Expectations versus Reality

Expectations are powerful and can have a positive or negative impact on our outcomes and experiences.

Sometimes, these expectations can help us to see what we want to see. They can help shift our perspective and improve our overall experiences. They can even increase our dopamine levels, the neurotransmitter that plays a role in experiencing and seeking pleasure. For example, in a placebo study patients who were given a high probability of receiving an active drug versus the placebo exhibited a higher dopaminergic response independent of whether they actually received the drug (1).

On the flip side, when our expectations are not met, rather than getting the dopaminergic response we expected, our dopamine levels can actually fall. This induces feelings like disappointment, pain, or sadness (2). Even if you receive a reward but it does not meet your expectation, you’re probably going to feel disappointment about what you did not receive instead of happiness about the reward you did receive.

Let’s use the scale as an example. You’ve been dieting for three weeks but have not weighed in. You think “I’ve had to have lost at least five pounds by now!” You step on the scale, you’re ready to see that five pound drop but, alas, you’ve lost three pounds. Dammit…But wait, three pounds in three weeks? That is an awesome rate of weight loss! But it was not as much as you expected and therefore, you are much more disappointed than excited. Sound familiar?

This can play out in the long term when we have expectations for our lives, but reality does not line up. We have an idea of what things should look like, where we should be by now, or what we should be able to do. The dissonance between the way things are supposed to be and the way they are creates those same feelings of pain, sadness, and disappointment.

So what are we supposed to do? Have no expectations? Have chronically low expectations? There is an argument for that. However, when working with a coach or as a coach the answer lies more in how we set and manage our expectations.

Setting & Managing Expectations

Be as Realistic as Possible

It is impossible to know what is truly realistic for each person. However, when setting goals we can at least use the average result as a gauge for what is probably realistic for you. If you are working with a coach, do not be afraid to ask “What can I realistically expect?” As a coach, be honest with your answer.


Express Your Expectations

Laying expectations for the results and roles of the coaching relationship can help both parties understand how to not let each other down. It can also prevent miscommunication or misunderstandings down the road. This applies to nearly every relationship in life. Expressing your expectations of people can help them to either meet them or help you change your expectations.


Adjust for the Seasons

When life changes, you may need to change what you expect from yourself and the other party. Be honest with yourself and your coach about your current reality and your current capabilities. It is okay to not be able to do it all or to not do it all as well as you once did. It is going to be a hell of a lot more painful to expect yourself to be able to do it and consistently fall short, rather than just changing your expectations for the time being.


Align Your Expectations to Your Goals

This seems pretty obvious but this is one that can sneak up on people. I see this primarily when people are on a reverse diet or just learning how to track. Even if expectations have been laid, it can be difficult for people to see their weight increase or their bodies change in a reverse. It can also be difficult for people to not see weight loss in the first few weeks of coaching. It is important to remember what the goal is right now and realign our expectations.


Accept and Adapt

When things do not meet your expectations, rather than clinging to what you expected, focus on accepting what is. This is hard but the most powerful thing you can do. We hear it all the time but it is a cliche for a reason: “It is what it is”. Because it is! The fact that you expected it to be different does not make it different. It still is what it is.

We can then examine why we did not get the expected result and learn from it. We can use it as motivation to keep working towards the expected result. And in some cases, we can and need to learn to adjust our expectations.



1. Faure, A., Reynolds, S., Richard, J., & Berridge, K. (2008). Mesolimbic dopamine in desire and dread: Enabling motivation to be generated by localized glutamate disruptions in nucleus accumbens. Journal Of Neuroscience, 28(28), 7184-7192. doi: 10.1523/jneurosci.4961-07.2008

2. Lidstone, S., Schulzer, M., Dinelle, K., Mak, E., Sossi, V., & Ruth, T. et al. (2010). Effects of expectation on placebo-induced dopamine release in parkinson disease. Archives Of General Psychiatry, 67(8), 857. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.88


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