How to Deal With Your Next 'Expectation Hangover’
We all have expectations lodged deeply inside of us, whether we realize it or not.
They can range from the minor (This restaurant is super popular so of course it’s going to be amazing) to the major (by 26, I expect to have $100,000 in my savings account, two shelter dogs, a loving husband, and a walk-in closet the size of my first apartment).
But the thing is…our realities don’t always meet our expectations. In fact, they can subvert them in ways you could never imagine.
Personally, I had a lot of expectations about what I’d accomplish by age 22.
When I was in college, I always loved reading about people who were huge successes at 22. Twenty-two! That was the age when it was all supposed to happen. There was something appealing about being the young, brilliant ingenue—and I was determined to join the club.
Surprise: At 22, I wasn't a young, brilliant, ingenue—and it stung. Maybe you've experienced the same—having a goalpost or a self-imposed deadline that seems to inch further and further away the closer you seemingly get.
But that doesn’t have to be a negative experience—because just think how wonderful it feels when your expectations are exceeded.
Pretty mind-altering, right?
But when the reverse happens—when you don’t have or get what you want, exactly when you expected it—that can lead to…ta-da! An expectation hangover. And this kind of hangover isn’t cured with a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich and by popping an ibuprofen.
Christine Hassler, a life coach, speaker, and author of Expectation Hangover: Overcoming Disappointment in Work, Love, and Life, has said that coming out of an expectation hangover requires emotional, mental, behavioral, and spiritual change.
Take her own example: In her early twenties, she was a Hollywood agent on the fast track to success, but didn’t feel the happiness she thought she was supposed to feel. It took a few major life changes for her to find her new path.
Hassler told Career Contessa that an expectation hangover “is when things don't turn out like you planned. Or, things do turn out like you planned, but you don't feel like you thought you would…or life just throws you an unexpected curveball.”
But a hangover can also happen if things do turn out according to your plans and desires, but you don’t feel the fulfillment you expected.
They can involve your own expectations for yourself, or your expectations for other people. In her book, Hassler calls these "Interpersonal Expectation Hangovers"—when we are let down by someone else or unpleasantly surprised by the actions of another.
Instead of wishing for your hangover to disappear as quickly as a killer Black Friday deal, Hassler says we should leverage these experiences and learn from them.
Here’s how to deal with the biggest disappointment of all: disappointment in ourselves and the gap between what we wanted—and what we get.
1. Consider Why Your Hangover Happened
“Trying to measure up to all our internal and external expectations leaves most of us living as human doings rather than human beings,” she writes. But once you let go of what you expect to happen, you can experience fulfillment that lasts—and that’s not tied to what you think you needed.
So it helps to trace your hangover back to its origin:
Were your expectations tied to someone else?
A standard that you set?
Were your goals really realistic (it’s OK if they weren’t—be honest)?
Do they relate to something that’s happened in the past?
Rather than feel the full weight of the expectation hangover, take a third-party view and get curious. Try to see where the expectations came from and why they might be affecting you.
2. Talk It Out
Sometimes trying to figure out why something happened is like wandering through a haunted house in the summer—it just doesn’t make any sense.
Turning to someone you trust can often offer an unbiased opinion about what you’re trying to process. It’s the same reason why you might be really great at giving your friends advice: You’re not as deeply emotionally entrenched in their issues as they are, so you can see it all sans filter.
A personal development coach or therapist can be helpful in this process, or even just a trusted friend.
While it is good to confide in someone who knows you well, look for someone who truly can approach what you’re sharing with grace and compassion—not judgement.
But remember, you’re not asking to be fixed, or to radically alter your whole life. Even recounting an experience out loud to someone else can clarify things in your own brain.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a conversation with my friend Danielle where we each talk about a specific sticky problem, and simply through recounting the ins and outs, the answers reveal themselves. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.
3. Don’t Let Your Expectation Hangovers Block You
As tricky as it can be to bounce back from disillusionment or not feeling fulfilled, you should resist letting this define how you move going forward.
In other words: Don’t let a hangover make you comfortable. Just because you didn’t get what you wanted this time doesn’t mean you can’t try again (and again, and again).
As Hassler writes in her book:
“We are constrained by self-concepts and structures built from expectations about who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do. We long to feel the highs of love, joy, inspiration, and passion, but we do not want to feel the depths of uncomfortable feelings such as sadness, anger, and shame. We dream big dreams and desire change in our lives but limit ourselves because we are not willing to step into the unknown.”
That’s why trying is so important—and learning from your trials.
The goal isn’t to lower your expectations, or abandon them altogether, but to be free of them and not tie your self-worth to external validation or gold stars.
That’s when you can discover not only what you might never expect—but what you always needed after all.
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