistic, or otherwise misleading.

Whenever you feel "stressed" in any way, think about your expectations and how they might be contributing to your problems.

Think about expectations you have about yourself.

Think about expectations you have about other people.

Think about expectations you might have about life itself, or about how some particular aspect of life is supposed to work.

And lastly, think about any other types of expectations that might be lurking inside you that pertain to the specific situation you are presently faced with.

The more you learn about your hidden expectations, the more power and control you will gain in relation to them. Always ask yourself if something might be wrong or incomplete with any specific expectations you discover. Just by asking yourself this very simple question, you can empower yourself to see things in new, and hopefully more accurate, ways. The more you are able to do this, the less stress and tension you will ultimately have.

Wishing you good health, happiness, and much success,

Mort Orman, M.D.

Copyright 1995-2010 M.C. Orman, MD, FLP.


Go to the Top of the Page || Return to Stress & Health