Unrealistic Expectations and the Need for Control

Far from helping you reach your full potential and promoting well-being, setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and constantly needing to be in control will only cause you unnecessary stress.
Unrealistic Expectations and the Need for Control

Last update: 04 September, 2020

Modern life comes with so many different responsibilities, whether it be work, social, or family commitments. It can be difficult not to jump on the bandwagon and add demands and expectations of our own. In this article, we’ll talk about unrealistic expectations and the need for control in more detail.

Sometimes, it can be almost impossible to not get carried away on the whirlwind that is modern life. Each of us has a seemingly endless to-do list, packed diaries and schedules to help us organize and optimize our time, and hundreds of household chores and family matters to attend to.

“Will I be a good parent?”, “If I stay late, will my manager value my work?”, “I can’t make mistakes” or “Do my friends really appreciate me?” are just some of the many questions and worries that plague our minds on a daily basis.

A woman thinking.

Unrealistic expectations

Self-imposed goals and expectations can lead to the mistaken belief that perfection can and should be achieved in almost every aspect of our lives.

In some respects, setting goals can help give meaning to our lives. However, problems can arise when the goals we set for ourselves are unattainable, either because they were born of impossible ideals or because they’re simply unrealistic. One example might be, “I’ll never be late for work”.

I must vs. I want

  • Start by considering whether the goals you’ve set for yourself depend solely and exclusively on you. In other words, are they something you can achieve using your own personal qualities and abilities, as well as your personal circumstances and relationships?
  • Secondly, you should also think about whether that goal is really something you want to achieve, or whether you’re only doing it in response to societal, work, or pressures or your own unrealistic expectations.

It can be helpful to carry out the following reflective exercise: try to divide your daily tasks and activities into two categories, depending on whether you consider them an obligation or a personal choice. In the first column, write, “I must or I have to” and in the second “I want or I would like”. Let’s take a look at a simple example:

“I have to stay home this weekend because I need to clean, do laundry, and iron. However, I want to go to the beach because I’d like to distract myself for a few hours”.

Distinguishing between obligation and choice

When faced with this kind of situation, we immediately start to weigh up the pros and cons for each of our options: “Do the housework” or “Go to the beach”. It’s here that we start to see the need for control, and the need to categorize our lives into what we want and what’s expected of us (or what we think is expected).

We may even deny our desire to go to the beach, using the excuse that, if we do go, we’ll only have to catch up on Monday: tackling the build-up of housework, going to work, and dealing with all our other family commitments. It’s this anxiety and negative anticipation that sparks an obsession with making the most of our time and a fear of not being productive.

The simple fact of thinking about it in these terms instantly gives our obligations more weight. Held hostage by our own expectations, we comfort ourselves with the phrase, “There’s always next weekend”.

A young woman.

Relinquishing control

Each of us needs to accept that life is constantly changing and evolving. No matter how hard you try, you can’t possibly control everything. Once you do that, you can start to make decisions based on your own personal concerns, needs, pleasures, and desires. In turn, this helps to promote greater health and well-being.

Taking charge of your life and suppressing these unrealistic expectations will free you from the stresses, pressures, and frustrations that such self-imposed obligations generate.

By taking this weight off our shoulders, we give ourselves permission to:

  • Be ourselves without internal judgment or criticism.
  • Love ourselves for who we are, accepting that we all make mistakes, and valuing our personal qualities.
  • Be assertive, finding the courage to say “no” without feeling guilty.
  • Spend time taking care of our mental and physical health.
  • Recognize our achievements and value the effort we put into achieving them.
  • Be our own top priority, listening to our needs without feeling like we’re being selfish.

Instead of setting unrealistic expectations, try to adapt

In his book The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life Harvard Professor Tal Ben-Shahar wrote, “We strive to achieve the impossible every day”. According to Ben-Shahar, approximately 86% of us are perfectionists. This constant search for perfection is often the primary source of our unhappiness.

Learning to “take your foot off the gas” isn’t an easy task, but it can be very rewarding. In the process, you might just find the following:

  • A path of self-discovery, and a greater understanding of your own inner workings.
  • Greater control over our emotions and the strength to let go of aspects of your life that make you unhappy.
  • The freedom to make your own choices, finding a balance between “I must” and “I want”.
  • The strength to change the focus of your life to the pursuit of happiness, health, and well-being.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.