Expectations vs Boundaries: Understanding the Difference and What You Need




Expectation is the root of all heartache. ―William Shakespeare



A reoccurring topic or concept that often surfaces among sessions is expectations, whether it is regarding a friend, family member, or significant other. However, some clients do not quite realize that what they are reacting to is an unmet expectation. This can often lead to disappointment, frustration, anger, low self-esteem, and most often—conflicts with others.


First, I challenge you to contemplate how you would define an expectation.


Is it an idea that you have in your head about how something should turn out? Perhaps a preconceived outcome that you are anticipating?


This is an important topic to understand because expectations can set you up for failure. But, to be clear, changing your expectations does not mean you are lowering the bar or your standards. On the other hand, boundaries can set you up for success. My aim is to teach you how to be more effective and have better results for what you are wanting.


Some individuals use expectations and boundaries interchangeably without recognizing the context they are used in. So, let’s clear this up. Expectations and boundaries have two distinct meanings—although one can lead to the other, and that’s where things get a little more complicated.



What is an Expectation?


According to the Cambridge Dictionary, an expectation is defined as, “the feeling or belief that something will or should happen.”


Expectations, in a sense, are stories, thoughts, or beliefs we create that result in a particular outcome, though if that specific outcome does not meet the standard, we are then unsatisfied. For example, you watch a movie that a friend stated was so good and held her attention, so you have high expectations that the movie will be amazing. However, when you watch the movie, you find it underwhelming and disappointing, not as much action as you thought and maybe the plot was not as believable to you. Though if you went into the movie without this prior expectation, you may have been able to enjoy it for exactly what it is rather than the outcome you were anticipating.


Another important aspect to address is that expectations typically are not shared with others. I find that partners often possess these expectations and assume their partner should already know these things if they are in fact a good partner, yet this information is often shared after the conflict has occurred over time.


For example, you may expect your significant other to recognize when you are sad, hurt, or in a bad mood and when that does not occur, it may lead to an unhealthy cycle. I’ve often heard, “They should know this by now.”


Expectations can lead down a rabbit hole. They make you more aware of others’ actions or behaviors (because you know what you are looking for) which leads to unfair judgments followed by frustration, resentment, mistrust, disappointment, and more when standards are not properly met. That is because expectations are treated as if they are facts.


On the other hand, expectations are necessary for certain settings (when they are detailed or clarified). For example, when you apply for a job, you typically see a set of skills they expect you to already possess such as the ability to utilize Microsoft word, be multilingual, able to problem-solve or be flexible, have some sort of previous training or certification, and/or more. When you accept the position, you are accepting the expectations set by the company. What makes this situation different is that the expectations are typically defined and clarified prior.



Settings with Expectations


It’s important to note that not all expectations are negative. Some expectations are necessary in certain environments in order to be efficient and effective. Other settings, in addition to the workplace, in which expectations may be present are a few of the following:


  • Academic Settings

  • Expectations may include attending classes on time, maintaining a B- or better to remain in a program or participate in extracurriculars, participating in classes, respecting other classmates and professors, etc.

  • Restaurants

  • Specific restaurants have expectations regarding dress code, manners, and you may even be expecting satisfactory service and food prepared properly.

  • Therapy

  • Even therapists expect a client to arrive on time, respect time by canceling or rescheduling prior to a certain timeframe, to complete between-session tasks/homework when discussed, etc.



What is a Boundary?


According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a boundary is defined as, “the limit of what someone considers to be acceptable behavior” or “a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something.”


Boundaries create and function as a necessary and healthy structure. As the definition details, they create limits—your limits—for what you would deem acceptable. Boundaries invite healthy reflection of what is needed as well as encourages communication, discussion with others in order to establish, and mutual respect to uphold.


While expectations are specific outcomes that are anticipated, boundaries are less restricting and allow the space for various outcomes which leads to less disappointment. That is because boundaries take into account different factors such as perspectives, situations, and other challenges.


While expectations are often external because they focus on the behavior or action of others that cannot be controlled, boundaries are internal and focus on your needs instead, which are within your control. When you focus on your boundaries or limits, you are able to determine who or what fits within your space. It is imperative to understand your values, needs, and your own rules in order to protect yourself.



Settings with Boundaries


Boundaries look quite different compared to expectations in the same settings. To give you a comparison, the following are a few examples of what a boundary may look like:


  • Academic settings

  • Boundaries in an academic setting may involve your self-care to prevent burnout, getting enough sleep to be more productive, shutting your phone off for some time alone, and even your limits within your social connections.

  • Work/Career

  • This may include having a healthy work-life balance, stepping away when your workday has ended, and can be as specific as personal details you may or may not share with co-workers.

  • Therapy

  • Boundaries may include personal space, certain self-disclosure, avoiding interactions outside of counseling to prevent conflict of interests, and more.


Bridging the Gap


Our expectations help us think about what our boundaries are, and our boundaries inform our expectations. When boundaries are set, there's an expectation that they will be respected, but be careful that what you consider important may not be of value to others and their actions may reflect that. For example, you may take vacation time from work and still get calls from co-workers for help or insight. In which case, your vacation may not be as important to them, but upholding your boundaries protects you and continues to reflect your limits. Respect your boundaries even if others may not.


It may be difficult to eradicate expectations overall, as previously mentioned, there are settings in which expectations are needed. However, take into account the various aspects that can lead to conflict such as unrealistic or undisclosed expectations.


Rather than maintaining unrealistic expectations, reframe and rebuild those expectations into boundaries.


Consider some of the expectations or issues you have had in the past because they inform you of where to begin setting boundaries. Start small, be direct, define those boundaries, and practice exercising and expanding your boundaries. Do not forget to communicate these to others—otherwise, they may not know they are doing something unfavorable. For example, you may remind your client of your office hours or inform your co-worker you are unavailable after a specific time.


Expectations and boundaries are developed from the same roots; they are both an attempt to have our needs met whether that is from friends, family, or a loved one. But work smarter and more efficiently rather than harder for a less desirable outcome. In the end, boundaries will allow our relationships to be more effective and manageable.

If you need help further understanding ways to explore expectations and establish healthy boundaries in your own life, book our online counseling and coaching services by visiting: Nayaclinics.com/book-online



 

About Sam Nabil


Sam Nabil is the founder of Naya Clinics and is a Life Coach in Seattle and a Relationship Coach in Seattle


Sam offers Executive life coaching for high achieving adults suffering from relationship challenges, life transitions and an