The Psychology of Expectations
Why unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.
Posted Feb 17, 2018
Perhaps you have heard the saying: "Expectations are premeditated resentments." I believe this slogan, which apparently originated in 12-step programs, contains some useful, practical information for all of us about the psychology of expectations. Its wisdom can be derived by acknowledging two psychological facts:
First, merely expecting something to happen will not make it happen. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget noted that young children have difficulty distinguishing between the subjective worlds in their heads and the outer, objective world. According to Piaget, children therefore sometimes believe that their thoughts can directly cause things to happen — for example, thinking angry thoughts about your little brother can cause him to fall down the stairs. Piaget referred to this as magical thinking and suggested that we all outgrow it by around age 7. That is where Piaget went wrong. It turns out that many normal adults continue to engage in various forms of magical thinking. Prayer can be a form of magical thinking. Witness the huge popularity of The Law of Attraction, which says that our thoughts attract events into our lives. For many of us, it is difficult to let go of the idea that expecting something to happen will make it happen.
Second, human beings have a natural tendency to pin their hopes for happiness on fulfilled expectations. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, as long as we have good reasons to believe that fulfilling an expectation will make us happy, and we take the necessary steps toward fulfilling those expectations. "Good reasons" might include us knowing from past experience that certain things make us happy. For example, I know from experience that my morning cup of coffee will almost inevitably give me a little bit of happiness. I therefore expect this experience each morning after I finish my yoga and breakfast (both of which also reliably give me a bit of happiness).
The problem of expectation occurs when we expect something to happen without good reasons for that expectation. If I believe that my expectations alone will bring me what I want, I am using magical thinking and setting myself up for disappointment. This is really obvious when we are talking about coffee. I can't make a cup of coffee just by thinking it into existence; I have to take the necessary steps to make it happen. I have to grind the beans, put the coffee and water in my coffee maker, and push the button. Just expecting my cup of coffee to appear is delusional.
This is less obvious is when our expectations involve other people. Most of us are sane enough to realize that expecting a cup of coffee to materialize from our thoughts is unrealistic. Yet many of us at some point have mistakenly believed that expecting other people to behave the way we want will actually make them behave that way. One member of a couple might expect the other to make coffee. This is fine and good if the other person is happy to do so. But what happens if the other person has no interest in living up to that expectation? We feel shocked, morally indignant, and resentful. Expectations are premeditated resentments.
It should be easy to think of examples in your own life where you have felt resentful toward people who did not live up to your expectations. It is certainly easy enough to find examples on the Internet. For example, Dawn Sinnott writes:
"I’m sitting at the party. I planned it so perfectly. I would throw a surprise party for my best friend on my birthday. She’ll be so surprised! She walks in the door. She looks surprised. She greets everyone and thanks them for coming. She seems to be happy, yet ... I know her better than anyone. I don’t feel that she’s as excited as I expected her to be. I don’t sense the appreciation that I had expected. I start to feel upset. I start to feel annoyed. What is this other feeling that’s gnawing at me? I start to feel resentment. All the planning, all the work, giving up my birthday celebration. I quietly acknowledge what I’m feeling and remind myself: 'Expectations are premeditated resentments.'"
- Ever order a steak in a restaurant as medium-rare, and it gets served to you well done?
- Ever ask your teen in the morning to do the dishes and come home from work to find they’re not done?
- Ever go to drive somewhere, and it takes you twice as long because of construction?
- Ever do tons of exercise and get on the scale two weeks later to find the numbers haven’t budged?
- Ever go to your doctor for a routine wax clean-out and leave with a surgery date in hand?
Expecting life to always turn out the way you want is guaranteed to lead to disappointment, because life will not always turn out the way you want it to. And when those unfulfilled expectations involve the failure of other people to behave the way you expect them to, the disappointment also involves resentment.
Why is it that we don't get upset when a cup of coffee does not make itself, but we might get upset if someone else does not make us a cup of coffee? Where do we get the sense of power to think that merely expecting others to behave the way we want them to will make them behave that way? And what entitles us to get angry at other people when they fail to meet our expectations?
My research on moral psychology tells me that expectations among people are often based on an implicit social contract. That is, without actually verbalizing expectations about give-and-take in a relationship, people construct stories in their heads about legitimate expectations of each other. So, people in a relationship have a "deal" in which the specifics of the deal are never really talked about. It is hard for someone to live up to your expectations when they don't know what they are, but you still might see this failure as a violation of your social contract. For example, Mary Schaefer writes about how she listened to a friend's problems for years, even though it was very difficult, because she expected her friend to do the same for her when she wanted to talk about her problems. That did not happen, and the friendship ended.
Unspoken expectations are almost guaranteed to go unfulfilled. Talking openly about what you expect from other people might improve your chances of fulfillment, or so thinks Dawn Sinnott: "By learning to not expect people to know what I want and need, I’ve learned to be much clearer in my communication. I don’t expect my husband to know why I’m pouting; I try to tell him why I’m upset."
At the same time, it is unrealistic to think that merely communicating your expectations clearly is going to get people to behave the way you want them to. Dawn Sinnott continues: "I don’t expect my children to know the house rules all the time; I am very clear when I remind them (even if it’s the 200th time [emphasis added])." Children not conforming to parents' expectations seems to be a recurring theme. Note that one of the items on Marianne's list above was "Ever ask your teen in the morning to do the dishes and come home from work to find they’re not done?" This points to a second kind of social contract, one based on authority rather than the mutual reciprocity in a friendship. Parents assume that their children should obey their expectations, because adults have the authority to run a household.
"Well, isn't it reasonable for parents to expect certain standards of behavior from their children?" you might ask. As the father of four sons, I would agree that we should set standards for our children. Failure to do so would make you an irresponsible parent. But you should not expect that your children will follow those standards all the time. Did you follow your parents' expectations all the time? Has any child? Thinking that this will happen is unrealistic. The question is what to do when children do not follow the rules you have designed to help them keep safe, stay healthy, and grow into their potential. If you think that the answer is to get resentful and angry and to yell and threaten, you might want to consider other alternatives.
You may have noticed that several times in this post I have distinguished between realistic and unrealistic expectations. That distinction is so important that Steve Lynch writes, "The expression should actually be phrased as 'Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.'" Believing that an unverbalized expectation will bring you what you want is magical thinking and is unrealistic. Expecting that doing what in the past has reliably brought about a result you want is realistic. Expecting others to do what is in your interest, but not their interest, is unrealistic. Expecting others to do what is in both of your interests can be realistic.
It is difficult to locate the exact origin of the slogan, "Expectations are premeditated resentments." However, I do know why that slogan is popular in programs such as Al-Anon. Alcoholics and addicts tend to be so impaired by their substance abuse that they are unlikely to live up to anyone's expectations. Not having expectations for chemically impaired persons is necessary for keeping one's own sanity. But I would say that the same is also true not just for children, who are frequently unresponsive to expectations due to their immaturity and natural rebelliousness, but to all functioning adults as well. This is because each of us, as an adult, has our own desires and agendas. We want to do what we think is in our own best interest. If we expect other people to act in ways that are not consistent with their own interests, they will probably resist our expectations, leaving us resentful. Furthermore, the person is likely to resent you, too (see Jeff Kesselman's comment on resentments). After all, how do you feel when people expect you to do things that are inconsistent with your own goals and values?
Let go of expectations and find something to be grateful about, even when things do not turn out the way you hoped, and you will experience serenity rather than resentment.
I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.
If not, it can't be helped. —Fritz Perls, "Gestalt Therapy Verbatim," 1969