Reasonable Expectations

Robert F. Mullen, PhD

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“Dr. Mullen is doing impressive work helping the world. He is the pioneer of proactive neuroplasticity utilizing DRNI – deliberate, repetitive, neural information.” – WeVoice (Madrid, Málaga)

Reasonable expectations for those experiencing emotional malfunction including social anxiety.

Living with persistent negative self-beliefs and image for years on end is emotionally destabilizing. We crave interconnectedness, but our fears of ridicule and rejection interfere with any semblance of a social life. We are overwhelmed by loneliness and isolation. We avoid opportunities that may provoke our anxiety. So, we turn to defense mechanisms to relieve ourselves of our SAD-provoked fears and anxieties. 

Defense mechanisms are psychological responses that protect us from our unrelenting anxieties. They temporarily appease our sense of helplessness, hopelessness, undesirability, and worthlessness. They also reinforce and justify our toxic behaviors and validate our irrational attitudes, rules, and assumptions. They twist reality to conform to our irrational behaviors. Defense mechanisms are short-term safeguards against the thoughts and emotions that are difficult for our conscious minds to manage. Mechanisms like compensation, substance abuse, projection, and cognitive distortions are methods of avoidance – unhealthy responses to our problems – that offer temporary respite but do little to moderate our anxieties in the long term. 

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Some defense mechanisms, when used appropriately, can be beneficial. Without coping mechanisms, healthy or otherwise, we can experience decompensation – the inability or unwillingness to generate effective psychological alternatives to stress – resulting in personality disturbance or disintegration.


None of us is perfect. We all conceal things to avoid revealing things about ourselves that make us uncomfortable. Often, we hide them from ourselves. One way to accomplish this is to direct attention away from the problematic area to something else.  

Compensation is when we excel in one area of our life to counteract real or perceived deficits in another. The socially inadequate may become an actor or musician. A toddler reprimanded for bad behavior might clean her room. A teenager compensates for learning difficulties by excelling in sports. (While they may accrue social and physical benefits, long-term problems may accrue unless educational issues are addressed.) 

Compensation is a natural response to errant behaviors. It is a defense mechanism that has healthy applications. We compensate for our adverse thoughts and behaviors by replacing them with positive, productive ones. We compensate for our low self-esteem by recognizing and emphasizing our character strengths, virtues, and achievements. 

Our social anxiety has negatively impacted our emotional well-being and quality of life since childhood. Our fear of rejection has subverted our social life. Our obsession with our performance and shortcomings is a constant reminder of our imperfections. Like the tendency to thrust a burnt hand into cold water, years of living with feelings of inferiority and self-loathing compels us to overcompensate.  


An unhealthy byproduct of compensation is falling into the trap of perfectionism. This is especially frequent in SAD persons. Perfectionism causes us to set unreasonable expectations. Let’s discuss some of the glaring similarities between social anxiety disorder and perfectionism.

Perfectionists tend to beat themselves when expectations are unmet. They struggle to move on when things don’t work out the way they anticipate. SAD persons worry about their performance before and during a situation and obsess about their failures long after.

Perfectionists tend to have higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of psychological well-being. SAD persons have lower implicit and explicit self-esteem relative to healthy controls.

To a perfectionist, anything less than perfection is perceived as failure. Polarized Thinking is common among SAD persons. We see things as absolute – black or white. There is no middle ground. We are either brilliant or abject failures. Our friends are for us or against us. If we are not faultless, we must be broken and inept. 

Perfectionists and SAD persons avoid situations that project potential failure. We worry so much about doing or saying something inappropriate, we procrastinate or avoid the situation entirely. This exacerbates our self-criticism and defensiveness.

Perfectionists do not take criticism well. A prevailing symptom of social anxiety disorder is the fear of situations in which we may be criticized and or ridiculed.

Because of our critical nature and tendency to reject out of fear of rejection, perfectionists and SAD persons are, ostensibly, lonely or isolated, which seriously impacts our ability to interconnect and sustain satisfying relationships. 

Perfectionists obsess over their imperfections. Rather than taking pride in their abilities, they prioritize their faults. Filtering is a cognitive distortion common to SAD persons. We selectively choose our perspective. We focus on the negative aspects of a situation and exclude the positive. Negative filtering sustains our toxic core and intermediate beliefs. A dozen people in our office celebrate our promotion; one ignores us. We obsess over the lone individual and disregard the goodwill of the rest. That is in an imperfect scenario, and anything less than perfection is a failure.

