Hot-air Baloon

Ch-8: Rise Above Anxiety, Anger, and Depression

Mental Control Strategy 4: Goals and Expectations Modification

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
Send Feedback/Questions to:
You Can Choose To Be Happy:
Site dedicated to enhancing human happiness, self-development, and success
SITE MAP: All free Self-help resources includes online book, You Can Choose To Be Happy, and SHAQ

Photo of Dr Tom and Sherry Stevens
search index brief sitemap advanced site search
search engine by freefind
Chapter  8,  Part 5,  from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
Go to book Contents  Return to chapter contents  Go to Dr. Stevens' Home Page

Mental Control Strategy 4:


Keep the activity optimally challenging

  Optimal expectations increase harmonious functioning
  Adjust goal challenge to get into the zone (feel and function better)

The following two sections are in different files:
How to adjust your emotional arousal like a thermostat--the 5 LAPDS methods
How to overcome depression and other underarousal emotions


Our receptionist told me that I must see this student as soon as possible because she was crying and very upset. When I took her to my office and asked her what was wrong, she told me that she had made a "C" on a biology exam. I had seen many students who would be delighted at making a "C" on a biology exam. However, she explained that she was a senior and had a 4.0 grade average and she lived in terror that something might spoil her "perfect grade average" before she graduated next semester.

These fears had caused college to become a nightmare for her. The more she worried about losing her perfect 4.0, the more she dreaded school and studying. These fears and thoughts reduced her concentration and caused her to avoid studying--further increasing her fears. How could she get out of this negative cycle?

I asked her how she felt about her grades during previous semesters. She said that she felt "ok" about making 4.0 grades, but that it was "nothing special." A 4.0 was just what she expected of herself. It was not her parents' expectations--only hers. How sad! There were over 30,000 other students at our university who would have been thrilled at making a 4.0 for even one semester--yet she could only be "ok" about it.

Her expectations were too high: her minimum expectations were to make perfect grades--all "A"s. She had boxed herself into a situation where she could never surpass her expectations, she could only barely meet them--or fall short. She had developed expectations that created a very high probability of unhappiness--not only from grade pressures but from the resultant unbalanced life.

The solution was for her to examine the causes for her extremely high expectations and choose a new set of standards for herself. She decided that her overall happiness was more important than her grades. That decision helped her put her grades into a better perspective. Trading her minimal expectations from 4.0 and an unbalanced life to a 3.8 overall [easy for her] and a balanced life was not lowering her expectations for her overall life. It was a tradeoff that increased her overall happiness. She felt immediate relief and made a number of related decisions about what she could do to start enjoying life more.

Return to beginning

Expectations and our Frame of References. What causes us to have expectations that are too high or too low? One major factor is our frame of reference. A frame of reference is like a ruler. For example, someone growing up in a poor African country would not expect to have a TV, computer, car, and 3 bedroom suburban home as would someone growing up in the United States. Their frame of reference is very different.

A reference group is a group of people that we identify with (such as family, peer group, church, or team) and that we use as a frame of reference. One way we use reference groups is to measure our performance. For example, a baseball player will probably compare his batting average first to members of his own team, then to members of the league he is in. Let's see how reference groups can cause psychological and emotional problems.

We can choose a Frame of Reference that will bring inner harmony and maximize performance. A 37-year-old undergraduate student came in for counseling because he was unhappy with his academic performance and was experiencing too much "test anxiety." He had felt pervasive anxiety and gilt for years. A large part of the problem stemmed from his reference group--his father and brothers. All three brothers and his father had received doctorates and were established in their professions. by the time they were his age.

He felt under a severe time pressure to "catch up" with them. He said, "I feel as if I am 15 years behind where I should be." He feared that he would never catch up with them or be where he "should" be. The result was severe anxiety, depression, and anger at himself--even though he had over a 3.5 grade average.

How could he overcome all this guilt? First, I challenged his reference group. Why should he compare himself to such an unusually high group of achievers--even if they were his own family? As long as he continued to do so, he would feel guilty, because he might never catch up with their career success.

He learned to establish a new "time line" for events in his life. When he compared himself only to "people in general" (less than 30% ever get a college degree), he felt much better about himself. An even better frame of reference was not other people at all--it was his own realistic goals. It was realistic for him to do well in college. It was not realistic for him to obtain a doctorate by the time his family members had. Afterwards, he felt as if a great weight had been lifted from him--a weight he had been carrying around for many years. And, he did even better on his exams and enjoyed college more!

The frame of reference influences our emotional states and our performances. Normally, the selection of the frame of references is an automatic process. On the other hand, it is possible to consciously select the frame of reference (or reference group). We can confront an old expectation with a new expectation. Each time we choose the new expectation over the old--we reprogram our cognitive system until these new expectations become fully automatic.

Who do you compare yourself to--who are your reference groups? What do they expect of you and what pressures do you feel from them? How do you cope with them? If you are feeling too much stress from trying to please reference group expectations, read the internal control chapter. Developing more internal control by developing your own conscious internal standards is an important step in your journey toward self-actualization and happiness.

PRACTICE: Examine your reference groups and important minimum expectations. How do you primarily measure yourself and your success? Money, career success, number of friends, amount of pleasure and excitement? How much is important? What is their relative importance?

Return to beginning

To be sure you hit the target, make the target that which you hit

Recall (from the preceding chapter) that one of the primary causes of harmonious functioning--peak learning, performance, and happiness--is to keep the task optimally challenging. Overchallenge causes overarousal emotions such as anxiety, guilt, fear, and anger. Underchallenge causes underarousal emotions such as boredom, sadness, depression, and apathy. Therefore, to get into the zone of harmonious functioning--and happiness--optimize goal challenge.

