Expectations guide your progress in addiction recovery, but having unrealistic expectations during the process sets you up for failure. When you set expectations so high you couldn’t possibly attain them, you add unneeded stress and decrease your chance of success. Setting realistic expectations in addiction recovery helps you form a healthy framework to succeed.
What Are Unrealistic Expectations?
Unrealistic expectations happen when you don’t know what you’re getting into or you expect recovery to turn out differently. Those expectations can be about the treatment process or life after treatment. Some common unrealistic expectations include:
- Expecting treatment and recovery to be easy
- Expecting to immediately feel better in treatment
- Failing to understand how much work goes into recovery
- Thinking you can handle addiction recovery on your own
- Forcing perfectionist ideals on yourself and punishing yourself when you fall short of those perfect expectations
- Expecting addiction recovery to be a quick process
- Expecting recovery to be a constant positive trajectory — the process often comes with highs and lows which you need to account for when setting expectations
- Thinking life will be perfect and back to “normal” after you complete treatment
- Thinking that addiction recovery will instantly solve other problems in your life, such as financial difficulties or marital problems
- Believing you won’t still have to work on your addiction once treatment is complete
- Thinking addiction recovery has a definite end date
- Expecting loved ones to suddenly regain trust in you because you’re in addiction recovery — rebuilding the damage done to trust can take time
Unrealistic expectations can happen at any time during the addiction recovery process. Before you enter recovery, you might not understand how much work goes into the process. During treatment, you’ll probably expect recovery to progress more quickly. When things go well, you might assume they’ll continue to do so, and feel disappointment if you hit a tough patch. Setting and adjusting realistic expectations throughout the process is important in staying on track.
Dangers of Having Unrealistic Expectations
What happens if you don’t set realistic expectations? You aren’t doomed to fail, but you may find yourself struggling with treatment and recovery. Those unrealistic expectations have a very negative impact on your progress. The extent of the damaging effects depends on how skewed your expectations are and how well you can bounce back from the disappointment of not meeting those expectations.
The following can happen if you have unrealistic expectations in addiction recovery:
- Disappointment: When you expect recovery to be easy or you push yourself to progress more quickly than you’re able to, you’re likely to feel disappointed. You may question why you’re even attempting to beat your addiction.
- Relapse: If you fail to meet the unrealistic expectations you set, you may decide to throw in the towel. Based on your unrealistic outlook, recovery isn’t working, so you decide there is no point in continuing. Relapse is a common occurrence often caused by unrealistic expectations.
- Complacency: Expecting recovery to be easy causes complacency during treatment. Things are going well, so you assume they’ll continue this way. You might not put as much effort into your treatment program and recovery. This will cause you to miss opportunities or skip steps that help you get and stay sober.
- Harsh Judgments: When you hold yourself to unobtainable expectations, failure causes you to judge yourself harshly. You compare where you are to where you should be according to those unrealistic expectations. This can interrupt your progress or cause you to relapse.
- Resentment: People going through addiction recovery may feel resentment toward others if their expectations for those people are too high. For example, you may expect your spouse to trust that you won’t blow money on drugs. If your partner doesn’t believe you can be trusted with money, you may feel resentment. Your expectations for your partner to trust you immediately may be too high, considering the history of addiction in your relationship.
- Excessive Pressure: When you set unrealistic expectations, you put excessive pressure on yourself during an already challenging time. That pressure makes recovery even more challenging and causes undue stress that interferes with the process.
Importance of Setting Realistic Expectations
Realistic expectations in addiction recovery help you stay on track. When you’re realistic about the process, you’re better able to succeed. Realistic expectations go beyond just avoiding relapse.
The following reasons explain the importance of having realistic expectations during recovery:
- Mental Preparation for the Process: Having realistic expectations means you have a clear understanding of what the recovery process involves. You understand that the process is difficult and requires your full participation. Those realistic expectations help you show up ready to work and succeed.
- Avoiding Surprises: Along the same lines, realistic expectations help you avoid surprises. If you think recovery will be easy just because you show up, you may find yourself blindsided by the effort you need to put forth. With realistic expectations, you’re better able to handle the difficulties of the process without being knocked off your feet by surprises.
- Stress Reduction: When you set expectations that are attainable and realistic, you feel less stress. You can see your progress, and you know you’re reaching realistic goals. That reduced stress helps you focus more attention on the recovery process so you can continue your success.
- Patience: Preparing realistically for various aspects of addiction recovery helps you develop patience. If you have unrealistic expectations, you may feel impatient toward achieving goals. By focusing on a realistic approach, you’re better able to remain patient and stay on course, knowing what is to come eventually.
