Is Having High Expectations Good or Bad?

Do you feel like you’re one to set high expectations for yourself? Learn the pros and cons of having high expectations and see how it could affect you!

Published 23 Feb 2021

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If you're working to become better, live healthier or hoping to make a change, then you’ll probably hear phrases like “go big or go home” and “stretch yourself” tossed around by well–meaning friends and family.

But there are also a plethora of articles that list the negative effects of setting high expectations on yourself. In fact, there’s even a popular phrase that says, “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.”

So, is it a good idea to set high expectations for yourself? And when can big goals shoot you in the foot? We explore both the pros and cons of setting high expectations so you can learn how to balance them to be happy and successful.

Why setting high expectations is good for you

Having high expectations isn’t all bad. There is evidence that having high expectations could be beneficial, whether it’s boosting your productivity or realising your goals. Let’s explore some of the advantages of setting high expectations below.

#1. It can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies


Believe it or not, having high expectations and an internal belief about the future — even if it’s false — can actually lead to the (false) notion to come true. There’s even a theory, known as the Pygmalion Effect, to back this up, with studies to prove the theory right!

According to researchers Rosenthal and Jacobson who studied teachers' expectations of students, results showed that the students are more likely to produce positive results if the teachers expect enhanced performance from them.

Having consistent positive reinforcement is key to making your predictions come true. If you believe that you’re able to ace that test or presentation, chances are you’ll behave in ways which can confirm your expectations!

#2. You’ll strive to develop new skills  


Whether it’s your classes or your job, you may have a few areas in your life where you want to excel. You want to prove to others that you can be better at what you do and be rewarded for it.

Setting expectations in these areas can help you strive for more. Even though pushing yourself can be stressful, it'll make what you do more engaging. You’ll be willing to take on more responsibilities where you can contribute or participate in extracurricular activities to broaden your opportunities. Before you know it, you’ll be improving your social skills, leadership skills, organisational skills and efficiency.

#3. It can motivate you and boost your productivity


Productivity is essential when you have a pile of work that needs to be done. Whether it’s to complete a written assignment before the deadline or scoring an A for a test, having a certain set of expectations on yourself can motivate you to keep on going.

In addition, as you start achieving and meeting your expectations, you’ll be even more motivated to set higher goals for yourself. According to psychology, dopamine — “the feel good” hormone — is released when something positive happens. The higher your dopamine levels, the more alert and focused you are. This is what drives you to continuously seek rewards in achieving your goals. Before you know it, you’ll be done with all the things you need to do.

The best part is that having high expectations on yourself doesn’t only benefit you. You’re more likely to inspire others to be more productive when they see you tackling challenges!

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Why setting high expectations can be detrimental

While there’s plenty of good that comes from setting high expectations, going overboard and being unrealistic can result in serious consequences. Here’s how setting unrealistically high expectations can affect you negatively.

#1. It can cause psychological issues 


Having high expectations can, at times, cause emotional distress such as anxiety and depression.

The findings of a study showed that a group of law students who were expected to do well by their parents experienced severe levels of depressive, anxiety or stress symptoms. The study also found that the students’ motivation and goals changed with higher levels of psychological distress.

Setting high expectations on yourself doesn’t automatically result in you having depression. However, with the added stress, you could suffer from guilt if you don’t succeed or become easily irritable and restless from being anxious.

#2. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment 


Great expectations can lead to great disappointment. This is particularly true when you set expectations on other people whose actions you cannot control.

For instance, if you’re feeling alone and you call up a friend, your automatic expectation is for them to relieve your loneliness and make you feel better. When this fails to happen, you end up feeling disappointed and resentment towards your friend.

Avoid this pitfall by letting go of lofty demands and requests of your friends. Accept them for who they are and set your expectations around reality and what you know is true of your friend.

#3. It can distract you from the present 


Have you ever wallowed in self-destructive thoughts when you fail to meet your expectations? Perhaps you expected yourself to organise a successful class event or successfully sat for a scholarship interview. But when things go awry, you sit in your guilt and blame yourself for what went wrong.

The problem with this is that you’re spending more time in your head rather than accepting the past for what it is. You could either learn from your mistakes and strategise things differently or accept the silver lining to the situation. The class event or interview may not have been a success but at least you’ve experienced it and now you have a better understanding on how you can do better the next time.

There may not be a template for managing expectations but the main goal is to find the perfect balance in setting a more realistic and achievable expectation. Learn to let go of things, especially when they don’t turn out the way you hoped. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to celebrate your victories no matter how small.

Do you fear failing? Let us share with you why everybody needs to experience a big fat failure in life. 

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    Nina Fazil

    Nina Fazil

    A work in progress — has been for the past 24 years.