David Strittmatter

Stop having expectations of other people [reasons & practical implications]

If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed – Sylvia Plath


  • You’re not in this world to live up to the expectations of others and they’re not in this world to live up to yours
  • Past experiences and implicit wishes are major sources of (unmet) expectations
  • People change but we cannot change people. They will change on their own terms – not ours

Practical advice:

  • Make it a habit to not take it personally if somebody lets you down
  • Clearly communicate your values and desires
  • Hold yourself accountable for your values. You shouldn’t spend time and energy on people who aren’t good for you in the long term

Dear friend,

A long time ago, I saw an Instagram post of Gary Vaynerchuck (an entrepreneur who often shares also personal advice) stating: “Wanna be happy? Have zero expectations.”

It took me a while to comprehend the practical implications of this message. Many people are regularly and severely let down because they worry too much about the actions and thoughts of other people. Particularly, when we expect others to behave or react in a certain way, we’re often disappointed. By throwing out expectations onto others, we set ourselves up for frustration.

In today’s blog article, I want to talk about the problem of having expectations of others, how we can reduce our expectations of others, and what we should do instead.

The origin of expectations

Why do we have expectations of other people in the first place?

First and foremost, society lives and breathes expectations. Our parents have expectations when we grow up. At work, in school, or in our sports club, we’re expected to act and think in a certain way. Society burdens us with various expectations, and as a member of it, we’re taught having expectations of others is totally fine.

Secondly, many of us believe they are entitled and thus can simply project their expectations on other people. Yes, needs are real, we all have various needs, and yes, we’re entitled that certain needs are met, such as freedom of speech and unimpeachable dignity. In many cases, though, there’s no justification for our expectations. For instance, we might have a bad day and feel frustrated and hence expect others to show consideration. Yet, other people have the same rights and same needs, too. Just because we have this need due to this very justifiable reason, we’re not entitled that others show a desirable behavior. Further examples are: You did someone a favor, you made someone a gift, you smiled at someone, or you complimented someone. Yes, it’d be great if others returned our favors and deeds, but still, there’s no justification for our expectations.

Third, past experiences and underlying wishes are major sources of (unmet) expectations. Often, we expect others to act in a certain manner because we experienced a certain behavior in the past. For example, as a straight woman, you might expect men to approach you and do the first step because, in the past, that’s always been this way; however, you might also meet a straight man who is used to other women who always approached him. As a consequence, you might think that the man isn’t interested in you and the man might think vice versa even though the opposite might be true.

Why you shouldn’t have expectations of other people

Bruce Lee once said: “I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.” These harsh words imply a mindset that, when adopted, would help many people to a more fulfilled, happier life. In the following, we want to focus on the latter part: you’re not in this world to live up to mine [expectations].

When we stop having expectations of other people, we will enjoy more peace and contentment. We cannot control the behavior and thoughts of other people. It’s not that by imposing our expectations on other people they will suddenly change their way of thinking. Yes, there’re many great people in this world who have a good amount of empathy and can match our desire for certain needs. Nevertheless, we should respect others who live up to their own expectations.

Indeed, people change but we cannot change people. They’re uniquely themselves and know who they are. They want to be confident and comfortable being who they are and if they want to change, they will change on their own terms – not ours.

It just doesn’t make sense to be upset and disappointed about something we cannot control. I’m not saying we should stop caring about others. I love doing others a favor. I love helping others to change their habits, behavior, appearance, … I really care for my friends and family, but I don’t do that because I expect something in return. The simple act of giving is what makes me happy.

Ultimately, there’s just no practicality in having expectations of other people. From a rational point of view, there’s virtually no reasonable argument why we should have expectations of factors we cannot control.

How to limit your expectations

After reading the preceding two paragraphs, you should now understand why we have expectations of other people and why we should stop having them. In this chapter, we focus on the practical implications: How can you reduce your expectations of others and what should you do instead.

Firstly, you should aim for zero expectations. Make it a habit to not take it personally if somebody lets you down. From my own experience, I can tell it’s rough and takes time, and you’ll be surprised once you become aware of your subconscious and explicit expectations, how many of them you actually have. Instead of feeling down when someone disappoints you, practice empathy: Ask yourself, why this person might have behaved this way. If you cannot find a sensible reason, simply ask the other person empathically why s/he behaved the way s/he did.

Secondly, adjust your behavior. From this day, you should never do/give something because of implicit expectations again. When you do/give something for/to another person you should either have an agreement and clearly state your expectations or do/give without expectations.

Moreover, you need to hold yourself accountable for your values. You shouldn’t spend time and energy on people who aren’t good for you in the long term. For instance, a wo/man might be a nice leisure pursuit, but if s/he doesn’t meet your standards and match your core values, s/he is a pass and needs to be let go anytime soon. Remind yourself: It’s not that you don’t care for other people rather, as Bruce Lee said, you’re not in this world to live up to the expectations of others and they’re not in this world to live up to yours. People and things that don’t match your expectations have to be released.

Thirdly, clearly communicate your values and desires. Yes, you shouldn’t expect something from others, nevertheless, we all have desires and wishes, and many people love to please yours. For others to be able to fulfill our wishes, however, we must express them clearly. Please, stop demanding others to read your wishes from your lips. Different experiences and differences in parenting greatly influence the way we think about the desires and needs of other people. Even if the other people try hard to guess your desires and wishes, they will never get them as well as if you clearly stated them.

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