Being Sensitive on How We Set Expectations (for Ourselves & Others)
"Our lives today are filled with information from the extremes of the bell curve of human experience, because in the media business that’s what gets eyeballs … This flood of extreme information has conditioned us to believe that exceptionalism is the new normal."
- Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***
I worked with someone once who, when hired, went above and beyond her job description. She was working long hours and pumping out exceptional work. She was on fire.
A couple months later, she started to slow down. Not in a non-productive rate but a healthy rate. The "new job, who dis?" adrenaline started wearing off and she was settling into her natural rhythm.
But the new boundaries she was setting were not well received by the boss. Since she had exceeded expectations from the start, she had set an unsustainable standard for herself and those standards were then expected to be met moving forward.
Soon after, she was forced to quit since she was no longer feeling psychologically safe due to constant criticism, micromanaging, and being put on a high-pressured PIP evaluation.
Looking back, the right conversations and some training in emotional intelligence (for management) might have solved this conflict.
Nonetheless, it's a common story.
Many of us feel the pressure to hit it out of the park when first hired, starting a new relationship, or any type of role. Although it's healthy to want to strive to do and be our best, setting unrealistic expectations on objectives out of your control can be toxic.
It's healthy to strive for excellence, but a question I've been asking lately is: When does it make sense to lower expectations? Not just of ourselves but of others.
Burnout is real
625 million people suffer from depression and anxiety, and the WHO estimates that $1 trillion is lost in productivity each year as a result.
So I find it wild that during these times, there are still messages spreading about raising standards and exceeding expectations.
Rather than getting to the root of the problem, we continue to pump out messages and blanket advice on productivity, hustle culture, and promoting toxic positivity — it all makes me want to pull my hair out.
We're aware of burnout and the current circumstances. Yet no one seems to be making any adjustments here. We're talking about the problem, but no one is serving up solutions, or at least making substantial efforts for change.
That's not to say that there isn't some rumble and disruption shaping the future of how we work by (finally) questioning the systems.
For example, there are companies that are testing out the four-day work week and a company I once worked for introduced 'Meetingless Fridays,' but these initiatives seem like child's play with countries like Belgium rolling out a four-day work week and giving employees the right to ignore work emails outside of office hours.
I fear if we don't take this more seriously than we are, the Great Resignation will eventually fizzle out and things will go back to normal.
The highly sensitive, [ambitious] person
"Sensitive, ambitious people are often so worried about what others think and so influenced by common definitions of success that they don't know how to direct their energy towards what they really want — a fulfilling life coupled with a sense of confidence and control."
- Melody Wilding, author of Trust Yourself
As someone who writes about and coaches highly sensitive individuals and is neurodivergent myself, I want to share some insights from this perspective.
Melody Wilding, a psychologist and executive coach for "Sensitive Strivers," a term coined by Wilding, supports highly sensitive, ambitious individuals.
Wilding found her coaching niche within the HSP community by understanding what most HSPs are often challenged with — living up to expectations and standards that are set by those of a different way of being.
HSPs tend to be highly ambitious by nature but are also more prone to anxiety driven by the need to please, trying to exceed expectations, and contributing to their organizations and communities in a highly constructive, idealistic manner, free of anything superficial.
None of this is a bad thing, per se, but when the bar is already set so high, is there any room for HSPs to make strong contributions without feeling burnt out before they even begin?
Though being highly sensitive is genderless, it's important to note that highly sensitive women tend be more vulnerable since they are often conditioned at a young age to exceed expectations.
And not only is it sensitive girls, but all girls. So the highly sensitive girl might feel as if she has more to prove (since sensitivity "slows" her down), so she will do her hardest to try maximize her abilities.
Girls have been struggling emotionally for some now, but it seems to be getting worse.
Rachel Simmons, author of Enough As She Is, claims what's known as "role overload" could be to blame, which refers to maintaining too many roles for a person to play to be an effective person.
Role overload then leads to what's known as "role conflict," in which obligations are at odds with one another, setting these girls up to fail before they even begin.
