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  • Writer's pictureLynn Cukaj

Unrealistic Expectations: A Recipe for Disappointment

Art Therapy for Children, Teenagers and Adults

Whenever there is a transition in our lives or a milestone birthday, it often comes attached with expectations. And when we attach our expectations to an event or person, we often set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. These expectations are usually unrealistic as they cannot live up to what we imagine should happen. Why do we set such expectations?

Setting Expectations

Setting expectations can be very damaging to relationships because it affects our way of communicating and connecting with others. We often set expectations because we want something from ourselves or another person. We expect our children to do well in school, our best friends to be there when we need them, and our spouse to make a plan for our anniversary. Time and time again, we feel disappointment when those expectations are not met. This type of thinking becomes a pattern and results in disappointment in ourselves and others. It can change our outlook on life. We fall into a self-fulfilling prophecy, waiting to feel let down by others to then validate our feelings. This cycle causes loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Our friends and loved ones will ultimately get exhausted by this and will create boundaries to distance themselves from our toxic behavior. I’m sure we all know a person, and maybe it is ourselves, who places unrealistic expectations on events, people, and things and then complains when things don’t go as planned. Setting expectations and feeling disappointment is a self-perpetuating system that is not sustainable for a healthy lifestyle. How can we prevent this from happening?

By setting expectations for others, we take the focus off of ourselves and our own personal growth to focus on the actions and behaviors of someone else or the outcome of a situation. We avoid the fact that this behavior is unhealthy. Art Therapy activities and working with a therapist helps clear the mind, gain perspective, and stop self-perpetuating negative behaviors for a more peaceful and harmonious life.

While we may not have control over the actions and behaviors of others, we do have control over our actions and behaviors.

Root Cause of Setting Expectations

We set expectations to avoid the feeling of failure or shame. We are naturally motivated in life to succeed, but our fear of failure can overshadow this motivation, putting a damper on our progress.

By understanding what it is we fear, and why we fear it, we will then be able to soften our high standards that are merely unattainable, therefore mitigating the feelings of disappointment and anxiety. We must work on effectively expressing feelings of aggression, frustration, sadness, regret, and confusion, as these strong emotions are often ones we avoid. This is only half the battle; as we express these emotions to others, we must also actively listen and be open to feedback so others feel comfortable reciprocating. It is only then when we learn how to better ourselves and foster a growth mindset.

Changing Our Perspective

Is there a way to stop ourselves from having expectations when it comes to big events such as milestone birthdays? We must first change our perspective and then ask ourselves, why are milestone birthdays any more special than any other birthday? And why do we wait until a milestone birthday to reflect on our lives?

Society and culture has a lot to do with how we treat aging in general. Starting at a young age, people often make a point to say, “oh now you are double digits?” to a child turning ten. Is celebrating a tenth birthday any more special than celebrating a ninth or eleventh birthday? Perhaps this is more significant for the parent than the child. Parents will often focus on the end of the younger, innocent years, as it is not easy to see their child grow up.

What if we shift our perspective and not place value on the ending of something but rather, the beginning of something new? Would the feeling surrounding a milestone birthday change?

I have worked with individuals who experience resistance around celebrating a milestone birthday. They often question their purpose in life, asking themselves, have I accomplished all that I set out to do? What else do I want to do? Is time running out?

The contemplation of one’s life often will speak to the level of introspection a person has during times of transition. How often do we sit back and reflect on our lives? Or do we wait for milestones to take the time to reflect? As we get older, we often become more reflective and pensive about the meaning of such birthdays and significant events.

If we get into a habit of reflecting on a more regular basis, a degree of acceptance will occur which results in a sense of inner peace. This will lessen any anxiety and depression that surrounds milestones and transitional periods in our lives. Once we feel at peace, we can then focus on the enjoyment of these events rather than feeling the need to set unrealistic expectations on ourselves. Transitions become a positive event, and there is less anxiety about what is expected of us as we reach a milestone birthday.

Changing Our Attitude

While we cannot change the outlook on aging within our society, we can change our approach to those who may be struggling with change. Let’s focus on birthdays again and ask ourselves, what is a birthday supposed to represent? How should we celebrate it? The answer is to focus on the person who is having a birthday and not the number that they are turning. We can celebrate their life, our bond and connection, and show them that they are loved, appreciated, and heard as a person. These are all treasured aspects to having a full life, which results in the person who is having a milestone birthday feel understood and supported. This feeling will override any need to set unrealistic expectations on themselves, as they will feel whole and enough.


For more therapeutic activities and resources on how to incorporate Art Therapy into your life, read more from Lynn's Creative Expressions Blog.

Learn more about Art Therapy and Lynn Cukaj, Board Certified Art Therapist here:


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