Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Managing Expectations

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Sometimes you don’t have to change anything at all about your surroundings to feel content, you just have to change your expectations, making them align with the cultural situation you find yourself in. Most people don’t realize that what is essential to their mental health is not necessarily their external surroundings but how they manage their internal expectations about these surroundings.

You learn this quickly while traveling. Let’s use an example almost every traveler has experienced. Say you are in a restaurant waiting for a waiter to take your order. You are accustomed to prompt service. This waiter takes about ten minutes before he even looks in your direction. The food takes an exceedingly long time to come out. During this whole ordeal your blood pressure is rising and your anxiety is spiking because you’re really hungry and you’re used to something different. But there is a person at a table next to you, also from your country of origin, who is used to the speed of service in the country you are both in, and he expects his stay at the restaurant to be a couple of hours. He is relaxed, chatting it up with friends and not really concerned about when or if the waiter ever comes over. He has made himself at home, taking in the scenery and enjoying himself.

Both of you are getting the exact same service but you react to it in very different ways because you have different sets of expectations. Your knowledge of cultural practices at restaurants in this country is limited and his is not. Your inability to feel content actually has little to do with external reality and much more to do with how you perceive it. This idea is central to cognitive behavioral therapy, and it’s exceedingly useful when you find yourself in situations outside of what you consider normal. You can calm the inner turmoil by realizing that how you are feeling is based on how you have decided to perceive the outside world.

When you feel upset or irritated, it’s worth turning the mirror on yourself, clarifying what your expectations are and where these expectations come from. Are they a product of a well-thought out plan about the necessary conditions for your growth and self-actualization or are they a product of your own cultural biases. If answer is the second, it will be easy for you to adjust your expectations to the new cultural conditions since they are not actually infringing on your sense of Self but instead on superficial preferences.