Managing Expectations in the Face of Infinite Challenges

I was recently reminded of a client I saw who struggled with anxiety. He was a typical type ‘A’ personality: bright, ambitious, driven, and goal-oriented. Historically, he had thrived in challenging situations and hadn’t had problems managing high pressure seasons in his life. So why was he suddenly struggling with overwhelming anxiety?

While there are some common underlying triggers for anxiety, the individual manifestations can be as unique as the people experiencing them.

In this particular case, a key underlying component was the struggle to set reasonable expectations. This particular client worked in unstable parts of the world with traumatized and marginalized people. He was trapped between the belief that he couldn’t afford to slow down for even a moment because people’s lives rested on his efforts, and the belief that the problems he saw were so great that no matter how hard he worked, he would never be able to make a dent in the suffering. After his previous success, he felt like he was in an emotional free-fall. It’s no surprise that he had reached a place of emotional and physical exhaustion.

This client’s situation may be extreme, but the demoralization and anxiety of feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped is something to which most of us can relate. In situations like this, it’s important to re-think our goals and our expectations. Here’s five considerations for establishing healthy goals and expectations:

  • Allow audacious goals to inform your direction, but be open-handed about the outcome; don’t allow their achievement to be the definition of your personal success…you may be planting seeds that come to fruition much later.
  • Recognize your strengths and your limitations; allow that awareness to inform more immediate goal-setting. Urgent situations require us to react to a given need, but in setting goals, leverage your strengths…it’s not selfish; it’s strategic.
  • Create concrete goals based on the things legitimately within your purview: who you want to be and how you want to show up; remember that relational investments grow more slowly, but yield stronger results.
  • Embrace your ability to ‘pivot’; even the best plans must be able to adapt for changing circumstances. Rigid thinking and inflexibility can indicate burnout.
  • You are your most valuable resource; invest accordingly. Self-care isn’t just a good idea–it is absolutely essential to physical, emotional, and relational health.


Jill Howgate, LAPC