High Expectations and Depression


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We all have expectations. It gives us hope and gives meaning to our lives. As a baby, we expect to be fed and nurtured by our parents. As a kid, we expect to be liked and accepted by our peers. As a young adult, we expect ourselves to be capable and competent. We can’t live without expectations.

There are two types of expectations, expectations we have of ourselves and expectations we have of others. When our expectations are met, we feel happy and content and our outlook on life is generally positive.

But life is not always fair, right? Sometimes, our expectations are not met. When that happens, we often feel disappointed, sad, hurt, angry, even helpless and powerless. If these negative feelings last too long, we may feel down or even depressed. We may experience some depressive symptoms, such as:

  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Loss of energy, and feeling fatigued
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain
  • Insomnia, or oversleeping
  • Slowed movements, or agitation or restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Depressed mood
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Thoughts of hopelessness or suicide

Clearly we need do something about these unmet expectations. We don’t want them to eat us alive.

First we need to evaluate whether these expectations are reasonable or not. For example, a person expects his/her mom to prepare lunch for him/her every day. If this person is 8 years old, then this expectation could be reasonable. If his/her mom is sick that day and can’t get out of the bed, then this expectation can be unreasonable. If this person is 20 years old, this expectation could be unreasonable as well. This is a simple example. It’s relatively easy to make the distinction.

Sometimes life can be very complicated. For example, a 20-year-old young adult expects his/her mom to be there for him/her emotionally when he/she experiencing difficulties. Reasonable, not reasonable? Hard to say. It depends. It depends on the situation, the relationship between them, and the capability of the mom.

For illustration, consider a made up scenario like this one:  Alice’s mom suffered postpartum depression when Alice was a little girl. As the only bread winner, Alice’s dad was busy working outside the house and seldom spent time with her. Alice’s mom was able to feed Alice, but was not able to provide emotional support when Alice needed it. Against all the odds, Alice grew up to be a capable young woman.

But deep down, she always wanted her mom to be there for her when she had a hard time. What to do with her unmet expectations?

Let go of your unmet expectations.

“Easier said than done”, you might say.  I totally agree with you. Letting go of what the person wanted often triggers some sense of loss. I can imagine how sad Alice would feel if this is suggested. “Life sucks!” I know.

Hold onto your unmet expectations.

Does this sound like a better choice? “I guess.” OK, but what costs do you have to pay to keep this expectation alive? For Alice, I think the cost would be: feeling disappointed and sad constantly, maybe even at the cost of her self-esteem. That’s right! When we can’t get our reasonable expectations met, we could doubt ourselves, and think something is wrong with us, like we have some defects. That’s how our feelings can affect our mind. If the benefit outweighs the cost, for example, your unmet expectation is to get a higher education, and you’re able to achieve it, by all means, hold onto your unmet expectations.

Go to your yearnings.

Expectations are usually formed from universal yearnings. We all long to be loved, accepted, validated, and confirmed. These yearnings are human. As a child, we depend on others to satisfy our yearnings. If a child’s yearnings are met, that person has the opportunity to develop high self-esteem. If a child’s yearnings are not met, that child may suffer from low self-esteem, emotional pain, hurt, and self-devaluation.

Let’s figure out Alice’s yearnings. She probably yearns to be loved and accepted by her mom, but her mom couldn’t meet her needs. Now she could get her needs met by others, or by herself since she is an adult. She knows how to love and accept a person, and that person could be herself. When her yearnings are met, that will make it easier for her to let go of her expectations of her mom to be there for her when she has a hard time.

These are the three ways to deal with our unmet expectations. There, I have revealed my counselling secrets. I hope this can be helpful to you.


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