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  • Writer's pictureLucy Qian

Navigating through Uncertainty: When Your Expectations Get in the Way

In an earlier post, I shared three personal lessons about dealing with uncertainty. I continue to reflect on how we can stay focused and energized especially when life is full of uncertainties. In this post I want to approach it from the angle of expectations. In my work as a life coach, I constantly notice how expectations get in the way of my clients. In my personal life, I witness this same thing happening in myself and in others. What is expectation?

According to Oxford Languages, expectation is

“1) a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future

2) a belief that someone will or should achieve something”

By definition, expectation is about something that is yet to happen in the future. In reality, what the future turns out to be is not in our full control. You may expect things to go well, but it can go in either direction. Our expectations get in our way when we rely on them, consciously or unconsciously believing that the way we want life to unfold should be certain. Then we are guaranteed to be disappointed. For example, if you had expected that Covid-19 would go away by end of 2020, you must have been very disappointed to see that it is still around in 2022.

Some expectations are more subtle, so when life fails to meet them, you can feel rather frustrated. For example:

  • You may expect that your marriage will last forever before one of you dies

  • You may think that your enthusiasm for a career that you’re so passionate about may never drop

  • You may have the expectation that your significant other will never lie to you

In coaching conversations, I have seen people become released when they realize that it is actually their ideas about how a thing or a person should be like that triggers their negative emotions, not necessarily that thing or person itself.

One client shared that he couldn’t have deep conversations with his wife. He thought it was because he believed his wife wasn’t the type of person who could hold a safe space for his vulnerable moments, such as when he shared his negative emotions and fears. In other words, he thought his wife was the cause of them not being able to have deep conversations. I asked questions to explore his expectation in having a deep conversation with his wife. The questions facilitated him in realizing that he never clearly communicated his expectation to his wife: he wants her to pay full attention, empathize and seek to understand when he shares his emotions. Realizing his unsaid expectation allows him to shift from feeling as a “victim” to feeling responsible for himself. It also turns his focus away from himself and gives him choices on what he needs to do next.

Another scenario where there may be unsaid expectations is through the tendency of trying to please others. People pleasers have hidden expectations although they may appear generous in giving their time. They always say yes to others’ requests without questioning whether saying yes will compromise their own needs. The truth is most times they do expect certain behaviors from the person they say yes to as a sign of returning favors. When the person does not behave as they’ve expected, such as show appreciation, they feel disappointed, even resentful as such things accumulate.

Many years ago, I had a friend who often asked me questions via text message. Every time I responded at first sight with all the information I knew. But most of times she did not say “thank you” immediately and a few times she responded with simple words but only hours later. Over time I felt resentful, and our relationship eventually dwindled. Looking back, I was holding the expectation that she should respond to my message in the same level of responsiveness and detail, since I had invested my time and attention.

Having expectations on others itself is not a problem, but not communicating it upfront usually sets us up for resentment later in the relationship. If you ask yourself, how likely is it that you always know what others expect from you? If others are not even aware of what you expect from them, what is the chance that you will get what you want?

Communicating our expectations shows that we are responsible for ourselves but communicating doesn’t mean that others will meet them. According to Psychology Today, it is unrealistic to think that merely communicating your expectations clearly is going to get people to behave the way you want them to. We have to consider whether others are willing or capable of meeting our expectations. Because we could be going to the hardware store for milk.

In a conversation with my client, he realized that he was setting unrealistic expectations to his colleague. In the beginning he kept talking about how frustrated he was when Colleague A from another department always showed reluctance to support his project. My client was expecting that Colleague A should show more initiative in supporting his project, because they both were serving a same client. Through coaching, my client realized that the particular colleague viewed those requests as something in addition to his daily job. Colleague A was not willing to take initiative because his boss didn’t acknowledge his time spent in helping my client. Therefore, meeting my client’s expectation would be going against his own self-interest. It was on that moment that my client realized that insisting his expectation would not only be unrealistic but also cause him constant frustration.

You may wonder: what if I really want someone to meet my expectation and they keep failing me? If that happens, you need to know that you always have choices. For example, you can set boundaries with the person if they fail, you can choose to let go of your expectations if they are not helpful, or you can get what you want from other channels. No matter which choice you make, remember that you are not a victim when your expectations are not met. Instead you are the only one who’s responsible for your feelings, thoughts and unmet needs and desires.

What are your unsaid expectations? What are you doing to communicate them? When do you choose to let go and move on? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Lucy Qian, Life Coach, PCC (ICF)


About Lucy Qian, International Life Coach

Lucy’s clients say that she has a superpower for helping them see clear direction and next steps, no matter how confused they are in the beginning. Through coaching with Lucy, they become clear about who they are and know what they really want.

Lucy is a certified coach in different settings: Professional Certified Coach (PCC) by the International Coaching Federation (ICF), Certified Laser-focused Life Coach by the Life Coaching Group, and Organizational Coach by the Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership.

In her blog, A Journey to Clearness, Lucy shares life experiences and lessons from her practice as an international life coach.

Learn more about Lucy.

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