A hand holding up a spiky autumn leaf

The Burden of Expectations in Anxiety

When Xmas and New Years rolls around, I’m reminded of how expectations set me up for failure.

I classically make the mistake of thinking I’ll have a “best” time of my life; full of laughter, connection and love.

Yet, each year I end up super stressed: First, I forget how much preparation goes into Xmas. Second, I nearly always end up working harder to try and meet end of year deadlines.

And because I’ve held high expectations of the festivities, I am nearly always disappointed.

This time of the year reminds me of how expectations play a big role in anxiety and low mood.

In fact, a core driver to anxiety and depression are expectations of how you “should” feel in certain situations. Failure to meet these types of expectations leads to judgement or self-criticism, which manifests in a variety of ways.

For example, you may believe you “should” be relaxed around friends, but instead find yourself a little self conscious. Whilst this can be a natural feeling, you may judge your unease as a sign of “not coping” and subsequently feel more anxious.

Similarly, you may expect to feel elated when the uni year finishes and exams are finally over, but instead find yourself feeling flat and exhausted. Whilst this is a normal response to working hard for the year, you may judge yourself for having something “wrong” with you or see yourself as a “failure” for not being “normal”. This type of judgement can lead to feelings of depression.

With expectations being a core feature in anxiety and depression, a big part of improving symptoms is to understand what’s normal and practise compassion towards yourself.

What’s a normal way to feel?

Let’s start by saying, we all have the full array of emotions; from happiness to sadness, to excitement to fear, and so on. Life is not without difficult emotions, and there is no way of avoiding them. In fact, if you accept difficult emotions and find a place for them, they will come and go, like a wave that rolls in and out on the shore – what I call the “wave effect”.

For more on what is a “normal” emotional experience, you may find it helpful to read blog post How happy should I be?

How to be more compassionate towards yourself?

To be more compassionate towards yourself, start by noticing when you judge yourself for feeling or reacting to a situation in a certain way. Thoughts which contain the “should” or “should not”’s tend to indicate these judgements. Once you notice such judgement towards yourself, provide yourself with some compassion, by:

  1. Understanding and validating yourself – to make it easy, think about what you’d say to a friend. For example, let’s say you felt nervous at a friends party – you could say something like “it’s ok, you’re only nervous because you love your friends and you’ve found it hard to find good friends”.
  2. Accepting yourself and your emotional experiences. Everyone has vulnerable situations that “trigger” them, and no one is psychologically perfect. Accept, and even welcome, difficult feelings in certain situations where you feel vulnerable. This is the opposite of trying to stop your difficult feelings, and instead means you are creating a space for them to exist. This will in turn allow the “wave effect” to occur and the difficult emotions will roll in and out from the shore rather than remaining stuck.
  3. Doing something compassionate towards yourself. So, instead of chastising or punishing yourself for feeling a certain way, do the opposite – have a nice bath, watch a show, read a book; anything nurturing.

How can Peaceful Mind Psychology help with Anxiety?

We are a team of Melbourne-based psychologists who are experienced in anxiety treatment including CBT for anxiety, along with mindfulness-based treatments and compassion-focused therapy. Our psychologists are passionate about helping individuals overcome social anxiety, manage work anxiety, stop panic attacks and general anxiety treatment. Contact us today to be matched to a psychologist who suits your needs. We offer in-person therapy, as well as online therapy for anxiety.

If you’d like some self-help around understanding and managing the role of expectations in anxiety, I highly recommend a book called The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.