If you are too anxious and overchallenged, change your goals to make reaching them easier. If you are too bored and underchallenged, change your goals to make them more difficult and challenging. Learn how to set realistic and optimally challenging goals--it is a "key to happiness." I probably use this mental control strategy more than any other (with myself and with clients).

One of the greatest sources of arousal is uncertainty about important outcomes. A client said to me, "I'd rather she just leave me, than leave me dangling on a string." Uncertainty--not knowing about important outcomes--can be a major source of anxiety and arousal. Not knowing whether we will be rich or poor, happily married or alone, or alive or dead can create high stress. How could he get more certainty and mental control--when the decision to be together seemed to be all hers?

Focus on more certain and controllable aspects to lower arousal. The client dangling on a string felt that way because he believed that she had all the control over his life and emotions. Her acceptance or rejection of him was like life and death--and it was in her control. But his belief that his happiness depended on her decision gave her that control over his emotions.

My goal was to help him take back control of his emotions--by understanding that his happiness was in his hands, not hers. For example, I asked him to question whether or not he wanted her! He realized that he had actually been much happier alone than in the extreme highs and lows of this relationship. He focused more on the negative aspects of the relationship and all the pain it had brought him. He realized that he might eventually chose to end the relationship. That insight boosted mental control.

Gradually, as he got more mental control, he felt much better. He said, "My self-esteem is so much better I can't believe it. I wondered if I'd ever feel this good about myself again."

In sports, many athletes get very upset with themselves when they perform poorly, get behind, or lose. Yet berating themselves tends to undermine their concentration, alienate other players, and leave them feeling "stressed out."

In my tennis, I had to learn that my overall goal is to enjoy playing. I also like to play my best and I like to win. Years ago, I almost quit tennis because my focus on winning interfered with enjoyment. It also eroded my performance.

Now, I can adjust my arousal like a thermostat by adjusting my goals and what I say to myself. If I play poorly, or get behind in a match with a player I think I should beat, I may start to get upset. Recently, I was playing the top player in a league we were in. Previously, I had never won even a set from him. He was ahead 4 games to 0 in the first set and was ahead serving 40-love in the fifth game. I was upset with myself because I thought I had "blown" opportunities to win all four games.

I reminded myself that I need to focus on enjoying the game and on the ball--not on the score or past mistakes. I won that game and the next four. Once ahead, when serving for the set, I started focusing on the score again and got anxious that I might "blow" my lead. Sure enough, I lost that game and he got ahead 3-1 in the tiebreaker. I again reminded myself to "love the ball." My performance immediately improved and I won the set! (Even if it hadn't won, I would have enjoyed the set.)

I could not control the score, only my thoughts and actions. By making the more controllable (and more certain) aspects of the situation my primary goal, I got more mental control. Anytime overarousal interferes with your comfort or performance, focus on more certain and controllable aspects of the situation to get more mental control.

Return to beginning

Focus on less certain and less controllable aspects to raise arousal. What do we do if we are feeling bored, apathetic, or overconfident? If our arousal is too low, we can raise it by focusing on more uncertain or uncontrollable aspects of the situation.

Sometimes my arousal is too low to play tennis well. I might get overconfident or tired, If my arousal gets too low, then I can increase the challenge. If I get overconfident, I can remind myself that in one match I was ahead 5 games to 0 and lost 7 straight games to lose the set. Another way to increase challenge is to increase my goal from just winning to winning by a large margin--such as 6-1.

The same principle that works for increasing arousal in tennis also works for increasing arousal in other life areas. A client came in because she had been depressed for several years. Her time each week was filled with work, study, child care, and housework. She had lots to do; but to her, it was all routine--one endless stream of waiting tables, books, diapers, and dishes. Worse, she viewed her life as one endless stream of humdrum activities. She wasn't having any fun--and didn't believe fun was even possible.

She needed to make her activities more challenging, unique, and creative. For example, instead of seeing every customer as a faceless blob, she began to look for the uniqueness in each one. She set goals to learn something from each customer and to bring a little joy to each customer. She set goals to find meaning in every text chapter, to have more fun with her child, and to make her home a place of beauty and warmth. She also prioritized her activities and added time for more fun activities (while subtracting time from some routine chores).

Where my client had found a humdrum schedule of chores, she now found stimulation and challenge. Where she had seen only faceless, demanding customers, she now saw unique human beings. For her creative efforts, she received a more joyous life.

Return to beginning
Go to next section of Chapter 8, part 5 (The LAPDS Goals/Expectations Method of reducing anxiety)


4.  Process goals are similar to behavioral goals. In many cases they are the same. However, when I use the word process goal here, I mean any thought, action, other process within the actor's own control. The process goal can also be an end in itself--in which case it may also become the outcome goal. However, normally the process is the means to some separate outcome.


The BOOK (free download): Go to Contents of Dr. Stevens'  book,  You Can Choose To Be Happy: "Rise Above" Anxiety, Anger, and Depression.

FREE SELF-HELP materials available on this web site (click here to see list)  

  How to ORDER You Can Choose To Be Happy  

Success and Happiness Attributes Questionnaire (SHAQ)  to assess self on many factors  including HQ-Happiness Quotient 

Email feedback to Dr. Stevens I welcome your comments about my web site or any of its contents.           

Self-Help and other resources on this website (and site map)

Web site created and maintained by: Tom G. Stevens PhD Psychologist-Faculty Emeritus,
California State University, Long Beach Counseling and Psychological Services.
URL of this web site:

Return to Dr. Stevens' Home Page

Copyright 2021 Tom G. Stevens PhD