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Why Expectations Are Toxic

I’m a teacher, and I think collectively, we would all agree that teaching was hard last year.

Life, in general, was hard last year, whether you were a parent, student, teacher, or all three. I’m not sure we’re out of the woods yet, and it’s my prediction that in the next couple of years, due to changing curriculum, expectations, and sheer exhaustion, we’ll see teachers leave the profession faster than ever before. While previous generations have predicted this same thing, we’re actually seeing it now.

As a teacher myself, I can’t blame other teachers for leaving. Teaching is a thankless job; it really is. And children (and honestly, parents, too) have a great deal less interest in learning than they used to. Or maybe it’s simply that before now they didn’t have anything better to do. A long time ago, a kid could read a book, climb a tree or do some chores. There weren’t endless amounts of entertainment at hand. Now, they need only to touch a screen and have the entire world at their fingertips.

We moved our younger children to a Classical Christian school last year because we felt like the education they were getting in public school wasn’t fulfilling them. Teachers were not the problem, nor were other students. The district we’re in is fabulous, has great diversity, and lots of love and care. But there was something missing. I wanted my children to learn math the “normal” way and to hear a little bit about Jesus throughout the day.

As a Christian, I felt that integrating our faith and education was important.

What I didn’t know was how drastically different classical education is from traditional public education. It involves massive amounts of reading ancient and medieval literature and there is a ton of writing and debating. While this is an amazing way for many students and parents to learn, Clayford and I felt that for our sports-loving wild child, it probably wasn’t the best fit. (On the other hand, our youngest daughter fits the perfect profile for a classical learner. During Coronavirus she taught herself how to speak and write in Korean for fun.) While he’s still there for one more year, we’ve decided to return to public school the next year, and that’s okay.

Normally, a wrong decision like moving my child to a new school would send me into a depression for months. I’ve made many wrong decisions in my life that have filled me with years of regret.

Many times, this regret led me to use food and alcohol to distract myself from the self-condemnation I felt from making what I believed was a dumb decision. I ate and drank to escape the feeling of regret.

But if this year has taught me anything, it’s that I can’t hold expectations too tightly. It’s good to have expectations, and it’s okay to have disappointment. But the two go hand-in-hand.

The higher the unmet expectation, the bigger the disappointment, and the longer it can take to recover from what we thought would be.

Why does expectation become so toxic for us? I think it’s because expectation feels a lot like hope, and losing hope leads to exactly that–hopelessness.

But expectation is not hope.

How Expectation and Hope Are Different:

1. Expectation comes from external desire, but hope is an internal belief.

Expectations tie heavily into concrete and tangible desires, while hope is more existential. For example, if it’s my anniversary, I might expect my husband to buy me a new ring, while I might hope that we will still be together the next year. My expectation yearns for something I want, while my hope leans more towards an overall idea.

2. Expectation relies on someone or something else’s behavior, whereas hope understands that we get to choose.

I wasn’t consciously aware of this at the time, but I was expecting that the school we moved our kids to would have X, Y, and Z. (Fill in the blank with your own failed expectations.) When that wasn’t the case, I was disappointed. However, I was hoping that the kids would enjoy their new school, and I was not disappointed because the enjoyment was not on me. Whether they liked it or not would be their choice, not mine.

3. Expectation is selfish for what I want, but hope thinks of everyone involved.

If we think about expectation in terms of outcome, then in order for us not to be disappointed, what we wanted has to happen exactly the way we wanted it to. Again, I wanted definitive, concrete things from the school we moved to. When they didn’t happen, I was disappointed. But hope doesn’t work that way. I hope that the school will continue to thrive and grow because I care about the people there and want the best for them. I am hopeful that it will serve its purpose.

If I were angry that the school had not met my expectations, I would have stormed into the headmaster’s office and demanded I get my way. That kind of expectation is toxic. I would have left even more disappointed than ever because life doesn’t work that way. We do not always get what we want when we want it. Sometimes we simply have to move on and change our circumstances in order to find our peace.

But that’s hard right?

Here Is My Advice on Moving from Expectation to Hope:

1. Learn to recognize the traits of toxic expectation.

You know the drill. A thought of something you want pops into your head. For me, it was wanting my children to go to a smaller school where they would learn “normal” math, learn about Jesus and get to be involved in every activity they wanted to, which wasn’t possible at the large public school. So you get excited, maybe, too excited. You start dreaming up all the ways that your want is going to happen. You start expecting, without any real knowledge of whether or not things will be as you want them to be.

2. Keep a loose grip on your “Must Have” list.

If you go into a new friendship, job or any other change with a list of external wants and desires, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. While it’s totally fine to desire certain things, you have to be okay with not getting everything you want all at once. It’s important to realize that some of the things you desire might be contingent upon the actions of others, and you can’t control other people.

3. Instead of expecting the external to turn out a certain way, have faith (hope) that the internal feeling you desire will eventually happen.

Why did I want my kids to move schools? Because I felt that all of the things I mentioned above were not going to happen at their public school. I felt that this could lead them to a lack of direction and dissatisfaction, and I wanted my children to enjoy a positive experience in school. I was hopeful that the happiness and joy I wanted them to have would come when they moved schools.

After my experience of switching my children to another school, I realized that my expectations might have failed, but I still have my hope. No matter where my children are in life, I am still hoping for their happiness, and the truth is, it’s up to them to choose joy.

Failure can teach us valuable lessons about expectation.

Shifting ever so slightly from an external want to an internal belief–and holding that belief lightly, allowing yourself to bend and stretch–will lead to far less disappointment and way more hope. Hope is a good thing. I dare say, hope is a necessary part of life.

Have you ever dealt with unmet expectations? How did you learn to push through the disappointment? I’d love to hear from you. Comment below or contact me.

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