Why Expectations Rarely Match Reality for HSPs — And What to Do About It

A highly sensitive person with reconsidering his expectations with his eyes closed

Sensitive people put a lot of resources into imagining and planning the future. What do you do if none of it works out? 

You’ve arrived. Your first day of high school, college, a new job, your wedding day, a career achievement, or moving to a new city — pick your milestone. 

Expectations are high. You may be excited and confident or nervous and cautious. Either way, you have an image in your head of how the big moment will go: what you will say and do, how others will react, and perhaps how you will feel. If nothing else, you’ve got a plan.

Then the thing happens. 

On the other side of it is the reality of what actually went down. Maybe it exceeded your expectations or miserably crashed and burned. Whatever occurred, it’s a universal truth that our expectations and realities rarely match up. 

Why Expectations Rarely Match Reality for Highly Sensitive People

For highly sensitive people, who are capable of painting entire worlds in our heads, even everyday events can misalign with our expectations. Maybe it’s just a night out with friends, a company meeting, or a concert you’ve been anticipating. Our high expectations can put too much pressure on ordinary experiences while our negative expectations can hold us back from just living life. 

Sensitive people’s expectations are influenced by our deep cognitive processing, which is a cornerstone of high sensitivity. Deep processing refers to the nervous system’s ability to thoroughly and carefully assess all sorts of stimuli, including physical, emotional, and relationships between ideas. Highly sensitive people (HSPs), who spend more mental resources on this kind of deep processing, utilize all the intel from their past experiences and present perceptions to make predictions. Oftentimes, those predictions are shockingly accurate. 

Other times, however, we see so clearly how things should go and it’s extremely frustrating when they don’t end up that way. You might call this “expectations vs. reality” syndrome — and it may hit HSPs especially hard. 

Let’s be clear: Having big expectations — or just specific expectations — isn’t a bad thing. In fact, your expectations are a tool that can shape reality. But they can also lead to a lot of heartbreak, disappointment and confusion. Here’s the thing, though: it doesn’t have to be that way.

If we can temper our expectations and be intentional in curating our reality when and where we can, those realities can exceed HSP’s expectations. It just takes a little recalibration. Here are seven examples of common “expectations vs. reality” clashes for HSPs — and how to reframe them.

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7 ‘Expectations vs. Realities’ for HSPs

1. Expectation: They’ll notice all the effort you put into the little things.

Reality: Others don’t necessarily share your attention to detail. 

Whether it’s a work project or a friend’s birthday gift, HSPs tend to go all in on our efforts. We can’t help but be meticulous and that’s a strength we bring to any situation. It can be frustrating that others don’t pick up on the details like we do. HSPs put big effort into little things and we can skillfully advocate for that effort. Instead of being hurt when our effort goes unnoticed, we can highlight the ways the thing we were so meticulous about is especially meaningful or useful, whatever the case may be. 

Silver Lining: HSPs can be confident in their meticulous effort and see it as a strength worth highlighting.

2. Expectation: Others will be moved by a book/movie/song just as deeply as you are.

Reality: You experience art on another level and others don’t always relate — even close friends.

This one really affects me. When I want to share a work of art that has impacted me, it feels like an act of vulnerability, like I am revealing a deep part of myself in sharing a meaningful song or movie recommendation. When the other person doesn’t respond as I expect, it can feel like rejection. I realize it isn’t fair to put so much pressure on someone else’s experience. They have a right to their experience as much as I do. I’m learning to appreciate my experience in its own right and removing expectations from others to feel the same way. 

Silver Lining: Your connection to artistic expression enriches your life. Even if others don’t share it, you can and should appreciate its depth.

3. Expectation: Your twenties will be the best years of your life.

Reality: Young adulthood is filled with transition and self-discovery, which can be especially intense for HSPs.

