Expectation vs. reality

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Mind Matters, By Jeannette Kennedy

Serious mental issues can develop when one doesn’t match the other

Do your expectations match your reality? Assessing the gap between our expectations and reality is a simple concept, but it can have a profound impact on our lives. When our reality doesn’t match our expectations we’re guaranteed to experience varying levels of emotional distress. 

On a positive note, this realization can motivate us to take action to improve our lives. At its most negative, we experience potentially debilitating mental illness, such as mood or anxiety disorders. 

Take Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for instance. When a horrific event happens outside the normal range of experience, we typically aren’t expecting it to happen; hence it leaves us susceptible to developing a traumatic reaction. 

A soldier/firefighter/police officer/paramedic/correctional officer/nurse (you can fill in the blank with a number of professions) have been adequately trained to respond to an event so their expectations can match reality. According to van der Kolk, who has researched and written about traumatic stress, preparation is one of many factors that reduce the risk of long-standing negative impacts of trauma. Preparation helps to ensure your expectations are aligned with reality.

Even those who are prepared through training may develop mental illness as a result of their expectations not matching their reality. For example, take one of the previously named professions who have the core belief that any sign of emotional reactivity suggests weakness. If they find themselves crying after the event and it doesn’t line up with their belief that they’re strong, it can trigger inadequacies, low self-worth or other depressive symptoms.

In everyday life, we all experience the impact of our expectations being incongruent with what’s actually happening. It can be a small event, such as expecting company to arrive at 6 p.m. and it’s 6:30 p.m. and they haven’t yet arrived, causing a slight level of distress.

However, I’ve observed greater distress and people suffering unnecessarily because they remain fixated on their expectations and can’t let go. Maybe it’s because their marriage isn’t how they would like it to be, or they hate their jobs, or financially they’re drowning in debt.

I encourage people to assess and determine the gap between reality and their expectations. The larger the gap, the higher the level of distress.

The solutions are actually quite simple:

• change your reality

• change your expectations, or

• work toward changing both so you can narrow the gap. 

If I’m unhappy because I have 15 extra pounds on my frame, then I can choose to be content with where I am (change expectations), or create and implement a plan to lose the weight (change reality), or focus on five pounds at a time to target for weight loss (changing both expectations and reality).

Think about the areas in your life that may be causing you distress: financial, relational, career, personal. Once you orient yourself to the domain relevant to you, then gage what the gap is between the two and implement the formula to create your own solution. 

It’s important to note that within the formula there are times when you have no ability to influence your reality at all. 

I will close with the fitting Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

Jeannette Kennedy, M.Sc. is a registered psychologist with a private practice located in Stewiacke, N.S.  She can be reached at kennedyj@eastlink.ca, 902-957-1987, or http://jeannettekennedy.com.

Geographic location: Stewiacke

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