High expectations lead to stress - Phil Drinkwater Coach

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High expectations lead to stress

Too much stress is a business killer. However, high expectations are surely important in business? So, how do we manage those two, such that we get the most from ourselves and push our businesses forward?
What we'll cover
If there’s one element of running a business that should be avoided, it’s having high expectations of yourself and everyone else around you.

But surely that’s completely against the information that you find everywhere else, which suggests that you must perform to the highest level possible?

Well, it may surprise you, but those two positions are not contradictory. Let me explain why. But first, let’s make sure we understand what the two are.

What is stress?

Stress is complicated set of human emotions, normally combined with some element of overwhelm – of not being able to cope. Stress isn’t just “I have loads to do and not enough time to do it” but equally as likely to be “I want this, you want that, this other person wants something else, and they’re angry about it”.

In work, it’s typically a position which is considered somewhat unsolvable, but which you don’t feel like you can’t achieve. I can feel my stress levels increasing just reading that!

What are high expectations?

High expectations are often considered to be a cousin of perfectionism, or a pathway to it. Perfectionism is where someone can’t cope with even tiny errors. It’s particularly common in people with OCD, but people without OCD suffer from it too.

Whether perfectionism or high expectations, over time the fear of making mistakes – and the embarrassment or shame that are triggered from it – become too much for a person to bear. The more they give into this, the more perfectionist they become.

Is it bad to want yourself to perform well? No, but performing well and high expectations aren’t the same thing, since expectations are a non-negotiable.

How are stress and high expectations linked?

And the core problem with high expectations is that they are totally or very close to non-negotiable. They become a boundary that is impossible to cross. And when you’ve a difficult situation, more non-negotiables create more stress.

So the link between stress and high expectations is that they close us off from a huge amount of potential solutions to an already difficult situation.

It’s perfectly OK to want to excel, but needing to excel is different. You can become boxed in by your self-imposed boundaries at times when exceling is not the strategy you need to use.

Let’s look at an example

Let’s say, for example, that we have a colleague – Sam – who likes to work fairly casually. They don’t have high expectations of themselves, but they do get their work done. Let’s say we have a customer – Ian – who wants a change to their product within 2 days.

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High expectations lead us to believe that Ian wants this in 2 days, not 2 business days, and it’s Friday so we can see weekend work ahead. We speak to Sam about this and he laughs it off, and says that Ian will have to wait and there’s no way he’s wasting his weekend.

We might be the type of person who doesn’t like to ask questions so we prepare ourselves for a weekend of extreme work since Ian won’t help.

Now, what we really want is any of:

  • To tell Ian that he’ll have to wait until next week and enjoy the weekend, or
  • To tell Sam he has to take his half of the job so you can have a day off too, or
  • To go back and ask Ian if he really means Monday

… but high expectations stop us from doing any of these things that we want, so we feel a combination of emotions:

  • Annoyance toward Ian for the request, and possible not being clear about it
  • Jealously and anger toward Sam for not taking this seriously
  • Fear that if we have the weekend off, there will be repercussions
  • Sadness that we can’t have the weekend off

These emotions build up over the weekend as we see the sunshine outside and wish we were cycling along our favourite trail.

That’s now become a stressful situation.

It’s just one example of a problem that seems unsolvable, other than putting our needs last. These types of situations often occur in employees when bosses ask the impossible of staff, or in bosses themselves when they feel stuck.

How can we reduce stress when experiencing high expectations?

A large element in business coaching is recognising and choosing paths that you wouldn’t have taken. Typically, we work within a small set of strategies that were successful at one point in our life, but are not serving us well now, in order to avoid emotions that are uncomfortable for us.

But we can cope with these uncomfortable emotions, if we tackle them slowly. I call this “pacing”. Instead of blowing up a balloon in 2 milliseconds, which will cause the rubber to break, we can blow it up in 10 seconds, which is within the tolerance level of the rubber.

Humans need to do the same when we’re experiencing growth. Do it s-l-o-w-l-y.

So let’s look at our example above. There were several paths which weren’t investigated.

  • We didn’t ask Ian, the client, if he meant 2 business days, or 2 days. We didn’t do that because of people pleasing tendencies, where we don’t like to bother someone else for fear of conflict.
  • We didn’t explore the option of creating a boundary – that we don’t work on weekends, no matter what
  • We didn’t ask our boss for any help
  • We didn’t recognise that asking Sam to do this was beyond our authority, as colleagues
  • … and plenty of others

Why didn’t we try each of these? Well, there are elements of high expectations in each of them; minimising embarrasement, minimising loss to the company and so on.

Fundamentally, we don’t believe that we’ll be able to cope emotionally without these high expectations.

And this is based on a fear of the future, possible with a story we’re telling ourselves about how this will unfold. We’ll find at the end of this made up story is something which is deeply uncomfortable, such as losing our job or our business.

The stories are not true, and we cannot know the future, as Alan Watts perfectly illustrates in this video:

Having high expectations of others

You’ll notice that our own high expectations caused part of the issue in this situation. We expected Sam to have the same personality style as us, and he doesn’t. He has a more carefree attitude to life, believing that everything will be OK regardless.

Sam believes, if a difficulty occurs, he will deal with it at the time.

Our personality is one based on a lack of safety. We don’t feel fully safe in life, and that causes us to push ourselves beyond what we can cope with, and into stress.

So, when our colleagues or subordinates don’t share our fear of the future, that causes more difficulties. We might not like disappointing people, but they see this situation very differently; if they lose their job, they’ll find another one.

An element of our stress will come from knowing that our colleagues don’t have this same high expectation, but it’s important to recognise that we can’t change others; we can only change ourselves.

In fact, it’s incredibly stressful trying to change someone who is quite happy as they are.

Uncovering the reason for our high expectations

The exact reason for high expectations in each of us is unique, and coaching can help to uncover the challenges we’re experiencing, but there are a few questions we can ask ourselves:

  • What would change in life if we didn’t have high expectations? Both positively and negatively
  • What are high expectations protecting us from?
  • When we listen to our self-talk, whose voice is it that we hear? What was their intention in instilling high expectations in us

How to deal with high expectations?

If you’re starting to struggle with stress and have recognised that it’s related to high expectations, first off stop and congratulate yourself; recognition is the first step on a path towards success.

The next steps you would benefit from making are:

  • Build awareness into your every day life; consider the situations where you held yourself to unreasonably high expectations and therefore needed to put yourself and your needs second
  • Consider what alternatives you have; look at paths that would be uncomfortable for you, but which you could move forward down slowly, one small step at a time.
  • Recognise that you can cope; be aware of the story you’re telling yourself, and remember that while it’s made up and unlikely to come true, you can still succeed if it does.

Good luck on your journey of personal growth! It’s a path worth taking.

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