This is an expectation that everyone — HSP or not — needs to drop. There is magic and hardship throughout every decade of life and ‘the best years’ will be unique to everyone. We set ourselves up for disappointment when we put pressure on an entire decade of our lives to deliver prescribed expectations. Life is beautiful and difficult whether you are 22 or 82. While your twenties may be particularly intense, there is beauty in your intensity and you’ll get the most out of your transition into adulthood if you lean into your sensitive strengths

Notably, the same goes for other vaunted seasons of life, whether it be your high school or college years, your thirties, the day you finally have a baby, or your golden years when the kids are out of the house. Each will have a mix of joys and challenges.

Silver Lining: Your sensitivity ensures that you’ll squeeze every last drop out of all that your life has to offer, and that’s a gift at every age.

4. Expectation: The event will be too overwhelming so there’s no point in going.

Reality: Okay, it might be overwhelming! But if you can care for your sensitivities, the event might surprise you. 

HSPs can talk themselves out of just about anything. There are always a million reasons not to do something and HSPs can think of two million reasons. It’ll be too noisy, too crowded, too bright. The traffic! The smells! The uncertainties! And remember, our sensitivities lend themselves to psychic-like abilities on occasion so this all may not only be possible, but probable. 

The reality is, while life is full of overstimulation for HSPs, prioritizing enriching and memorable experiences is worth dealing with the ways they are overwhelming. We can exceed our expectations by caring for our sensitivities. Arrive early, get as much information ahead of time as possible, bring earplugs and a snack, step out for a sensitivity break, plan to leave early, and schedule downtime before and after. Is that a lot of effort? Sure. Is it worth it for a life filled with exploration and experiences? Absolutely. 

Silver Lining: This expectation of overwhelm may be accurate, but HSPs can exceed it by accommodating our sensitive needs.

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5. Expectation: Your friends will want to deep dive into conversations just like you.

Reality: HSPs often feel a bit out of step with their friends when it comes to emotional depth and desired level of connection.

HSPs can and should live from our depths with confidence. We do this by inviting others to go deeper and accepting that they might not always be in a place to join in. Relationships are a give-and-take of depth and levity. We can’t always assume that others will pursue the level of connection we want but we can take charge of this expectation by extending the invitation to go deeper. 

Silver Lining: HSPs can enjoy a life of depth and meaning in our rich inner lives and by encouraging deeper connections in our relationships.

6. Expectation: Your professional and/or parenting life will flow naturally.

Reality: For HSPs, balancing work and family with the rest of life requires continual recalibration. There are ebbs and flows and it’s often messy.

HSPs long for meaning. We seek it out in every facet of our lives which may be a worthy pursuit but it also adds a lot of pressure. We can struggle with the mundanity of life’s big meaning-makers. A fulfilling career is still working a job. Raising amazing humans demands tedious tasks day after day. A satisfying relationship requires gritty intention. 

The key, then, is to learn to care for ourselves in all the little things so they can add up to the big goal of a meaningful life. Dealing with the overwhelm of the tiny steps needed for a life of purpose is hard work. It requires proper self-care on the daily and is not something many of us have examples of in our lives. It won’t come naturally at first and it will always be messy. We just have to remember that our big, lofty longings in life won’t happen without taking care of ourselves in those small steps. 

Silver Lining: Learning to take care of ourselves as we pursue a meaningful life helps us excel in all of it.

7. Expectation: Your life will look like everyone else’s.

Reality: A life like everyone else’s is overrated and is a surefire path to burnout for HSPs. 

What good is a life like everyone else’s if it makes you miserable? Partying, living on little sleep, and being on the go constantly — the sort of stimulation that others might find exhilarating and satisfying often have the opposite effect on HSPs. Are we really missing out if we don’t even enjoy the things we see everyone else doing? 

FOMO is a convincing threat, but true contentment comes when we learn to curate a life that speaks to us, regardless of how it matches up to someone else’s. HSP expert Alane Freund calls this one of the “Five to Thrive” golden rules for HSPs

Silver Lining: Seeking a life aligned with your sensitive nature can lead to one you actually enjoy. 

The ultimate reality is this: When HSPs embrace that our experience is unique to us, we can find and create a fulfilling life that surpasses expectations.

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