Are Your “Should’s” and Expectations Leading to Burnout?

Groupthink blindly walking off the edge

Disgruntled and frustrated feelings arising from unmet expectations
can lead to burnout.

Life is funny.  We all have great dreams about what we want to do and who we want to be.  Many of us even create detailed plans to get us there. 

Far too often we set extremely high standards in the pursuit of living the live of a high achiever.  We put in the time.  We do the work.  We sacrifice in order to succeed.  We do what we should do. 

So why do so many of our great expectations not materialize?  What happens when we did wat we were supposed to do, but didn’t receive the accolades or success that we expected as a result? 

These unmet expectations are deeply frustrating, causing us to question ourselves (and even our self-worth).  It’s the foundation for the self-help movement as well as the underlying issue that many people seek to resolve in therapy. 

Unmet expectations are also a common causal factor in the development of burnout. 

Understanding Expectations

What does it mean to expect something to happen?  The root of any expectation is a strong, profound belief: 

  • A strong belief that something WILL happen in the future
  • A strong belief that you WILL or SHOULD receive something
  • A strong belief that WAITING will eventually lead to the attainment of something
  • In an archaic definition, an expectation is your prospect for an inheritance

Expectations are, therefore, forward thinking and the foundation for hard work, discipline, dedication…and waiting.  Bullishly waiting for IT to happen. 

Their power lies in the emotional belief that what you are doing today will, in fact, result in what you want tomorrow. 

If only life was so simple. 

Far too often expectations are not met – even though everything that you did, focused on, and sacrificed for was what you believed you SHOULD do. 

And it is these “should’s” that can (and often do) sabotage your success and lead to burnout. 

The Intersection of “Should’s” and Expectations

When unmet expectations lead to burnout, it is frequently because you have been behaving in a certain way that you believed would ultimately lead to your end goal.  These actions were often based on what you “should” do rather than what you wanted to do – simply because some external source pontificated that this was the way (perhaps the ONLY way) to achieve your goals. 

Sadly, many of these “should’s” are contradictory: 

  • You should awaken at 4:30 AM in order to get a head start on your day – but you should also get at least 8 hours of restful sleep per night. 
  • You should work well beyond 40 hours per week – but you ideally can set up a successful professional life by only working 6 hours per week. 
  • You should push yourself to greatness in everything that you do – but you should also accept when something is “good enough.” 
  • You should persist on the chosen path and trust the process (whether it’s working or not) — but you should also be ready to pivot at a moment’s notice when the process isn’t working. 

Confused?  Not surprising. 

Blindly following a sherpa’s path to success
inherently reduces your own ability to be self-reliant and authentic.

True success comes from resolutely behaving in ways that are aligned with who YOU are.  Getting ideas from success gurus can help expand your awareness of potential options, but ultimately you must decide the ideas are in alignment with what you need and want. 

Consider your career.  Did you enter your current field because you generally enjoyed the work?  Or was it due to your parents’ expectation to “enter the family business?” 

Consider your current employer.  Did you carefully research and consider the culture before you accepted the position?  Or did you have expectations of what you think should be the way in which the company is run? 

Consider your work-life balance.  Is it important to you?  Or is it something that you’ve totally forgotten about? 

And finally, consider your stress levels.  Are you feeling frustrated?  Angry?  Apathetic?  Do you think that the only way to reduce the never-rending barrage of demands is to hide out on a mountain top in Tibet? 

In each of these areas, it is very probable that the common underlying theme is attempting to meet the “should’s” placed on you at work, at home, and on yourself. 

The Limiting Role of Your Private “Should’s”

While many of the “should’s” that lead to burnout come from external demands and unmet expectations, your own personal, private “should’s” play a pivotal role on your behaviors. 

Your private “should’s” are the preconceived notions
continuously repeated in your self-talk.

Earl Nightingale wisely stated that you are what you think about.  But what if what you are thinking about and telling yourself is based on the labels that others have placed on you?  If these judgments came from people whom you loved or respected it, they can be a powerful subconscious catalyst for all your actions in this area. 

