Why You Need Realistic Expectations and How to Set Them

How to Set Realistic Expectations


“Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” – Anne Lamott


Realistic expectations have the power to make you happier.

The holidays don’t feel like the “most wonderful time of the year” for everyone.  It’s emotionally difficult to join in holiday celebrations when you’re experiencing grief, strained relationships, infertility, divorce, or difficult family dynamics.

The single most important piece of advice I can give you to increase your happiness is to take a look at your expectations.

A lot of our pain and disappointment comes from unmet expectations. The problem is we often aren’t even aware of our expectations. We fall prey to idealized expectations or we forget that magazines and the internet are selling us a bill of goods when it comes to the reality of family gatherings.

How many times have you gone into the holidays thinking this year will be different? Maybe my Dad won’t get drunk this Christmas Eve or I’m sure my sister won’t make a snide comment about the gift I give her again.


We get into trouble with our expectations when we don’t base them on reality.

Sometimes we get disappointed because we unrealistically expect things to be the same. If you know that someone has experienced a major change (your sister had her first baby or your father was widowed), it’s not reasonable to expect they will be the same. So, if you anticipate sitting up late catching up with your sister over a glass of wine, you may be disappointed that she’s too tired, or she’s not drinking, or she’s busy with her baby. If you know something significant has changed, accept that the situation and relationship need to adapt.

We also meet with disappointment when we unrealistically expect things to be different. Unless you have specific reasons to believe your relatives have changed, don’t set yourself up for anger and sadness by expecting something outside of the norm. I absolutely believe people can change, but it’s a mistake to expect that your family dynamics have changed without any evidence; that is just a wish.


Being realistic isn’t pessimistic.

Being realistic isn’t the same as catastrophizing or expecting the worst. I want you to stay firmly in reality. Catastrophizing is problematic because you’re creating what-if scenarios; you’re in a nightmare where everything goes wrong. Instead, I want you to use the past to plan for what’s likely to happen.

The past is the best predictor of the future. This doesn’t mean you’re doomed to repeat the past year after year. It’s important to remember that you can only change yourself and changing yourself is the key to happiness. You can either change your thoughts and behaviors in order to create a different holiday experience or you can use your realistic expectations to plan ways of coping.


Realistic expectations allow you to create a coping plan.

When you have realistic expectations you avoid hurt and angry feelings. They also help you to focus on what you can do to make things better. Adjusting your expectations helps you plan for challenges by asking yourself: “Given the reality, what are my options? How can I make this situation manageable for myself? What can I do if it becomes unmanageable?” Instead of wasting energy on trying to change other people, you can put your attention toward how you’re going to take care of your needs. You can create these plans in advance and feel prepared and confident heading to your family holiday gathering.

Unrealistic expectations not only lead to hurt feelings, disappointment, and anger, but they also prevent you from creating a coping plan. If you’re in denial about your Dad’s Christmas boozing or fantasize that your sister will treat you with respect, there’s no reason for you to explore options such as not going to your Dad’s or leaving early.

If you want things to be different this year, be sure you’re focusing on changes that you can make – things that are in your control and not things that you’re hoping other people will change.




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© 2016 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.

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