Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Setting Realistic Expectations

Have you ever considered how your expectations of certain outcomes influence how you react to a situation? For example, you graduate top of your class and enter the job market, perhaps convinced that you’ll be able to pick and choose a company to work for. That expectation that the job search will be easy will certainly influence your emotional response if you find yourself struggling to get an interview even though you’ve sent out your CV to over 50 companies. It opens up an interesting conversation about the role of expectation and appraisal, important concepts in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

EXPECTATION: An expectation is when we anticipate a certain outcome. As in my example, we expect to find a job with ease because we graduated cum laude.

APPRAISAL: A common concept in CBT, an appraisal is an interpretation, evaluation or judgment. Taking my example, your job search is not going well after some time and you start telling yourself “I’ll never find a job” or “I’m not good enough.”

In our bi-monthly CBT group this week, we were reminded about the influence of ancient philosophers whose ideas still have a profound resonance with cognitive therapists. One of those philosophers, Seneca, wrote a book, ‘On Anger’ where the role of expectation was probably first hypothesized. He did not believe anger to be an irrational outburst which we had no control. He believed that anger usually arose from set ideas (or expectations) about the world that were usually seen as overly optimistic. Seneca said that whenever we get angry there is an element of surprise, self-pity and injustice (the appraisal or judgment).

Let us take a modern-day problem of road rage. Why do some people who travel daily into town (during rush hour) seem surprised (and furious!) when there is a gridlock on a rainy morning; when taxis cut in front of them; or when a rental car seems to be lost. A commuter with anger management problems will likely have an unreasonable or overly optimistic expectation that there will be no traffic issues each morning. The result: road rage that causes distress and potential danger (an accident or altercation). The appraisal: “I can’t handle traffic!” or “It’s not fair that I must deal with incompetent drivers!”Road Rage

A person who has a healthier response (irritability or frustration rather than unhealthy anger) will likely have had a more realistic and rational expectation regarding peak hour traffic. They knew that the probability was high (particularly on a rainy morning in Cape Town!), so therefore coped better in the situation. They weren’t thrilled about it, but they didn’t experience road rage!

While Seneca encouraged us to develop more pessimistic ideas about the world (that way, you can never be surprised or disappointed), I rather believe we need to set more rational and realistic expectations. As I always say, positivity and optimism are important, but not everything can go our way all the time. Going back to my first example of a graduate entering the job market. A healthy expectation will be that the job market is competitive and it may take time to find the right position. A healthy appraisal following a number of rejections: I knew it would be tough. I’m not going to give up. What strategies can I implement to improve my results (such as networking or entrepreneurship).

Some key ideas:

  • Develop more realistic expectations about yourself, others and the world
  • Consider the worse case scenario, but more importantly, recognize that you will survive it!
  • When you experience a strong negative emotion, reflect on the expectation that you may have had – was it realistic?
  • Recognise the importance of flexibility in our ideas and expectations!


1 thought on “Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Setting Realistic Expectations

  1. […] aware of overly optimistic expectations. As I wrote in a previous blog post, we need to be positive, but if our expectations are overly optimistic, we will find ourselves […]

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