- Progress Monitoring: Realistic expectations help you gauge your progress once you start addiction recovery. You can compare your actual progress to where you should be. If your expectations were too high, you’ll have a skewed view of your actual progress, and may feel you’re failing. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’re falling below those realistic expectations, it can help motivate you to get back on track. Without those realistic expectations in place, you may not realize you’re off track.
How to Set Realistic Expectations in Addiction Recovery
You know why you need realistic expectations, but how do you go about developing them? Your preconceived notions about addiction recovery may not be the most realistic. Taking a healthy, realistic approach requires some research and careful reflection as you enter and work through the recovery process.
Use these methods to set realistic expectations for your own addiction recovery process:
- Remember that Addiction Recovery is a Process: Going into treatment, you need to understand that addiction recovery is a process, not a one-time event. If you expect to check off a list of tasks and then call yourself recovered, you’ll be met with disappointment.
- Educate Yourself on the Treatment Process: To set your own realistic expectations, you need to understand what happens once you enter recovery. The process is different for every person, so you can’t apply a general timeline to your life, but knowing how the process works helps you determine what is realistic for you.
- Learn About the Addiction Itself: If a doctor diagnosed you with diabetes, you would want to know everything you could about the disease, from causes to treatment and long-term management. The same should be true of addiction. By learning all you can about your addiction, you can better prepare for the process and set expectations accordingly.
- Set Realistic Goals: Having goals that line up with your expectations can help you stay on track and help you develop your realistic expectations. Think of goals as the steps you’ll take to fulfill your expectations. Having concrete and achievable goals with a solid action plan helps you keep a realistic approach to addiction recovery.
- Focus on Your Health: Instead of focusing on “curing” yourself, focus on building healthier habits. This creates a positive mentality and may help you be more realistic in what you need to do.
- Get Help Developing Your Expectations. Reach out to your recovery team for support in developing healthy expectations. Those key support figures know the reality of addiction recovery and will help you learn what to expect. Many have been through addiction recovery themselves and can offer personal insight. Don’t be afraid to open up about your goals and expectations.
- Consider Your Own Strengths and Habits: Entering a treatment program isn’t a magic cure-all. You won’t suddenly have a new personality. When setting your expectations, consider your personality and how you handle life. If you tend to be a perfectionist, this increases the odds of setting unrealistic expectations. Account for this as you establish your recovery expectations. Thinking about how you normally approach challenges can help you channel those tendencies to be effective in your recovery.
- Stay Flexible: Keeping your expectations flexible is an important part of developing a realistic outlook in recovery. It is impossible to predict an exact timeline for addiction recovery. Allowing a sense of flexibility in your expectations helps you account for that unpredictable progress.
Maintaining Your Expectations During Recovery
Entering treatment with realistic expectations is a positive start, but those expectations sometimes become skewed as you go through the process. You may initially feel successful, but hit a bump, and suddenly feel you’re failing. Revisiting your expectations throughout addiction recovery helps you maintain a realistic outlook, which makes it easier to stay on track and avoid relapse.
Keep up your expectations during recovery with the following tips:
- Acknowledge Your Progress: Whether or not you’re on track with the expectations you set, focus on the progress you’ve made. Perhaps you’re not as far along in the process as you hoped or you’ve faced setbacks. Instead of beating yourself up for those perceived shortcomings, recognize what you’ve accomplished so far. Just entering a treatment program is a huge success for addicts. Small victories along the way are worth celebrating and remembering when you feel like you aren’t living up to the expectations.
- Monitor Your Expectations: Like many things in life, our expectations often shift once we get into a process. Periodically review the expectations you set. Determine if they are still realistic or if you need to adjust them to account for your individual progress through addiction recovery.
- Practice Self-care: Taking care of yourself often falls to the wayside while using drugs or alcohol. In recovery, focus on those little self-care tasks, such as eating healthy, exercising, practicing personal hygiene and pursuing your interests. Those self-care tasks help you stay mentally focused and in the moment so you can stay focused on those realistic expectations.
- Plan for Disruptions: Part of having realistic expectations is knowing that you may face roadblocks and difficult patches during addiction recovery. Planning how to handle those unexpected interruptions to your progress helps you maintain your realistic expectations. Maintain flexibility when it comes to your outlook on recovery.
- Reach out for Support: You have a network of support, from the treatment team to support group members to your loved ones. Reach out to them throughout your addiction recovery process when you need help maintaining realistic expectations.
