It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Spending Memorial Day alone in an airport, writing emails and working instead of waking up leisurely after dancing the night away at a local tango festival… yeah, not what I would have picked either.

After all, this was our 5-year anniversary.

In May five years ago, I had just moved to Colorado for work, a job I loved. I had picked up my entire life and driven 10+ hours west from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I had spent almost two decades. I arrived there as an international student back in the mid-90s and stayed ever since.

When I arrived in Colorado in May of 2014, the first weekend after the move was Memorial Day weekend. As a tango dancer, the natural thing to do was to attend the then-famous Denver Tango Festival, which had been an institution over Memorial Day Weekend for years at that point. I figured that because I was new to town, the best way to meet some new friends and get to know the local tango community would be to attend this festival.

Indeed, I met and danced with many lovely local dancers that weekend, but the one who really caught my attention was Mike, a professor at Montana State University, who lived 10+ hours further north in Bozeman, Montana. We hit it off right away, and he’s been an important part of my life ever since.

Throughout our relationship, tango has played a big part, both as social glue to community and friends, and as a way to strengthen our emotional and physical connection. During our three and a half years of long-distance dating, tango was one of the things that helped keep our relationship alive, as we would meet up at different festivals across the country. We would always prioritize dancing when we were together.

Mike and I dancing at the San Diego New Year’s tango festival in 2016/17

Now that we live together and life does what it does – gets busy – lately, we haven’t been dancing as much and I was looking forward to reconnecting in this way. So, when Mike informed me that this particular Memorial Day weekend he was too busy to go to Salt Lake City and dance with me, it is fair to say I felt disappointed, even angry.

I had a whole week of travel planned that following week, and my first flight was out of SLC which meant that now, instead of a pleasant road trip with Mike followed by days and nights of dancing before getting on a plane, I had to take a 6am flight to Salt Lake City on Monday morning, the only way to make my 2pm connection to Tulsa that afternoon. Which meant, I’d be spending Memorial Day killing hours in an airport by myself, instead of hanging out with friends and loved ones.

“We never do anything fun.” “We never go anywhere.”  “You always cancel our plans at the last minute.” 

Well-rehearsed lines of unmet expectations and blame went through my mind (and probably came out of my mouth), and I felt myself getting frustrated.

Unmet expectations are a bitch

Here’s the thing: expectations wreak havoc on our emotions. Unmet expectations is one of the biggest sources of friction in any human relationship, whether it be personal or professional in nature.

Expectations are beliefs about what is going to happen in the future.

Jay Van Bavel, PhD

The problem with expectations is that they often contradict reality. When our expectations are misaligned with what actually happens, or there is a mismatch between two people’s individual beliefs about what is going to happen in a given situation, it causes changes in our brain chemistry that directly influence how we perceive and interact with the world. It influences how we treat others, and how we experience an event or situation.

A good friend in college used to say: “The secret to happiness is lowered expectations.”

He wasn’t too far off, because this is basically what neuroscientists have shown. Unmet expectations can send us into a downward spiral of negativity and underperformance. Reversely, meeting and exceeding expectations trigger an upward spiral of positivity and higher performance.

When expectations we hold for whatever reason are not met, it causes the dopamine levels in our brains to plummet. Lower dopamine levels lead to increased stress, heightened anxiety and cognitive challenges that can cause poor performance, and a decrease in enjoyment. This, in turn, leads to decreased confidence and more unmet expectations, triggering another round of decreased dopamine and so on.

On the other hand, when an expectation is met or exceeded, it acts as a reward to the brain, and dopamine levels increase. High dopamine levels lead to increased happiness and wellbeing, which provides a foundation for increased cognitive capacity. This sets us up for maximum performance and insight, which leads to increased confidence and more expectations exceeded, triggering the release of more dopamine; and thus, continuing the upward spiral.

What my college friend was on to, is the fact that if we set expectations slightly lower, we can trigger the onset of one of these upward spirals, which helps us stay happy and motivated, performing at our best.

This is a tough one for us high performers who like to set high expectations of ourselves. Expecting more can certainly be a motivation to perform; however, it can come with a cost, so be thoughtful about what you expect from yourself.

Setting outrageously high expectations isn’t helpful for most people. To set yourself up for success, set small expectations or goals first, and when you meet those, you can raise your expectations.

Go ahead and expect a lot from yourself and others, but understand individual limits, and set expectations accordingly. 

Perspective is everything

Changing our perspective can change everything. When we choose to see the world from a different vantage point, it can vastly change what we experience to be true.

I may have been disappointed about the fun tango trip to Salt Lake City getting canceled, but here’s what is also true – a different way of looking at reality:

I’m about to embark on the trip of a lifetime with the man I love. The reason he was “too busy” for tango, was that he is renovating our kitchen before we move, so we can rent out the house, which in turn is part of the plan for how we will finance this big trip.

In the grand scheme of things, missing a weekend of tango is a small sacrifice to make in order to be able to do something much greater. I may have missed out on a tango experience, but I am gaining a much greater travel experience – and a gorgeous new kitchen in the process. Plus, getting a few uninterrupted hours to dig into my work without feeling guilty about not doing something else? Priceless.

It should also be noted that Memorial Day looked up significantly once I got to Tulsa that evening and had a chance to catch up with dear old friends.

What the heck was I complaining about?!

I would love to hear your thoughts about your own experience with expectations.

  • When do you tend to experience misaligned expectations?
  • How do you manage expectations for yourself or your team members?
  • What strategies do you use to trigger upward performance spirals?


    • Hannah Bratterud

      Thank you, Katie! That’s the plan… I’m setting an expectation about it 😃


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