Aim High! Battling the Tyranny of Low Expectations

Danny CraneIf your dreams don’t scare you a bit, maybe they aren’t quite big enough?PHOTO BY WARREN HEGGARTY

By Grant J Everett

Even if you haven’t heard of “the tyranny of low expectations”, you may have experienced it firsthand. The tyranny of low expectations happens when somebody is told they are useless, hopeless, good for nothing and will go nowhere until they finally believe it for themselves. Sadly, this can leave you feeling unworthy and incapable of pursuing life’s pleasures and fulfilments, so goals like furthering your education, finding a decent job and meeting your soulmate can feel impossibly out of reach. 

For ANYONE to believe this is profoundly sad.

While the tyranny of low expectations can affect anybody, those of us with mental health issues would almost certainly be personally familiar with it to some degree. Being described in negative ways is usually at the core of it, with reductive labels and other forms of stigma compounding these beliefs until we are convinced that we cannot go as far in life as a “normal” person, as though a mental health diagnosis automatically excludes us from good things. As words can build us up or tear us down, this is why Flourish Australia has a major emphasis on using recovery-based language across our entire organisation. 

Difficult life experiences can cause already-low expectations to plunge even further. Notable examples include substance abuse issues, missing out on a good education, being socially isolated, having bad work experiences, coming in contact with the Justice Health system or Corrective system, coming from a broken family, having a nasty breakup with a romantic interest, and so on.

The wounds of low expectations can be inflicted by parents, siblings, teachers, “friends”, employers, neighbours, mental health professionals, and even ourselves. They can cut especially deep during our formative years, and it’s not unusual for people to carry such injuries for their entire lives. This leads to existing rather than truly living. 


The tyranny of low expectations often expresses itself as a profound fear of failure. Does fear prevent you from trying to achieve your goals? Just how likely does success have to be before you’ll give something a go? 

While most worthwhile things in life don’t come easily or instantly, refusing to try is without a doubt the most guaranteed path to failure. Yes, challenges can be scary, but we need to face them in order to grow. Avoiding challenges only get more and more deeply ingrained, making it harder and harder to venture out of your comfort zone in time. 

Failing all the way to success?

Thanks to encouragement from my support people, I have attempted to achieve goals that I thought were almost impossible. Applying for a research writing job with The University of Sydney is a prime example. As I don’t even have a HSC, I was sure my resume would go straight into their slush pile. However, to my surprise, I got the job, and I very much enjoyed working on a mental health research project at the University for 12 months. My latest attempt at reaching for something out of my league was applying for a job as a Deputy Commissioner with the NSW Mental Health Commission. In this case I wasn’t successful, but I definitely did my best.

To be clear, I have failed at many, many things in life. But success is impossible without failure, and the wisdom and experience you gain from falling down is truly golden.

The solution?

Like any habit, there’s plenty you can do about the tyranny of low expectations. Changing the way we are wired up, especially after a long time, might not be easy. It can take effort and patience. With the right support, we are all capable of achieving more, and recovery is possible for EVERYONE. We achieve this one day at a time, like the individual brushstrokes that make up a painting. 

Finally, don’t feel like you need to face your challenges alone. There’s nothing wrong with involving your support network. Flourish Australia, for instance, can help you to find housing and employment, connect up with training and education, provide safe places where you can meet new people, and generally help you to build the life you want.

We all have great potential. All you have to do is try.

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