Coping With the Disappointment of Relapse
Addiction recovery isn’t always successful the first time. Relapse is common, but it doesn’t mean you failed or won’t have a chance at living a sober life. Despite the possibility for eventual success in addiction recovery, relapse often creates feelings of disappointment. You didn’t live up to the expectations you had for recovery, which resulted in relapse. It’s natural to feel let down or disappointed.
In some cases, relapse happens after a turning point in recovery. Everything clicks. You worked through the detox phase. Recovery seems easy. You feel a sense of joy, but sometimes that joy can cause disconnect from reality. You convince yourself that recovery is easy. When you hit a road bump that suddenly makes you remember that recovery is a process that requires hard work, you may feel deflated or disappointed. Some people slip back into drug or alcohol use at this point, because they feel that recovery isn’t working.
When you feel disappointed with your relapse, you may struggle to see any good in your life. You likely feel exhausted and may feel increased stress. Some people blame others for the relapse or for the feelings of disappointment. These reactions interfere with your ability to bounce back after the relapse and once again work toward addiction recovery.
How should you deal with the disappointment of relapse or disappointment in general during addiction recovery? Here are some healthy methods of dealing with those feelings:
- Talk About It: Reach out to your sponsor, a loved one or someone else who will support you. Talking about your disappointment and your relapse can help you work through the emotions and create a plan to get back on track with the process.
- Write About It: Sometimes you don’t feel comfortable verbalizing those feelings of disappointment. Instead, write them down. This is a healthy way to release those emotions. You can also share those written words with a sponsor if you want support but aren’t sure how to say the words out loud.
- Focus on Gratitude: Just because you relapsed or failed to meet your recovery expectations doesn’t mean everything in life is bad. Keeping a gratitude journal can help you overcome the feelings of disappointment and remind you that you still have positive things in your life. You may even find your motivation toward recovery returns when you see all of the great things you have in your life.
- Learn from the Disappointment: Instead of wallowing in those feelings of disappointment, use it as a time to reflect and learn. This reflection can help you identify the areas that caused you difficulty so you can overcome them as you once again work through addiction recovery.
- Meditate: When disappointment over a relapse becomes overwhelming, implement strategies to get those feelings under control. Mindful mediation is an effective way to focus on the moment and manage your emotions.
- Step Back: Remind yourself that everyone experiences disappointments in life, whether or not they are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Everyone fails to meet expectations they set for themselves at some point. Look at the bigger picture, and refocus your energy on returning to your addiction recovery program to work through the disappointment faster.
- Seek Help: If your disappointment is so overwhelming that you can’t handle it or it interrupts your normal activities, seek help from a therapist. This professional help can push you past the disappointment so you can renew your commitment to addiction recovery and start taking the steps necessary to get there.
How to Set More Realistic Expectations After Relapse
Relapsing does not mean you’ll never be successful in addiction recovery. Getting back on track as quickly as possible helps you increase your chances of succeeding. Part of that successful treatment and recovery after relapsing is redefining your expectations. Perhaps your initial expectations were off base or you had difficulty keeping those expectations in sight. Now is the time to reset and set new expectations.
When you think about your expectations after relapse, consider these tips:
- Identify Damaging Expectations: Think back to your previous attempt at addiction recovery. What were your expectations? Were they realistic? Which expectations tripped you up or caused you stress? Which expectations were on track and helped you before you relapsed? Learning from previous expectations helps you better hit the mark after relapse.
- Set Expectations for all Aspects of Recovery: Perhaps you went into the process with realistic expectations for the treatment process, but you failed to plan for the transition back home or your long-term recovery plan. When you resume addiction recovery after a relapse, think through the full process, setting expectations for each phase.
- Make Sobriety and Healthy Habits a Priority: Your expectations should revolve around living a sober life with healthier habits to support your new lifestyle. If sobriety isn’t your main priority, your expectations may be skewed to focus on that one concern. Some people may feel they can eventually control their substance use without becoming addicted. An alcoholic may believe they can eventually have a few drinks socially without a complete relapse. Your expectations should revolve around the idea that you’ll never be able to use the substance without becoming addicted.
- Identify Your Relapse Triggers: Understanding the triggers that caused you to relapse or that could cause a future relapse helps you move forward. Consider those triggers when setting your goals and expectations. Planning for these triggers can help you cope with them in a positive way and avoid them in the future.
- Remember, You Aren’t Working Toward an End Date: Addiction recovery does not have a set timeline with an end date you can mark on the calendar. Renew your position that addiction recovery is a process and something you’ll always have to consider. Relapse can happen at any point, even after months or years of sobriety. When you set your expectations after a relapse, remember that recovery is an ongoing process.
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