Managing Expectations in Recovery

by Patrick Meninga

The first thing that you want to consider as far as expectations in recovery is to try not to have them at all! Sometimes it is our expectations that kill us in recovery and the only way that we can truly become disappointed is if our expectations were too high to begin with.

The solution? Lower your expectations and stop being so demanding about what you will experience or be rewarded with in your recovery. Hopefully it is enough to know that things will get better and better if you continue to take positive action.

If you go into recovery saying, “I’m going to get my ex back and that is the whole point of me getting sober” then that is setting yourself up for failure. This is about personal growth. The path will reveal itself to you rather slowly over the next few years so long as you have the right attitude.

In order to stay on the proper path to sobriety, you should make an effort to manage your expectations accordingly.

Early expectations: start very slowly

In early recovery you simply need to take positive action, enjoy the process of recovery as it unfolds, and not be too demanding about what results you are getting.

One thing I’ve noticed about people in early recovery who tend to do well is that they have the right attitude. People who avoid relapse are:

  • Grateful.
  • Willing to learn. Eager to learn. Humble enough to learn.
  • Action oriented. Willing to take action. Willing to do things. Willing to put in time, energy, and effort into their recovery.

To be honest it is a bit easier to predict who will NOT make it in early recovery, because they:

  • Are not grateful for anything. They are impatient, nothing is good enough, and they are generally unhappy with their situation.
  • Believe that they know how to recover already and therefore have nothing to learn. They have heard it all before and they are sick of it.
  • Sit idle and expect recovery to just happen for them, without having to create it themselves. Their expectations are too high and their willingness too low.

This last bit really speaks to the idea that your expectations about recovery can really mess you up.

There are huge benefits in recovery but you cannot just get clean and sober and expect it all to fall into your lap tomorrow. It takes time, effort, and energy to build up this new life and if your expectations are too high or you expect it all to happen too fast then you are going to be disappointed.

First 12 to 24 months: focus on sobriety and building a foundation

You might think of each challenge and problem in your life as being represented by rocks and boulders. Some of these rocks are bigger than others – like active addiction or alcoholism. After you take care of these “big rocks,” there are obviously only going to be smaller rocks with which to work with later on. Don’t take this as a sign of failure or that you are slowing down. It just means that you have cleared out your biggest problems already.

I think it is reasonable to think of the first two years or so of your recovery as “big rock moving time.” Your measure of success during years one and two is if you can maintain sobriety. If you are looking for rewards and benefits beyond this simple baseline of abstinence during the first two years then I believe you are setting yourself up for failure. Sobriety itself should be your only real goal in early recovery.

Transitioning to long term recovery

Many people in recovery get down on themselves because they feel like they are not making progress any more. They remember getting into recovery, what an exciting time it was and that it seemed like they made a lot of visible progress in a short amount of time.

Now they are sort of past all of that early recovery stuff and starting on the path of long term recovery. So obviously their rate of growth and progress in life slows down a great deal and they may only have long term goals now. There is no longer anything immediate that they need to fix in their life but there is incremental progress that can be made if they are still willing to work hard.

The old timer can look at such a person and realize that they are entering “long term recovery,” that they have already made a ton of progress in getting sober and that all future growth is going to be mostly incremental. And so the old timer has the wisdom to see that such a person really is right where they need to be. They are not just using that as a cliche but they can actually see that the person is making good progress, it is just stretched out progress on a longer timeline.

In early recovery it is enough to lay out your foundation and “move your biggest rocks.” In long term recovery you will still be making positive changes but the results of those changes will not be as immediate. However this does not mean that you should no longer strive to make growth. Just make sure that you are managing your expectations of that growth and being realistic about it.

Success in recovery will come in its own time. Each day should be counted as a success if you remain clean and sober. If you keep a healthy amount of gratitude for this as your foundation of success (continuous sobriety) then you will open your life in recovery up to more and more rewards in the future.

Excerpted and reprinted by kind permission of the author. The full article and more of the author’s writings on recovery can be found at

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Renascent Alumni
Members of Renascent's alumni community carry the message by sharing their experiences and perspectives on addiction and recovery. To contribute your alumni perspective, please email