So not only do girls grow up to be highly ambitious, it's no surprise a highly sensitive girl will have an identify crisis later in life or feel as if they can't keep up with the multiple roles they are expected to play and play perfectly.
(Note: Neurodivergent girls tend to have less mental health support. For example, ADHD research has primarily been conducted by evaluating boys, leaving many girls undiagnosed because girls tend to naturally "mask" their behaviors to fit in and do their work. To learn more, I recommend Jenara Nerenberg's book, The Divergent Mind.)
Why being "average" is a taboo
In American culture, being considered "average" has become a taboo. It's believed that being average is not good enough if you want to live a fulfilling life and make a decent wage without falling behind (whatever that means).
Out of curiosity, I searched the term "joy of being average" and to my surprise, a few articles did come up from UK-based publications. In an article published by Psychologies, it states:
"We have it drummed into us from an early age that we are exceptional, or that we have the potential to be. This is an appealing aspect of an egalitarian society – a meritocracy in which we can all become someone or something, if we only apply ourselves.
It’s a nice idea, reach for the stars, they’re there for the taking, but the other side of it is: if we become anything other than ordinary, we feel that we’ve failed somehow."
This sounds a lot like the Millennial dilemma. We won't go into this in great lengths today, but hearing about my sister's experience (who is 17 years old), the Millennials might have grown up with the “you can be anything” mentality, Generation Zs are also feeling the pressure of being extraordinary, interesting, and not to mention an "influencer" in some way or another.
Elder Millennials grew up around social media with MySpace and AOL chat rooms, and Facebook was introduced in college for college students. But Generation Zs were born into the social media era with multiple platform options during the influencer era.
The algorithms aren't meant to harm us directly, but they are, in fact, harmful by default when we're watching the lives of the rich and famous and we're pumping out messages to everyone saying, "you can look, act, and be like us too."
And to get a job in a competitive market, many knowledge workers feel the pressures of creating a “personal brand,” impacting both generations.
In terms of achievement, we rarely show the hard work and years someone puts in before they "made it." And much of what we display online is showing the best versions of ourselves. This causes a delusional perspective of how other people are living their lives and how they’re really feeling.
It's almost as if we feel we're the only one's suffering, failing, or falling behind. But looking at the mental health statistics (and the fact that therapists are backlogged for months), this clearly isn't the case.
With that said, maybe the best thing we can do is ask ourselves, "am I setting realistic expectations for myself? And am I influenced by external factors?"
When coaching girls on how to set realistic goals, Simmons gives them one piece of advice:
"I give my big-dreaming, overacheiving students one piece of advice: lower your standards. They laugh, every time. But I'm serious, and they soon figure out effective it can be."
When you lower your standards, you're not giving up or acting small, you're setting yourself up to take action. When you set audacious, unrealistic goals, it's a form of self-sabotage and can be extremely demotivating.
It feels good in the moment to create audacious goals, but then as soon as it's time to take action, you'll freeze and most likely give up.
I love how author Mark Manson states, "Mediocrity as a goal sucks, but mediocrity as a result is okay."
It doesn't have to be so black and white. That's why I believe that striving for excellence by establishing goals based on our values is a much better system.
And when we're clear on our personal values, we also get better at making decisions and choices with confidence rather than measuring our self-worth based on the outcome.
However, I understand privilege, identity, and opportunity are major factors. It's one thing to strive for excellence and bounce back from setbacks, but if you're in a position where you need all five stars to survive, exceeding expectations is no longer a choice as an ambitious person but a product of a broken system.
Unrealistic expectations at work
Instead of using productivity tools and technology to help us work less and work anywhere we want, it's obvious at this point the time we're "saving" is being filled with more to-dos and as a result, higher expectations.
A 2019 study on more than 300 executives in 10 countries showed that approximately 35% of executives fail in their position due to perfectionism. In a Harvard Business Review article about the study, it states:
"That’s because achievement-oriented leaders tend to be chronically dissatisfied. While you may be thinking that you’re 'just pushing them [employees] to be the best,' you may actually be setting them up to fail."
