Is 'Expectation Creep' the Source of Your Stress?
Expectation creep is real—and it can stop you in your tracks.
Because when we think we can (and should) do and be everything, these emotions can overwhelm us into not trying for anything at all.
Anyone who's ever stopped before even attempting something new—because the idea of not knocking it out of the park—can understand.
So how do we not let the pressure of what we expect to happen keep us from moving forward?
First, there's taming the little perfectionist monster, which lives hand in hand with expectation creep. Then, there's being kinder to yourself when you don't meet your expectations—or those that someone else has oh-so-conveniently set for you. And then there's dealing with the rising pressure that comes with rising expectations.
To help sort through these emotions, I called up Dr. Susan Newman, Ph.D., social psychologist and author of The Book of No, who walked me through the process of taming our perfectionist brains, while providing some essential reminders that I vowed to tattoo onto my face, or at least stick on a Post-It and attach to my desk. Ready?
How can I still shoot for the moon—but set realistic expectations?
The answer, apparently, is first figuring out exactly what you are trying to do.
"People who are on what I call the ‘perfectionism treadmill’ really aren't stopping to ask themselves, What am I trying to accomplish? Is this even possible?,” Newman says. “If you review what you're setting out to do, you'll become more aware that no one person can get all this done or do this efficiently or well. We all have a limited amount of time and energy, and if you pay attention to that, you'll be better able to conserve it and have it for when you want it and need it."
I have too many obligations—and high expectations for all of them!
To this anxious exclamation, Newman said six words that hit my ears with the clarity of church bells: "You almost always have a choice."
Many people don't consciously realize that, she explains, which is why we're constantly feeling pulled in different directions.
Figuring out the right choice for you at this very moment happens when you "stop and figure out who is eating up your time and resources and frustrating you because you can't get to what you want to do," she says.
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"You have so many people clamoring for your time and your expertise and your willingness that you are probably going to feel frustrated and annoyed, but more importantly, you're not going to do your best job for anything if you're spread too thin," she says, which can lead to resentment against the people who are chipping away at your schedule and not allowing you to get to your own goals.
I always have foolproof plans for my goals, so then why does something always happen to get me off track?
The issue might not be your incredible bullet journal—making plans is helpful, after all—but rather your boundaries.
"You want to set up boundaries that preserve your time, energy, and well-being," Newman says. "That's more important than even a plan." This means having an idea in your head of what you want and where you want to spend your time.
And she says it’s important to remember: "It's really not selfish to take time for yourself or to invest time and energy into your own goals."
'It's really not selfish to take time for yourself or to invest time and energy into your own goals.' - Dr. Susan Newman, Ph.D.
So if expectation creep is tied to being overwhelmed, then how can I get better at saying no to people?
You must understand one thing about refusing people, Newman says: The fallout is never as horrible or disastrous as you think it's going to be.
"Your friend is still going to speak to you. Your children are still going to love you. Your spouse isn't going to walk out," she says—and she's right, of course.
Because whoever you're saying no to is actually more concerned about their own issue. While you're worrying about what they're thinking or how they'll respond, they are only concerned with trying to find someone else to do the job. "They just move on while you're stewing," she says.
As for a tactical way to say no, keep it simple, like this: "Thank you for asking, I have too much on my plate right now," or "Let me think about it," which will probably encourage them to move on if their ask is time-sensitive. "You can say, 'I wish I could but I really can't,'" Newman says. One of the tricks to saying no is to avoid lengthy explanations "because you open the door for someone to come back to you and ask for whatever they want."
I had high expectations for this job interview/presentation/creative project and ended up disappointed—how can I get over it?
The truth can hurt, but the truth in this case is, in Newman's words, "perfectionism is self-inflicted and a self-induced burden.” That means your interview, presentation, or project could actually be good enough—you just might not be able to recognize that.
Another strategy is to accept that nobody is perfect. Even if your friend appears to have a great apartment and cool job and always manages to have a killer #OOTD, no one can perform at their best if they're spread too thin. So why should you expect that of yourself, too?
Is it possible to create more balanced expectations?
Indeed, it is! Start by worrying less about what that faraway relative or the woman in the cubicle next to you thinks you should be doing.
You can also worry less by "slicing one thing off your list," Newman says, which circles back around to saying no early and often.
I value my ambition and drive and don't want to give them up...and isn't lowering my expectations the same as lowering my standards?
Nope. Absolutely not.
When you keep going and going and running and running, Newman says, you want to ask yourself, "Who am I trying to impress?"
'Saying no is liberating and freeing and it's your right.'- Dr. Susan Newman, Ph.D.
"Protecting yourself by saying no is being kind to yourself. It blocks out and preserves time for you to actually do things you want to do," Newman says. "Saying no is liberating and freeing and it's your right. You'll feel less burdened and less prodded—and you'll like it."
Repeat after me: Time to rejuvenate is equally as necessary as your ambition.
So think of combating expectation creep not as lowering your standards for yourself, but rather, creating a new expectation—one that allows you to create boundaries, say no, and be kinder to yourself.
Read next: Navigating the Stressful Gap Between Your High Expectations and Reality
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