How Rigid Expectations Impact Mental Health

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We all have expectations of ourselves and others. Some are prominent, such as an expectation to graduate, while other may not be so obvious. Healthy expectations can be motivating and provide us something to work towards, but the problem comes when our expectations become too rigid. When this happens, we turn these expectations into rules that may govern our lives and what we want from others. We think that we must, should or ought to act a certain way and others must, should or ought to act a certain way towards us. When these rules aren’t upheld, we become angry, upset or anxious. We draw false conclusions that in turn become evidence to our negative beliefs about ourselves.

Negative Effects of Rigid Expectations

Often times, we aren’t aware that we engage in these thought patterns and that they can have a negative impact on our relationships, self-image and emotions. We are constantly assessing the world and those around us. When others don’t follow through with our expected rules, we may feel slighted or disappointed in them. Our self-image can suffer as rigid thinking makes us feel like we’re constantly messing up because we’re not conforming to the ideas in our mind. We label ourselves as failures or try to overcompensate. Furthermore, holding onto rigid expectations can have an undesirable impact on our emotions. Our perception becomes our reality. When our perception is too rigid it can’t possibly match up with reality, therefore resulting in emotional disturbance.

How to Counter Rigid Thoughts

The antidote to rigidity is flexibility; to be less attached to specific ideas. To allow room for error. This reduces the influences of cognitive biases and allows us to be more realistic in our assessment of ourselves and the intake of information. When working with individuals, I may try to identify any rigid beliefs they may have that could be causing emotional discomfort and unhelpful behaviors.

One of my preferred approaches to tackle these unhelpful patterns is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. This approach first identifies rigid and irrational thought patterns, challenges their rationality then replaces them with more realistic, flexible ones. When our expectations aren’t being met, typically we are aware of an uncomfortable emotion first. At this point, we can ask ourselves a series of questions to try to identify if we are being too rigid. If the answers point that way, we can form new alternative, flexible expectations. My favorite question to ask is “Would you tell your best friend or child to hold on to these expectations?” Usually people will say no, and give a more compassionate, rational and flexible response. At that point we know the original thoughts were not helpful and can now turn toward giving ourselves our own advice.

There are many techniques, tools and homework assignments that can be done to modify rigid and unhelpful expectations of ourselves and others. If you think rigidity may be causing you distress in your life, working with a therapist can guide you in this process. The Light Program has trained counselors at several locations in eastern Pennsylvania. Reach out to us to start seeing a therapist in your area.

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