This is interesting to note. I have coached people who I know are doing the deep, inner work. They are self-aware and are taking ownership in establishing systems to enable them to their best. But it all crumbles under bad management and leadership.
As soon as they walk into the office Monday morning, it becomes all about meeting a manager's expectations despite how unrealistic the expectations are.
Having high standards isn't necessarily the issue, it's the invisible expectations of others. Perfectionist leaders tend to assume their employees are on the same page about expectations and therefore fail to communicate what the expectations are:
"Being honest about what you base your expectations on, and clearly conveying them to others in a timely manner, ensures your standards aren’t just high, but realistic and fair."
Think about how you set professional goals. Or, if you work with a team or manage a team, think about your team's goals. During my experience managing a team and being responsible for setting goals for a department, the hardest part of setting SMART goals was always the big R — what's realistic?
Setting unrealistic goals always equated to stupid, not smart. Yet, we did it over and over again, causing goals to crash and burn before we even took action. I can't help but think it's because most of us are wired to go bigger than we ought to.
I think this is something HSPs are conscientious of, yet we walk into work Monday morning with the pressure of doing more not only at a faster pace but perfect — not smarter.
One of Google's values is "faster is better than slow," which is great if we're talking about a search engine but not so great when we're talking about privacy concern.
Google is only one company, but it's an influential one. So it's worth pointing it out as an example so we can start to think about the companies we work for and its values and ask ourselves, "are these values I believe in?" and "how are these values shaping what I think is expected out of me?"
Setting realistic expectations
It's one thing to set audacious and unrealistic goals in the workplace, it's another to set them for yourself. Though detrimental in both settings, creating unrealistic goals for yourself can cause a failure loop, which could lead to self-doubt, low self-esteem, and shame.
When someone tells you to, "raise your standards," I believe they mean well. If you're in an abusive relationship, raising your standards would be an appropriate plan of action.
But telling someone who is already thriving they need to meet higher expectations can be dangerous.
It keeps us in a constant mindset of never “good enough." After all, how can anyone be thriving if we can never meet expectations? It's no wonder so many of us feel miserable.
Setting standards for yourself
When you don't set standards for yourself, you will fall for anyone's unrealistic expectations of you.
Growing up, I was average. At 34 years old, I am still average.
Admitting this might sound like I'm coming down on myself, but in reality, admitting that I'm average has helped be reconnect with myself, find acceptance, and practice self-love after years of suffering with generalized and social anxiety.
By setting my own standards, the self-identity crisis seems to feel less critical. The biggest lesson I have learned in recent years is to set standards based on self-knowledge and accepting "average" not as a goal but as an outcome.
It's time to start thinking how the content we consume and the messages we put out there are impacting our sensitive minds.
And if not for us, but maybe for the next generation? I see kids and teens doing anything they can to purposely stand out. Because being an "average" (AKA human being) feels unacceptable.
Achievement, popularity, and recognition has gone beyond just getting good grades, joining clubs, playing a sport, and being highly social. Now, there's a newfound pressure to be extraordinary and interesting, online and off.
To meet certain standards, standards need to be defined. And defined from within first.
It's a good thing to have standards, but I do wonder if certain standards being set by organizations and institutions we're a part of are setting people up to succeed by default and others to fail from the start.
Quite frankly, we can no longer blame it on the individual.
For now, the point is not to give up on your aspirations or use "average" status as an excuse to not try your best every day.
It's about setting realistic expectations and standards for yourself without comparison and defining success on your own terms.
Instead of striving for perfection, strive for excellence — give anything worth doing your best and know that your best will look different every day.
Stop pleasing others and focus on pleasing yourself — let go of some of the roles you've been playing that no longer serve you.
And stop overcompensating — know your limits, set boundaries, and find a workplace and career that suits your temperament and desired lifestyle. I promise, it exists.
I help sensitive souls and deep thinkers overcome perfectionism, overfunctioning, and people-pleasing so they can live more confidently, freely, and authentically. Schedule a free chemistry call here.