I’m just going to come right out and say it early – I myself am terrible at setting realistic expectations. I have been most of my adult life, come to that, but I live in the hope of reform.
I should be better, I know. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn about setting expectations, between two uni degrees, over a decade-long professional career, and years of racing triathlon. Yet despite the many, many disappointments I have experienced in each of these areas, I never fail to keep setting the bar too high for myself, and continuously setting myself up for failure. Ironically, it’s kind of become…an expectation.
I should also preface this with two confessions: the first, I am a hardcore perfectionist. Yep, 100%, true blue, through and through, OCD perfectionist of the highest order. The second, I am a Type A personality who is driven, goal-oriented and meticulous – about everything. So naturally I blame these traits for my inability to set realistic expectations for myself (in any area of my life) that I might – shock! – actually be able to achieve once in a while. And, you know, start to succeed and achieve rather than continually fall short of the mark. Imagine!
Some could argue that having high standards for yourself is a good thing, it means you’re always striving to be – and achieve – your best. But all too often, this tends to slide into being the best at whatever it is we’re trying to achieve – academia, work, triathlon – which in itself is an unrealistic expectation to have about our unrealistic goal in the first place – which really, is just not realistic.
The case against setting the bar too high is not a hard one to figure out. The positives for setting realistic expectations could include results like, oh I don’t know, success, goal achievement, motivation, inspiration to achieve, increased self-confidence, enjoyment, satisfaction, pride, self-belief, personal growth…you get my point. It’s clearly the smarter option, so why don’t we do it? Why is it that we listen to the voice in our heads, the one who whispers those sweet “what ifs” in our ear, that completely woo our high-achieving personalities, and suddenly we’re no longer out to achieve our personal best, we’re out to WIN! Or something like it.
Why do we continue to push ourselves beyond what is necessary or realistic, into the land of the unrealistic?
Is it perfectionism? Is it our ego? Is it a desire to achieve? Is it a deep-seated need to feel like we can do it all and be successful? Or is it a remnant of times past when things were different, we were younger with less responsibilities, or MORE TIME, and we are now unable to adjust our expectations to suit our current situation? Perhaps it’s a mixture of all of these things thrown in together, creating a crushingly overwhelming desire to push harder and achieve more, despite our current realities. Going down this path can be brutally unforgiving, and I have paid the price many a time, as I’m sure you have too.
And that voice whispering sweet nothings in your ear? When things go pear-shaped, which they inevitably do in such situations, she’s the first to say “I told you so” with a disapproving shake of her head, before starting with the running commentary whilst you pick up the pieces of your post-race self. You know, the old “You shouldn’t have even tried to achieve that”, “What made you think you even had a chance?”,“Couldn’t you see that was completely out of your reach?”, “You should just set your sights lower next time, maybe then you’d have a shot”, and the ultimate – “Why bother?” The catchphrase of every perfectionist who’s ever failed at something.
Perhaps you’ve met this lady in your head; perhaps she’s been the devil on your shoulder that’s pushed you hard a time or two towards some very ambitious race goals. No, she’s not helpful, no she’s not liked, and no, she’s certainly never invited in – but she’s ALWAYS there. And being the diligent, conscientious types that we are, we do what she says. Every time.
Because the alternative is, that we compromise on our goals and our expectations of ourselves, and that is something that we cannot stomach. The dirty “C” word. But is there another alternative to unrealistic expectations and compromise? Is there an option C, a middle road? I believe so, and I am willing to test out my theory which I’m going to share with you. Because I want to do us all a service, and shut that chick down before she even has a chance to get back up on our shoulder with her sweet whisperings!
So who’s ready to road test this with me? Who’s ready to live, train, and compete on their own terms, with expectations that they are confident of achieving, and are happy with?! I thought so. Then let’s get started.
- Start by writing a list of your top 5 values.
- Next, write down in order of priority, the 5-7 most important things in your life.
- Take a good look at where your goal sits on that list. What number is it?
- Given the goal’s priority on your list, how many hours can you realistically dedicate to achieving it, and still keep your life running smoothly? (Remember: dedicating more than this will require sacrificing something else on the list – are you willing to do that?)
- Now that you have a clear picture of your goal’s place in your life and how many hours per week you can dedicate to achieving it, what would be the most realistic outcome for you?
- How does that goal sit with you? How will you feel upon achieving this goal, knowing that you balanced it with all the other important areas of your life?
As I see it, achieving this goal will be an achievement in itself, knowing that we have successfully balanced all of the important things in our lives without having to sacrifice any of them in pursuit of another. How does this make you feel? Happy? Confident? Proud? Successful? Inspired to continue?!
And the best thing is, our unrealistic expectations didn’t force us to quit, either from pushing too hard, or disappointment from not achieving our own high standards – the good ol’ “all or nothing attitude”.
It’s a personal choice at this point, granted, but the best thing is – there is an option C! Who’s ready to give it a shot? I’d love to hear whether this works for you, and of course, I’m always eager to hear about your race successes!
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