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The Pitfalls of Expectations – Boundaries vs. Expectations

Setting boundaries and expectations is something we do all the time. Even with small things like not going out with friends when you have an early start, saying no to a trip to prioritize saving money or believing your friend will meet you at an agreed time. We set these boundaries and expectations to help us navigate the world, mitigate risks, and follow through with important tasks. However, as intertwined as they may seem, expectations and boundaries are very different.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are assertions that define the kind of behaviors an individual is willing or unwilling to accept. Boundaries can be both physical and emotional. For example, telling someone not to touch your hair (physical) or not to say certain things to you (emotional.) Boundaries can also be set in a respect or space form where you ask someone to give you time to study or leave you alone to think.

boundaries vs expectations
Set your boundaries!

Boundaries are essential to our sense of self. We need some form of control and agency over the things we will and will not accept. While we cannot control how people or other external factors behave or operate, we can control what we are willing to accept or not accept. Boundaries also help us avoid unnecessary stress, anxiety, and frustration by acting as an invisible line that we can enforce when necessary. Even if it doesn’t always feel good to enforce boundaries, they are necessary for our mental health.

What is an expectation?

Expectations are similar to boundaries in the sense that the individual sets them; however, they aren’t always intentional or manageable. Expectations are the emotional anticipation or personal beliefs about something that may or may not happen in the future. We form expectations through a combination of our experiences, knowledge, and desires, along with the environment and the people around us.

Expectations are often used to protect ourselves and to anticipate outcomes that help us make choices. However, unlike boundaries, we have no control over our expectations. The lack of control doesn’t mean expectations are inherently bad, but it makes the chances of us getting hurt or stressed from expectations much higher. The important thing about expectations is understanding that they are a reflection of ourselves and our desires. It should be a possibility rather than an attack when things don’t go as expected.

How are boundaries different from expectations?

The biggest difference between boundaries and expectations is that boundaries are often clear lines and expectations are general beliefs or hopes. We use our boundaries to control our expectations.
If you don’t want to go out on weekdays because of work, you can say no when a friend asks you to go out (setting a boundary.) You may not expect your friend to ask because you are working early (expectation,) but they may not value the same things as you. This may leave you feeling disappointed that your friend asked you to go on a weekday, but if you make it clear what is important to you, you can avoid this situation recurring.

Setting clear boundaries helps keep stress, misunderstandings, and miscommunications to a minimum.

What are some of the pitfalls of expectations?

Not keeping your expectations realistic. – The most important thing to remember with expectations is that they are not reality. Simply a belief or hope for the future. Even if you keep your expectations realistic, sometimes they may not pan out. That is okay. Just keep in mind that this was a possibility, and you made the best decision with the information you had.

Letting your expectations guide you. – We never know everything about a person, place, or situation. Understand that your expectations aren’t facts and can be proved wrong. Sometimes when you hope for someone to fail you or hurt you, you project those feelings onto them. In fact, research shows that we get the most out of people if we believe in them and treat them accordingly. Keep this in mind when you consider your expectations.

Never questioning your expectations. – Similar to the previous pitfall, it is important to question your expectations: Why do I think this will happen? Why do I expect this person to hurt me? Questioning them will help them remain realistic and will help with your self-awareness.