An Expectation Is Not a Compliment

How hidden expectations can set up an unreasonable "burden of greatness."

Posted Feb 14, 2011

While waiting for my luggage at the airport, I witnessed a beautiful moment ruined by an expectation disguised as a compliment.

I heard a teenage girl scream. I turned around in time to see her rush into the arms of a man as she said, "I love you madly, dadly." They hugged and declared how glad they were to see each other.

Then her dad asked her how school was going. She said, "I got an A in Math."

He responded, "You were surprised?"

"Well, dad you know, it could have gone another way."

"Not for my girl."

She then changed the subject. My luggage arrived so I left the reunion.

The scene haunted me as I headed for the car rental shuttle. I remember my father saying similar things to me. When I was looking for acknowledgment of an accomplishment, I got a back-handed compliment that felt more like a reprimand. Not only did he expect me to earn A's, he layered the pressure on me by suggesting I would achieve great results with no effort.

Additionally, I couldn't help but feel that if I found the work was difficult, there was something wrong with me.

These feelings followed me into my corporate life where I found managers who seemed to just expect my good work with few accolades. I was hungry for recognition and angry that I wasn't getting it. Yet I didn't know how to articulate my need.

In my doctoral research with high-achieving women, I found many of them have what I call "the burden of greatness" where they:

  • hold ridiculously high standards for themselves,
  • spend too much time admonishing themselves for mistakes and little time celebrating their achievements, and they are
  • always looking for the next great thing to accomplish leaving them feeling restless, discontent and often exhausted.¹

Through my research, I discovered my "burden of greatness" was imposed on me both by my parents and society. I was brought up in the 60's and 70's where many girls were not only told they could be whatever they wanted and accomplish something great, but the message was delivered so strongly that we thought we had to be great.

The problem is that being great is a vague goal that doesn't seem to have a destination. So I always feel there is something more for me to do and my greatness is just out of my reach.

Unfortunately, it took me decades to figure out what was at the source of my disappointment and restlessness. Not only has this helped me and the women I coach to understand ourselves better and make more satisfying life choices, I learned a great lesson I like to share: Expectations are not compliments. We shouldn't confuse the two.

My hope is that parents of high-achievers get this message so they don't unnecessarily burden their brilliant kids. Also, managers and friends of high-achievers should know the distinction and give high-achievers deserved recognition and praise. Even if a person doesn't take a compliment well, the words register positively in the emotional brain.² 

When you notice great results by someone--adults as well as children--tell them even if you think they must know how great they are. Your generous words are not only wonderful gifts; specific, sincere compliments are good food for the brain.

With this awareness, I am working to be more compassionate with myself and more accepting when others want to give me the gifts of praise.

Please share this message so high-achievers everywhere can ease their burden of greatness.


1 The research model and results are  described in Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction (Berrett-Koehler, 2010)

2 Compliments as good as cash to the brain. China Post, April 25, 2008

For more on this topic and programs for smart, strong, goal-driven men and women, contact Dr. Reynolds at