Unrealistic Expectations Breed Self-Defeating Behaviors

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Unrealistic expectations may be your biggest enemy!

Do you ever want something really badly, but then when it comes it sucks? It drops like a massive bomb of disappointment and lets you down. Either it isn’t the right way, or given with the wrong attitude, or not in the right moment? The very thing that you craved and fantasized about,  and worked hard to get no longer feels appealing; in fact it becomes shoddy goods, and no longer of value. You feel deprived, disappointed and defeated – only to fire up the determination to gain the exact ideal wish and make vigorous efforts to attain it again, and again and again.


Unrealistic expectations serve the purpose of compensating for abusive childhood experiences

Thirty-seven year old Tony had always dreamed of a loved one taking the initiative in connecting with him; showing him that he was wanted and vital to the other person’s happiness. He didn’t want to feel like he was the only one who wanted closeness or connection; nor did he want to do all the work. But that’s what life had felt like since he was a small child.

As a young boy he grew up hearing that his mother never wanted children. He heard it like he wasn’t wanted, and always wondered why he wasn’t lovable. He experienced his mother as cold and unavailable. If he hurt himself she would put a bandage on the wound but offered no words of concern or comfort. His father blew hot and cold – veering from being verbally and physically abusive to a devoted parent at all Tony’s games, teaching him to fish, and do woodwork. He had a powerful fantasy that his mother would love him and show an interest in him, not because he often got between his parents when they fought, but because he was her son and she must have some maternal warmth and care.

As a young adult he ached to be wanted by a woman who would be glad to have him because he was a worthy and lovable person. He wanted a woman to see the ‘goodness’ and ‘lovability’ in him without having to prove it and earn it repeatedly. When he met his wife to be he thought he had finally found the person who would treasure him and make him feel good enough.

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Unrealistic expectations become elaborate fantasies – scripted to undo the past, but is a perfect set up for disappointment

But Tony had specific fantasies of how he wanted his wife to demonstrate her love for him. They involved her desiring him sexually, engaging in sex play and wanting sex with him on a regular and frequent basis. He wanted her to snuggle up to him of her own accord, check in on him and how he felt through the day, and to appreciate his efforts to take care of household and parenting duties by acknowledging them without criticizing his methods; he wanted his wife to be tender with caresses and back-rubs out of a need to be close with him, and he wanted apologies when she hurt him – he expected her to know what would hurt him, and avoid it because that’s what a loved one should do.

Anytime his wife showed kindness or affection to her friends, family of origin or indeed their own children, Tony experienced it as a direct and calculated repudiation of him; a sign that she didn’t love him; but loved others. For instance when his wife hugged their son and called him handsome, Tony wanted that for himself.

Here are some of the ways his unrealistic expectations turned into self-defeating behaviors

  • When his mother called he didn’t want to take her call, believing that she wanted him to feel sorry for her latest mishap.
  • When his wife checked in for their sex date he refused, labeling it as her duty call.
  • When his wife apologized for snapping he regarded it as mechanical and disingenuous.
  • When his daughter apologized for her outburst he didn’t accept or forgive believing that she didn’t really mean it and would do it again.
  • When his wife put her head in his lap he got antsy and couldn’t wait to get away because it felt as if he now had to perform by caressing her.


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Why does Tony keep his unrealistic expectations despite feeling self-defeated?

He has many unconscious motivations that propel him. They are unconscious because he would be ashamed of them if he knew UNLESS he was properly taken care of and safe while repairing and replacing his view of relationships based on his abusive childhood.

Unrealistic expectations and Pitiful Victim-hood Gets Sympathy

He gets to keep his childhood experience alive and well, so that he stays a hapless and pitiful victim. You may ask, what’s so attractive about that?

Unrealistic expectations and Pitiful Victim-hood gets you off the responsibility hook

Well, he doesn’t have to participate as part of a two-some. If he did, he would then have to be equally responsible for the relationship being satisfying. This young place justifies his maintaining his position as the ‘child’ who is dependent on his adult care givers to be the responsible parties and take care of him.

Unrealistic expectations and Pitiful victim-hood justifies being dependent without shame

It’s all about hanging on to a dependent position but covering it up by doing things to please the caregivers – to avoid the shame of not doing anything and just waiting for care.

Unrealistic Expectations and Pitiful victim-hood offers up a sense of superiority

Tony cannot allow himself to believe that his mother really does want to connect when she calls, because then he’d have to give up the role of dutiful son showing up his mother and all the self-satisfaction that goes with it.

Unrealistic expectations and Pitiful victim-hood keeps all the ‘bad’ stuff in others, and ‘good stuff’ in you.

If Tony permitted himself to sense the genuineness of his’s wife words of love or a caress, he’d have to give up the role of rejected saint of a loyal subject – and he’d have no choice but to notice that he is as flawed as his partner. He is not ‘all good’ and she is not ‘all bad.’

All these pay offs are way better than getting that longed for call from mother, or sex play with a wife. If they come, they go away quickly and can’t be held, so Tony would rather stay hungry than eat something that barely touches the sides as it goes down or doesn’t believe is nutritious – after all when his father took him out for ice-cream or showed him how to fish, it didn’t erase the abuse and mockery. He trusted the abusive father and not the ‘nice’ father!

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Reversing the perverse rewards of unrealistic expectations and self-defeating behaviors

First, Tony needs to get in touch with his unconscious motivations, gently, safely and without shame. Only then will he contend with giving up his victim-hood that gets attended to via pity and sympathy unless he can learn to trust the ‘nice father’ and the ‘responsive mother’ that were so elusive in his childhood. It won’t come if he is confronted or blamed, because that was how he was treated as a child. In fact he will shut down and double down on his self-sabotage.

He needs to have a consistent, reliable, predictable relationship where he is the sole focus and gets all the attention that he didn’t get as a child. He needs to try, taste and take in that ‘good’ available person on a regular basis, building up layers of love that can be taken to the bank. Safety and security will make Tony more curious about his self-sabotage and that’s how he begins the journey of discovery towards the payoffs that until then remained unconscious.

Tony can then feel secure enough to shift from his dependent childlike position to a participating partner, where both have good and bad aspects to them, balancing out the relationship. He can do this in a psychodynamically oriented psychotherapy, where the essence of the relationship fosters growth, belief in loving relationships while receiving it from the committed therapist.


Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2018

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