I know exactly what your problem is. I don’t even know your name, and I have never met you, but it doesn’t matter. I still know what your problem is. In this post, I’m going to tell you what the problem is, what causes it and how to fix it.
Okay, I will admit this won’t apply to everyone, but the overwhelming majority of us suffer with the same problem: unrealistic expectations. Unrealistic expectations are bred into our modern culture. I’ll explain that in a moment, but first I want to talk about the symptoms that expose this problem.
Despite the fact that we enjoy the highest level of lifestyle in the world, and have more opportunity than ever before in history, western culture still suffers exponentially more from several emotional negatives than does the rest of the world. Those symptoms are:
I’m not talking about genuine physiological depression caused by trauma, disease or a medically definable health problem (not mental health, physical health). I’m talking about everyday run-of-the-mill emotional depression that originates and lives in the heart and mind. Depression is pandemic in Western society and, in particular, America. My friends from other parts of the world find this quite puzzling given the level of freedom, material possession, wealth and opportunity we enjoy.
Rarely will you find a person who is truly content in all circumstances. There seems to be an insatiable desire for all things bigger, newer and faster… and different. We all want a bigger house, a better job, nicer clothes, popularity and unceasing leisure and entertainment. Large portions of the advertising and marketing industry are built on fueling and cultivating discontent. The clothing you have, while perfectly adequate, is out of fashion… You need new clothes. The car you drive, while perfectly functional, is not enough of a status symbol; you put yourself into debt to buy one that projects a certain financial status. The list could go on and on, but you get the point. It is not enough to have something utilitarian that serves its purpose; you must have something which causes you to feel better, to look better, and increases your social standing. Discontentment is a modern-day plague.
Rarely a day passes that I don’t hear from someone who is making destructive choices based on one single criteria: They are unhappy. I have heard countless times the phrase, “Well, God doesn’t expect me to be unhappy, does he?” People divorce and destroy families because they are unhappy. They go after drugs and illicit sex because they are unhappy. They go into debt or become obsessed with making more money because they are unhappy and mistakenly believe that material wealth is the cure.
The Disease Is Unrealistic Expectations
The source of these emotional maladies can be traced to unrealistic expectations. Unrealistic expectations have to come from somewhere but before we look at that, let’s take a quick look at a list of typical unrealistic expectations. While you are reading this list, ask yourself if you have ever honestly considered if you suffer from some of these unrealistic expectations.
Marriage: The common expectation today is that marriage is easy and fun. Marriage is about making me feel good and making me feel in love. Marriage is about meeting my needs and finding someone who completes me as a person. The commitment to marriage is based on whether or not we feel “in love”. If someone else comes along who seems more likely to fulfill those expectations, then we “fall in love” with them and “out of love” with our current spouse. Divorce is rampant because of these unrealistic expectations concerning marriage.
Sex: Unrealistic expectations about sex are particularly intense and ingrained in our society. Sex (whomever and whenever) is supposed to be nothing but joy, pleasure and happiness. There is an unrealistic expectation that sex is to be a part of every romantic relationship, no matter how casual. These unrealistic expectations which come from the intensity of illicit sex are taken into marriage and wreak havoc on the long-term sexual relationship between man and wife.
Leisure: Our modern culture has a completely imbalanced expectation toward leisure time. We have an unrealistic expectation that leisure is our personal right and life exists to support and fund it. We have unrealistic expectations about the consequences of endless hours of leisure, particularly passive electronic leisure in all its forms which often approach the level of obsession.
Success: I’ve seen an increased focus in the last couple decades on the idea of instant success with as little effort as possible. It seems that we hear a never-ending stream of marketing gimmicks and programs which offer huge levels of success in a short amount of time, with the promise of the least amount of effort possible. Evidently you can make $15,000 a week, working 2 to 3 hours a day and you don’t even have to know anything about what you’re doing. It’s not just business and money either. In academics we see shortcuts and tricks to achieve high (or passing) marks without the effort needed to actually learn the material and become educated. We see programs, workshops and boot camps that give you degrees, certifications and academic titles that would seem laughable compared to how they were earned fifty years ago. It is no longer the actual journey and hard work of personal development that is considered success, but rather the piece of paper, recognition or pat on the back… or the better job and more money. In my interaction with large numbers of people, and, in particular, younger adults, I find it to be a very common unrealistic expectation that life MUST bring them nothing but high achievement, success, wealth and unending happiness. This is not merely youthful naivety; this is an ingrained unrealistic expectation that has been fostered in the last few generations.
The Reasons for Unrealistic Expectations
It is beyond the scope of this blog post to discuss all unrealistic expectations
The expectations we have begin early in life with our parents. We develop our expectations by taking our cues from what our parents’ expectations are. On top of that, parents usually instill their own expectations for their children’s lives. As a parent, it’s not only my expectation about life, but it’s my expectation about my child’s life as well.
Ideally, parents should be instilling realistic expectations into their children’s lives, based on their own wisdom and spiritual maturity. As each successive generation decreases in discernment and spiritual depth, skewed and increasingly unrealistic expectations begin to be passed from generation to generation. Previously in Western culture, the last four to six generations saw realistic expectations based in absolute truth, a solid work ethic and personal sacrifice. These expectations were traded for the unrealistic expectations of pop culture, Madison Avenue and the pursuit of Self.