For example, have any of these statements popped into your mind as you try to move forward to your goals?  

  • “I’m a control freak, so I have to do it all myself.”
  • “I don’t like change, so I’ll ignore anything that doesn’t align with my opinions.”
  • “I guess I’m just too sensitive and a people pleaser, so I can’t say anything when people take advantage of me.”
  • “I can never overcome what happened to me in the past, so I won’t even try (or I’ll self-sabotage to prove that this belief is true).”

While you may not have thought this about yourself in the past, these judgments of others can seep into your thoughts and eventually transform the way in which you think about yourself.  This self-talk inherently sets up expectations – good or bad, positive or negative – and consequently is the trigger to ensure that your actions ultimately are aligned. 

The problem is the absence of stopping to reflect
on the messages in your self-talk before taking action. 

The modern workplace focuses on action.  It pays a premium to those who get things done.  It also advocates a culture of busy-ness that may actually be inefficient and ineffective.  It expects workers to be human doings – rather than human beings. 

The “should’s” control how to act, how to think, and how to be – with the expectation that full compliance will ultimately lead to success. 

But this “success” is not defined by the individual.  It is defined by the organization as a whole, or by society, or even by country.  And it might not be the success that you want for yourself. 

Letting of Your “Should’s” to Change Your Expectations

You can always change your “should’s.”

The source of your “should’s” can come from diverse sources and over different periods of time.  Unraveling the cord that ties you to these “should’s” takes time and patience – and, above all, self-kindness. 

But that might be easier said than done. 

Some of your “should’s” may have been a constant companion throughout your career and the source of prior successes.  But the threat of burnout occurs when complying with these same “should’s” in a different situation don’t lead to success – or in some cases, failure. 

This devastating shock to your belief system can begin the downward descent into burnout:  moving from frustration to anger when this no longer works before ultimately deteriorating into apathetic repetitious actions and self-sabotage.  Burnout is then close at hand. 

Remember:  your expectations are the result of an indomitable belief that by doing what you should do, then you should achieve the desired goal or end state. 

It has been strongly suggested that burnout
is the ultimate result of unmet expectations. 

Expectations and “should’s” are closely aligned.  But the reality is that there is no one direct route to success.  For anyone who has achieved something that they genuinely, truly, authentically desired, it has been a circuitous journey – and it also required letting go of things that were no longer helpful or relevant. 

  • Defining what success means to you – and letting go of others’ expectations. 
  • Fearlessly listening to and questioning the value your self-talk – and letting go of the negative thoughts that sabotage and thwart your success. 
  • Recognizing that obstacles are a part of the process – and letting go of the expectation that IF you do what you should, then the process will be seamless. 

Perhaps most importantly, remember this old adage:  “life is what happens when you’re planning something else.”  By recognizing this irrefutable truth, you can let go of living in the past while dreaming of an unknown future. 

Expectations are often used as a coping mechanism to ignore the fundamental reality that the future is always unknown.  Speculations are not reality – and expectations may not be realized.  Rather than being frightened by this uncertainty, there is a strong possibility that the future has the potential to be better than what is expected. 

Abolishing the negative ”should’s” in your self-talk and letting go of trying to control the future represent powerful shifts in mindset:  shifts that have the power to minimize your potential for burnout arising from unmet expectations. 

These changes in mindset silence the negative self-talk and the compensatory struggle to predict the future, allowing you to live fully in the present moment.  By living mindfully, you enhance your ability to be aware of what is really going on right now (rather than coloring events based on your expectations of what you believe should be happening). 

In other words, you can avoid burnout by learning how to live mindfully in the present so that you can address the inevitable challenges, while still fully enjoying the journey. 

Dr. Geri Puleo is the creator of the Burnout During Organizational Change (B-DOC) Model, a research-based solution that defines the descent and recovery of workplace burnout.  Her current project is focused on gender differences in workplace burnout.  A frequent and popular keynote speaker, her TEDx Talk on Burnout v. PTSD:  More Similar Than You Think has been viewed over 600,000 times on YouTube (

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