Mental Health Effects of Unrealistic Expectations

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 25, 2024
4 min read

All of us have expectations about different things in our lives. You develop them as you grow up. Many of the expectations you have you don't even know about. They are typically modeled after parents, authority figures, and different life experiences.

Some expectations can be good and encourage you to overcome obstacles and chase your dreams. However, when your expectations are unrealistic, it can create friction, misunderstandings, frustration, and more.

As an adult, you have the chance to look at your values and beliefs and decide if you have unrealistic expectations. If you do, that’s OK. There are things you can do to adjust your mindset and gain more happiness in life.

At work. It's a common belief that you need to wait for the right opportunity. The truth is wishing and hoping will only get you so far. Nothing is guaranteed. If you really want something, go after it and take action.

Friendships. Consider this example. Your roommate never thinks about doing the dishes because their father never did them. Even though this might be an unconscious expectation, it's an indication that your roommate expects someone else to do it. As you can imagine, this can cause friction among the other people living in your home.

A more realistic expectation could be that everyone in the house should share the responsibility of doing the dishes. Being aware of your unrealistic expectations and adjusting your behavior is a sign of emotional maturity.

Marriage. When looking for your future spouse, you may expect that whoever you marry will be your soulmate and "just get you." The truth is that you and your spouse have different backgrounds and different life experiences, so your outlook on life and the way you do things will vary.

It's OK not to agree on everything, to have disagreements, and not to like each other all the time.

Money. Another common expectation is the belief that the more money you make, the more successful you'll be. Making money is great, but wealth can make you poor in other areas of your life. Instead of spending your time chasing money, you can focus on providing value to other people while maintaining a well-balanced life.

The key is to bring awareness to your expectations and decide if they are healthy.

You’ll know your expectations are healthy when they are:

However, if you have unrealistic expectations, you might find yourself putting in a lot of effort with little to show for it. Failing to meet an unrealistic expectation — like becoming a millionaire by the time you're 30, having a “perfect” life or job — can set you up for frustration, self-judgment, and even depression.

Before we can adjust our expectations, it's important to recognize and appreciate where you are in life. It's helpful to do some self-reflection to determine whether your expectations are realistic. Keeping a journal may help you do this. If you discover that they aren't, don't worry. Identifying where you're at is a great place to start.

From there, try these tips:

Practice gratitude. Take the time to celebrate your progress, milestones, and victories. Be grateful for having done the things you've accomplished. This can help you stay positive and keep things in perspective. Gratitude may help you begin to see setbacks and failures as learning opportunities rather than sources of negative feelings.

Crush comparison. Whether face-to-face or on social media, resist the temptation to compare yourself to others. Instead, focus on your well-being.

For instance, on social media, you can try asking:

  • Do the posts I see make me feel worse or better?
  • Am I comparing my body, life, or success to others?
  • Are any of my social feeds affecting my mental health negatively?

As you reflect on your answers, you may want to make some changes. Consider removing or blocking accounts that may be negatively affecting you. Instead, follow accounts that post funny memes, promote positivity, or share motivational content that makes you smile.‌

When it comes to your in-person relationships, it’s easy to ask yourself similar questions. If you constantly compare yourself to others people in your social circle, it may be time to change your frame of mind or take a break. Remind yourself that everyone has different struggles, and any single measure of success isn’t the only one.

Be kind to yourself. Instead of telling yourself, "I should have done better," tell yourself, "I did my best with the resources and time I had." Show yourself kindness and acknowledge the amount of effort you put into different activities.

Self-care is an essential way you can be kind to yourself. Not only can self-care activities improve your mood but they can also help to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress. Find out which activities help you relax or make you happy, and work them into your schedule.

Ask for help. Sometimes we don't realize that our expectations are unrealistic. Talking things out with someone that we trust can provide clarity.

Your expectations won't change overnight, but if you work on it, over time you’ll see the progress you’ve been working for. It’s not always easy, but adjusting unrealistic expectations can bring enormous benefits and a renewed sense of peace.

‌If you are experiencing emotional distress or are finding it especially challenging to adjust your unrealistic expectations, you’re not alone. A licensed mental health professional can help.