“Selfism” is the new religion of the postmodern world. For several generations, we have had self-esteem crammed down our throats as a primary concern of the individual. Self love, self happiness, self discovery, self forgiveness, self acceptance, working on oneself, fixing oneself, improving oneself… the pursuit and worship of self has replaced the worship of the Creator and the pursuit of self-sacrifice and service to others. The scourge of self esteem is one of the primary sources of unrealistic expectations because the self-esteem adherent filters everything in life through how it makes them feel about themselves. If we don’t feel good about ourselves, then our expectations have not been met. Is it any wonder that a young child indoctrinated in self esteem ends up being a self-centered teenager, and ultimately, an immature self-seeking adult? The constant instilment of self esteem into children and adults cannot help but produce extremely unrealistic expectations about life and other people.
Who can argue that movies, television and the worship of celebrities create not only unrealistic expectations but expectations that border on pure fantasy? It seems in America everyone wants to be famous, everyone wants to be a rock star, everyone wants to be Michael Jordan and win American Idol, while drinking Coke and wearing Nike tennis shoes. Hollywood creates an unreal expectation of violence and sex without consequences. Hollywood creates an unreal expectation of romance without effort or commitment. Hollywood creates an unrealistic expectation of the pursuit of personal happiness. Hollywood creates an unrealistic expectation of popularity and fame.
I saved the worst for last because if there’s one place we should not be getting unrealistic expectations, it’s at church. However, church is now filled with a large majority of people who bring their unrealistic expectations into the church. We are now seeing the harvest resulting from that. We have large church movements that are all about prosperity, abundance, living the good life and confessing away all suffering and need. Some of the largest churches in Western culture support an endless diet of fast food self improvement and life application, with only a casual attempt to dress it up in some out of context Scripture. Still again, we have huge portions of modern Christianity emphasizing social aspects of life, attempting to meet every emotional and community need of its members. It is no wonder that there is very little difference in the expectations of the average believer and the average unbeliever.
Three Ways to Fix Unrealistic Expectations
Evaluate Your Own Expectations
If you are not conscious of your true expectations, there is absolutely no chance you can change them. So the first step in a personal effort to change unreal expectations is to honestly evaluate yours. What are your expectations about marriage, sex, love and personal happiness? What are your expectations about social status, material possessions and wealth? What are your expectations about health, suffering and personal sacrifice? What are your expectations about relationships at home, work and church? What are your expectations about leisure, entertainment and how “easy” life should be?
Our own heart seeks to deceive us, so in this area, it is very helpful to request assistance from others. Seek out those who already demonstrate maturity, discernment, wisdom, discipline, self sacrifice and the type of realistic expectations of life that you wish to have. Make use of those who are close to you. They can give an honest opinion of your expectations.
Remember there are four of “you”: the first is who you think you are. The second is who other people think you are. The third is who you think other people think you are (the image you are putting out that you want people to accept). And finally, there is the “you” that God knows you are. It is helpful to evaluate our expectations from all four of those viewpoints, culminating in asking God to reveal to us the truth. I suppose you could start with number four, but the first three are easier to grasp and understand–if we are aware of them and then ask God to help us discern what changes we need to make.
Replace Unrealistic Expectations with Realistic Expectations
I am not sure how much I can elaborate on this because it’s pretty simple. When you discover you have an unrealistic expectation, you have to replace it with a realistic expectation. It’s not enough to admit the unrealistic expectation; you must replace it. If you simply leave a void, it will be filled with another unrealistic expectation which could be worse. This particular point is by far the most simple, but is probably the most difficult to do. It takes discipline, conviction, determination and divine willpower to make real changes in our life, especially if we have clung to these unreal expectations for decades.
Find a Reliable Source of Realistic Expectations
It’s one thing to discover our unrealistic expectations; it’s another thing to become educated about truly realistic expectations. We must have a reliable source. As a Christian, I will tell you that the single most reliable source in the foundation of realistic expectation is of course the Bible and your relationship with God, who promises to give you wisdom and guidance. Moreover, I would add that you should seek out spiritually-mature, professionally-disciplined and emotionally stable friends who can become confidantes in helping you develop realistic expectations.
Remember the premise I started with. Our culture suffers from an epidemic of emotional depression, discontent and unhappiness. Everyone’s sad, everyone’s blue, everyone’s unhappy, everyone’s getting a bad shake, life is unfair, and we are getting what we deserve. A few decades ago, this kind of mentality would have been met with, “Stop your whining; be thankful for what you have; and if you don’t like your life, do something about it”. Today it is met with, “Aww, you poor thing, your self-esteem is low. You need to go see a psychotherapist, take a regimen of pharmaceuticals and follow that with an endless cycle of therapy to keep you focused on you. Today the answer is to be fixated on thinking about, loving and caring for YOU.”
I know I am going to get ripped in the comments from people telling me I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Everything I’m saying flies directly in the face of what is taught today about emotional health and stability. Friends, if you want some feel-good ear tickling, this is the wrong blog. There are a thousand blogs out there which will cater to self esteem and what amounts to self pity. I thought I would offer at least one viewpoint which takes us back to good old-fashioned spiritual maturity, emotional toughness, self-sacrifice and a focus on others versus Self.
This leads me to my closing point. One of the most productive and effective ways to naturally change unrealistic expectations is to develop a life, heart and mindset to serve others. Once we get our minds off of this relentless concern for our own self, then much our unrealistic expectation quickly disintegrates. This is true in marriage (in particular), parenting, business and relationships. Self sacrifice and service to others is one of the most powerful keys to emotional health and spiritual stability.
If you are unhappy, discontent or feeling depressed, search for the unrealistic expectation that is the root cause of it.
I’m done. I probably have an unrealistic expectation about how many people will read this. What are your questions?