Unmet Expectations



We’ve all experienced the disappointment, frustration, even anger when expectations go unmet.


As much as we’d like to come into situations with no expectations, it may be impossible to do this. Why? Because our brains are order-and-sense-making machines. In order to keep sane, our brains draw from past experience when we think about the future. The brain typically comes up with an image that is manageable for our bodies, our emotions, and our psyche.

Our mental image of the future includes ways that our needs and desires will be met. (If we can’t imagine how they’ll be met, we begin to worry.) This process is rarely conscious. It’s not until that need or desire goes unmet that we become aware of the expectation we had.

For example:

  • I thought I’d have more support from my boss.

  • I didn’t think learning language would be so exhausting.

  • I thought my students here would act like my students back “home.”

  • I thought people would be more enthusiastic about my work.

Or, maybe you find yourself using “should” as a common verb.

  • They should keep things cleaner.

  • My leader should ask what I need.

  • My kids should quit complaining.

  • They should change how they do left turns here.

It can begin to feel overwhelming and unsafe when the number of unmet expectations mounts in a new situation.

When our well-being feels threatened, we become more and more desperate to meet our psychological need for safety. This can trigger our flight-or-fight response as stress mounts.

So what do we do?!

Making this typically unconscious process conscious can help enormously.

Photo by  Aran Mtnez  on  Unsplash

Photo by Aran Mtnez on Unsplash

  1. Grab a stack of individual note cards.

  2. Write out your unmet expectations (one per card).

  3. Jot down all of the things you think others “should” or “ought to” do.

  4. Now, go back through each card, and on the back, write the underlying need or desire you have which that expectation was meant to meet. Example: (front) My leader should ask what I need.  (back) I want to be valued. Now, sort the back of your cards.

  5. Organize your responses into:       

    a. True needs (Without this, I will begin to die or have great mental anguish.)

    b. Desires (These are disappointing to have unfulfilled, but are not truly needs for my well-being.)

  6. Having separated your needs and desires, consider ways to get those needs and desires met in other ways. Example:  My need to be valued. I could share with others what I need, so that they find it easier to meet my needs. Or, I could read through the goodbye notes I brought with me, and remind myself that others will know me better with time.

While unmet expectations are losses (and worth being grieved), we can actually use them to learn more about ourselves. When we consider what needs and desires we wanted - those expectations to meet - we can let go of some and find alternative ways to meet others. Doing this makes unmet expectations a source of growth and not just discouragement.