The Expectations Trap

No doubt we all have different pictures of FREEDOM in our minds.  Basically, Freedom is the absence of captivity. Perhaps you think of captives in prison who are “freed.”  Or maybe someone in bondage to an addiction who is able to gain freedom. Clearly, Christ followers would think of the freedom they have received from the penalty of sin, or the freedom to live beyond death.  As well, you may think about more introspective aspects of freedom – freedom from self, freedom from expectations, freedom from perfection, freedom from bitterness. While most of us are not in actual prison or in bondage to addiction, we all are subject to these other forms of mental, emotional, and spiritual captivity.  Hence, how do we achieve personal freedom from inner constraints that hold us back from peak performance, that stymie achieving our true God-given potential. 

Let’s discuss a key aspect of this very relevant topic – specifically, “THE EXPECTATIONS TRAP.” 

I have learned from a number of trusted mental health professionals (particularly Dr. Eric Scalise) that expectations are the primary source of stress in our lives.  I have validated this thesis many times over in my life and have seen it play out in many other lives. In essence, we all have expectations of self, expectations from others, and expectations of others.  In any of these cases, stress results from too wide a gap between these expectations and the reality of the life circumstances in which we find ourselves. In all of these cases, we are wise to assess the circumstances and the expectations. 

I once considered suicide.  As a new instructor at West Point with an unrealistic and often self-imposed work load, a father of small children on Christmas “vacation” with extended family, a leader in a ministry to West Point cadets, and anxiety that grew with every sleepless night; I actually considered taking my life.  I have reflected about this many times over the years, recognizing that I simply had too much on my plate and I had saddled myself with totally unrealistic self-expectations that far exceeded what others expected of me. Regrettably, as I now assist others with resilient living, I encounter many who fall subject to this “expectations trap” and I recognize my own vulnerability to the same.

What can we learn from my own example of redlining and pending burnout, or from the many examples around us?  Let’s discuss self-expectations, expectations from others, and our expectations of others:

Self-Expectations.  While high self-expectations are not inherently bad, we must align our expectations with the reality of our circumstances.  As in diving competition, each diving score is the combination of the “degree of difficulty” and excellence with which the dive was performed.  Typically, we stringently grade our own performance, but we don’t give ourselves grace regarding the actual difficulty. As well, an individual task may seem rather simple, but the aggregate of many such tasks can become overwhelmingly complex and demanding — analogous to the “straw that broke the camel’s back” or “the frog in boiling water” who is unable to recognize the growing danger around him.   

Here are some thoughts to help us all deal with the crush of unrealistic self-expectations.

  •         We all have God-given limits. While this seems obvious, we often act as if we can do it all, yet burnout is prevalent in every field of personal endeavor.  The Scriptures remind us of the frailty of man and the purpose behind it: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Corin 4:7).  While it is easy to quote “I can do ALL THINGS through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13), the practical question is what does “All Things” mean to us — what things is God specifically calling us to do, and what does He intend for others.   
  •         God controls the outcome. When faced with a large project or challenge, the human tendency is to “make it happen,” to press through adversity in human strength.  This is a failed strategy! Proverbs 21:31 says “We prepare the horse for the day of battle, but victory comes from the Lord.” So true!  As the frightened Israelites anticipated sure destruction from the pursuing Egyptians, Moses reminded them that “The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent.” (Ex 14:14)  God does fight our battles – a critical realization when we are pursued by daunting deadlines, seemingly gigantic obstacles at work and home, and a personal sense of inadequacy.   As Zechariah 4:6 reminds us “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts.”
  •         God controls the timing. Time pressure is one of the most tangible forms of stress.  Clearly, we can minimize such time pressure by planning ahead, programming for predictable time demands, and rationing our expectations regarding how much we can accomplish on any given day.  Speaking to myself, it is counterproductive to construct a daily “to do” list that will rightly take a week to accomplish. As a final exhortation from a recent blog “Are We There Yet?”, it is important to remember from Isaiah 40:31 that “They who WAIT upon the Lord will renew their strength.”  It is key to wait with patience and purpose, a valuable way to combat the stress of unrealistic time expectations.

Expectations from Others.  Often we perceive that others have higher expectations of us than is actually true.  Alternatively, sometimes others actually do place unrealistic expectations on us. Here are a couple of ideas:

    • Practice Your Declinations. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time saying “No.” A wise friend advised me to “Practice Your Declinations.”  This is a critical skill, given that there is no way to take on all of the requests that people throw your way. It is important to practice gracious declinations because today’s request might be a later assignment from God.  It is unwise to burn bridges if there is a possibility that it could be right and reasonable at a later time in your life.
    • Don’t Own the Rightful Responsibilities of Others. Galatians 6 presents an interesting balance between helping others and forcing them to fulfill their own responsibilities.   Verse 2 says “Bear one another’s burdens (Gr- baros, meaning a large load that one can’t handle by self) and therefore fulfill the law of Christ,” meaning we all need to help others as well as accept help.  Conversely, verse 6 says “For each one must bear his own load (Gr- phortion, meaning an individual load, such as a knapsack).” The point is there must be a healthy balance between accepting help and pulling one’s own weight as soon as possible.  In terms of expectations, we must be careful not to allow others to depend upon us or to demand from us in unhealthy ways, or to become co-dependent. 

Expectations of Others.  When talking about expectations in marriage, a favorite pastor said “We want our spouse to accept US as we are, but we want THEM to be perfect.”  Guilty as charged! This certainly applies more broadly to our expectations of others in any arena. It is critical that we extend the same grace to others that we would like to have for ourselves – what we might call the “Golden Rule of Expectations.”

This concludes our brief discussion regarding “The Expectation Trap.”  May we all understand the linkage between stress and expectations, have the wisdom to ensure our expectations in all directions are realistic, refine our responses to expectation pressures and our own human limits, and recognize that God is the one ultimately who controls the outcomes and the timing.  To paraphrase 2 Timothy 2:12b, “… nevertheless I am not ashamed for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day.”  

This is how we avoid the expectation trap… and how we live resilient lives – God Style!

Respectfully in Christ,


So what about YOU? 

What are the three primary sources of stress in your life?

Are your expectations of self and others realistic?

How are you ensuring that other’s expectations of you are realistic? 

What “tips” were most useful to YOU?

Share with us in COMMENTS below. 

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