Expectations that follow the same criteria that we establish for our neural information will likely be met. Rational, reasonable, possible, positive, unconditional, goal-focused, concise, and first-person present or future time expectations will likely be met. 

An expectation, by definition, is a strong emotional belief that something will take place in the future. When we set expectations, we have a vested interest in their outcome. An unreasonable expectation is irrational – one that has no basis in reason or fact. So, what happens in the likelihood our expectations are unmet? Because we have a vested interest, we are psychologically attached to the outcome. Fixed In our minds, we see it as a reality. When it does not go our way, the general response is one of disappointment.

Disappointment is a formidable emotion; experts describe the reaction to disappointment as a form of sadness – an expression of desperation or grief due to loss. While it is true that we cannot lose what we do not acquire, by fixing the expectation in our mind, we made it real, and we feel the loss viscerally. This leads to depression, self-loathing, and the other symptoms associated with perfectionism and social anxiety. We have failed; we are hopeless and worthless.

History shows us that setting unreasonable ambitions in war can have disastrous consequences when expectations are unmet. Since we are at war with SAD, it is crucial to avoid making the same mistake. Recovery is challenging enough without adding additional stress to the equation.

It is human nature to want to aspire to excellence. How do we set reasonable expectations when every fiber of our being wants to grab the brass ring? Setting a clear and concise singular purpose and reasonable expectations. First, we identify the particulars of the anxiety-provoking situation; they vary depending on our associated fears, and corresponding ANTs (automatic negative thoughts). We then devise a structured plan to address the feared situation – the coping skills best suited to achieve our purpose. 


What is our singular goal or reason for exposing ourselves to the Situation? Is it to network, make friends, challenge our malfunction, or work on a personal concern? Our Purpose is our primary motivation. The overarching goal in recovery is to moderate our fears and anxieties. We rarely expose ourselves to situations, however, for the sole purpose of challenging our social anxiety. We have alternative or secondary motivations. Why are we participating in this situation? What do we seek or hope to accomplish? 

A world of caution. While we may have multiple reasons for exposing ourselves to the situation, it is advisable to limit ourselves to a single clear and concise purpose because it strengthens our focus and resolve. Conversely, focusing on multiple purposes such as networking, seeking a sexual liaison, and making friends significantly reduces the probability of a successful venture, leading to disappointment and self-recrimination. There is an old Russian proverb. If you chase two rabbits, you will probably not catch either one. 

Subjective Units of Distress Scale (SUDS) 

SUDS is a numbered, self-evaluation scale (1-100) that measures the intensity of distress we feel about a situation. SUDS has two purposes in recovery. The first is to help us identify and evaluate our fears and ANTs. It also helps us set expectations; we project how well we moderate that distress utilizing our recovery tools and techniques. It is a subjective exercise designed to generate a positive response to a potentially negative situation. Here is how it works.

Projected SUDS Rating 

Let’s say we gauge the intensity of our distress about a situation at a SUDS level of 75. Projecting we can decrease the intensity of that distress to 25 is an unreasonable expectation. That is not going to happen immediately but through repetition and practice. We can reasonably expect, however, that our distress will modify to some extent. So, we project our SUDS Rating of 75 will decrease to 70 or 65. We can achieve that just by showing up. That is a reasonable expectation. We keep the training wheels on our bike until we have achieved the level of competence where we remove them and ride safely.

Projected Positive Outcome

Our projected positive outcome is the sequence of events we determine will satisfy our participation. What reasonable result will provide a sense of pride and accomplishment? Like our Projected SUDs Rating, anticipating a reasonable outcome will ensure the probability of success. For example, if our purpose is to network, what would support that goal to our satisfaction? This is purely subjective, so it is easy to be reasonable. If our fear of rejection disrupts our ability to network, for example, a projected positive outcome might be as simple as handing a business card to one potential employer. Someone more socially comfortable would, likely, ask more of themselves. Our reasonable expectation is a subjective determination of what we would consider progress. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. If we foolishly decide to fly, our wings may burn and hurdle us to the ground. A situation is defined as the facts, conditions, and incidents affecting us at a particular time in a particular place. A reasonable expectation is one that is reasonable to us when exposing ourselves to a feared situation. We determine the conditions for success. Progress, not perfection.

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