High expectations are a double-edged sword. If setting the bar high in life has gotten you far up until now — but lately things feel hollow and meaningless — it might be time to recalibrate the way you motivate yourself.
Good expectations for an outcome lead to good outcomes. This is a phenomenon known in psychology as the Pygmalion effect. Similarly, when you have bad expectations for an outcome, you’re more likely to have the bad outcome you expected — the Golem effect.
It’s important to have quality thoughts. Thoughts lead to feelings, feelings lead to actions, and actions lead to results (or consequences) in life. Your day-to-day thoughts really do shape your life.
As a result, we’re encouraged from an early age to have high expectations for ourselves. Expectations help us develop discipline and seek out the best in others.
If you’re not careful, however, these same heavyweight expectations can flatten you like a pancake, and before long your expectations begin quietly and stealthily robbing you of happiness. If you’re ambitious or driven, here are three scenarios you’ll want to keep an eye out for as you set goals for the future.
A Short Half-Life On Joy
Psychologist James T. Webb, a leading authority on gifted children, notes that talented or thoughtful young people are more likely to experience existential depression — especially after their achievements. These young adults and teenagers are sharp and future-focused, and their constant overthinking can sometimes work to their detriment rather than their advantage.
When you constantly fixate on goals, snatching that next trophy becomes your identity. And by the time you hold the trophy in your hands, you’ve forgotten how to savor the moment without some invisible string continuing to pull you forward. After winning three Super Bowls, American football quarterback Tom Brady quipped in a 60 Minutes interview that “There’s got to be more than this in life”.
Hedonic adaptation tells us that the change in feelings from major positive or negative live events usually only last a short time before we return to a state of homeostasis. To make lasting shifts in your happiness levels, focus more on altering your day-to-day thoughts and feelings than simply checking items off your bucket list.
Takeaway: Remind yourself what it feels like to not fixate on goals all day every day. Focus on raising your day-to-day “happiness equilibrium” instead.
I started going back to acupuncture for the first time since the pandemic began. Doing a new intake appointment with a new provider in a new city gave me déjà vu; I was reminded of something my previous acupuncturist said to me the day we met.
In that intake appointment, I had shared about how I couldn’t ever relax, even when I had down time or a light schedule. The feeling wasn’t what I would call anxiety or panic, but it did constantly feel like my body was under pressure — as if it was being squeezed.
“You probably have sympathetic lock,” she replied. My brow furrowed at this news, and my brain began buzzing.
Apparently, your body can get stuck in fight-or-flight mode if you’re not careful. Traditional Chinese Medicine helps the body navigate out of an overactive sympathetic nervous system (“Fight or flight”) and back into the parasympathetic nervous system (“Rest and digest”). If it feels like you can’t ever relax, it might be because your sympathetic nervous system fires on all cylinders, all day, every day.
By the time you hit this level… taking a day off doesn’t really matter anymore. Your body has gotten too rusty at downshifting. If you find yourself unable to actually relax when you *do* have down time, this might be what’s happening for you.
Takeaway: Our bodies aren’t bulletproof. If you’ve forgotten how to relax at the cellular level, you might need to introduce an input or healing modality into your life to help you navigate a physical reset.
An Aversion To Taking Risks
A side effect of chronically high expectations is that you always want to show up polished and perfect. You never want to risk looking bad, because looking bad would be a reflection on who you are as a person.
The further along we get in our careers, the harder looking bad becomes. This is not because of ability or opportunities; it’s because we’re terrified of becoming beginners again. There’s even medical terminology to define the fear of imperfection: Atelophobia.
Here’s the inconvenient truth: Many of the biggest opportunities in life come along as a result of putting yourself out there, looking sloppy as hell, and staying the course.
This is one of the ways social media works against you if you’re not careful. Don’t get me wrong, Instagram is fun; there are illustrators and creators doing incredible stuff on that platform these days.
But social media also bombards you with hundreds (if not thousands) of opportunities a day to compare yourself to others. It’s easy to start telling yourself that you should have your sh*t together 24/7, that you should be eating exotic food at fabulous restaurants, and that you should have an effortless six-pack in photos at all times.
I thank my lucky stars every day that I was born in 1987 and didn’t have a smartphone until I was 24. I can’t imagine being young and bombarded with today’s social media landscape. The pressure to have your life together and be perfect for the sake of approval can be stressful at best and catastrophic at worst. Maintain a safe distance between your phone and your brain.
Takeaway: High expectations can lead to cold feet with regard to change. Remember that everyone who’s good at something was once not good at it; embrace the suck and prioritize getting better over being perfect or celebrated.
High expectations and quality thoughts will shape your future. Without gentle guardrails, however, they can also sabotage you.
- Build up your “happiness equilibrium” to more deeply savor the victories of tomorrow.
- Help your body regulate itself by keeping your parasympathetic nervous system open for business.
- Embrace risks and remember to look bad along the way. Looking bad is the new looking good.
Dodge these high-expectation mines and you’ll have an easier time converting hustle into long-lasting happiness and success.
Thanks for reading. 🙏🏼
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