How to Deconstruct Your Expectations and Find Your True Needs

We had been working towards this day for more than a year. It was the open house of our community center, and there was so much to do. In order for everything to go well and as planned, everyone on our team would have to help carry the load that day . . . or so I thought, hoped, and expected.

That didn’t happen. 

Several of our teammates left the event early and didn’t help to clean up the mess. I couldn’t believe it. An array of emotions flooded my heart and mind. I was angry and disappointed. Why should only a few of us have to do all the work? That’s not fair.

Expectations . . . unmet.

My husband went to the local store to grab a few grocery items, and I asked him to please call me when he got there. Perhaps there were a few other food items that we needed for dinner. At the store, my husband got distracted with shopping and forgot to call me. 

I was left waiting, feeling upset and frustrated.

Expectations . . . unmet.

Do you know the feeling?

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

As much as we’d like to not have expectations, it is impossible. 

Why? Our brains are order-and-sense-making machines. In order to keep sane, we draw from past experiences 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 the 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 increases 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.

Photo by  JR Korpa  on  Unsplash

Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

So, what do we do?

Make this typically “unconscious” process “conscious.”

  1. Grab a stack of individual note cards.

  2. Write out your unmet expectations (one per card). Jot down all of the things you think others “should” or “ought to” do.

  3. Now, go back through each card. On the back, write the underlying need or desire you have which that expectation should meet. Example: (front) My leader should ask what I need. (back) I want to be valued. 

  4. Now, sort the back of your cards. Organize your responses into:      
    a. True needs (Without these, I will begin to die or have great mental anguish.)
    b. Desires (These are disappointing to have unfulfilled, but they are not truly needs for my well-being.)

  5. 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 grieving—we can actually use them to learn more about ourselves. When we consider what needs and desires we have—and the expectations that go along with them—we can let go of some of them and find alternative ways to meet others. 

Doing this helps make unmet expectations a source of growth for us and not just a source of discouragement.

When I think back to that opening day with my teammates at the community center or my husband and the missed call about groceries, I can ask myself, ”How could I have turned around my disappointment, anger, and frustration? How could I have grown from my unmet expectations?”

With my teammates, my deeper desire was for us all to be a united team and celebrate our community center’s open house together. I also needed their help, because I was tired and stressed. Perhaps if I had openly expressed those needs and desires to my teammates before the big day, they would have understood and stayed to help. 

Expectations . . . unmet. 

I think I’d better go to the store and buy a new pack of note cards. I probably have a lot more unmet expectations than I realized!

What about you?