Managing Disappointment

I recently experienced a day which I described as “peppered with disappointment”.  I turned to friends who listened and empathised with me and my disappointment.  It got me thinking about this concept which prompted me to reflect on some of the themes coming up in client sessions at the moment and it’s also disappointment.  It then go me thinking how we are never taught how to manage disappointment and that it can happen anytime and how important a life lesson it is.

Disappointment can lead us to feel angry, sad and betrayed.  Those are all pretty uncomfortable emotions.

Many people successfully work through their disappointments.  Somehow, they have the strength to take stock of what has happened to them, learn from the incident, and move on.  They can come out of such disappointments stronger.  But others may struggle.  So how can we learn to manage our disappointments more effectively?

Given the convoluted nature of desire, there are no experiences that are entirely free of disappointment.  This is what makes disappointment such a complex and confusing feeling.  Paradoxically, we may even become disappointed when we get what we want.  For example, even when we do get what we really really want — and think we deserve it — we may discover that what we wanted so badly doesn’t bring the expected bliss and happiness that we thought it would.

Developmental Influences

The way we handle disappointment is related to our developmental history — our relationship with our parents and other early, formative experiences with our primary caregivers and peers.

Some people seek to avoid disappointment by turning into underachievers.  They unconsciously set the bar low and avoid taking risks, to prevent themselves or others from being disappointed.  Without realizing it, they have decided that the best strategy is not to have high expectations about anything.  Such behavior turns into a form of self-preservation and or / self-sabotage.  However, it also leads to a mediocre and unfulfilled life.  Ironically, these people often turn into disappointments for everyone, including themselves.

Others, following a very different trajectory and seek to avoid disappointment by becoming overachievers.  Although they tell themselves that their expectations of perfection are appropriate and realistic, these presumptions turn out not to be true at all.  The bar is set far too high to ever make whatever they want to achieve attainable.  They forget that perfectionism rarely begets perfection, or satisfaction for that matter — instead, it too often leads to disappointment.

Of course, there are also people with a more balanced developmental history.  These people usually had parents who didn’t try to be perfect, and didn’t expect their children to be perfect either.  By being “good enough” parents, they created a secure base for their children.  These children feel secure in their relationships, supported rather than controlled, and are able to play, explore, and learn, thereby acquiring the inner strength to cope constructively with the inevitable setbacks that will come their way in their journey through life.

While it’s helpful to know which way we lean, our developmental history is not our destiny.  Whatever our developmental history may be; disappointment can provide us with valuable information about our beliefs about ourselves, other people, and what makes us happy.

Styles of Coping

Major disappointments are often defining moments in people’s lives.  Constructively dealing with disappointment can be a self-curative process that can contribute to personal growth and make for greater resilience.

It it much more constructive to re-frame a disappointment as a learning opportunity in order to be able to cope better in the future, and to use disappointment as a catalyst for personal growth.  Such soul-searching provides us with new information about ourselves, the world, and others.

Far too many people, when faced with disappointment, tend to attribute negative life events to their personal failings.  They resort to obsessional self-blaming, as they feel ashamed or humiliated of not measuring up to the image of their ideal self.  As a result, they direct their anger inward, to themselves. It may prompt them to say that they deserved it, that they were not good enough.  Others, however, will turn their anger outward toward others, to people who didn’t fulfill their expectations and ultimately place the blame on them.  It can contribute to feelings of spite, vindictiveness, and bitterness.

Unfortunately, both emotional reactions keep an individual stuck in a web of disappointment.  In many instances, disappointment can turn into a lingering sadness — a feeling of loss, of being let down, or even of betrayal.  In particular, this is the case when disappointment has been “inflicted” by people who are trusted deeply.

Overcoming Disappointment

Unpleasant as disappointments may be, we can always learn something from them.

To constructively deal with disappointment, we need to first understand what has happened.  Some instances of disappointment are predictable and preventable.  However, there are others that are unavoidable and beyond our control.  To manage disappointment, we need to differentiate between situations that fall within our control and factors that are beyond it.  Being able to recognize the difference will help us to deal with our frustrations more appropriately.

We also need to check whether our expectations are reasonable.  Are we having unrealistically high expectations, and thus aiming too high? Or are we setting our goals too low?  If you belong to that group of people who set their expectations too high, working constructively through disappointments may help you to modify expectations.  You may learn to move away from perfectionistic thinking and standards; you may start to accept what is “good enough.”  For those who have set the bar too low, what they should stop doing is hanging on to false beliefs about life like, “There is no more hope” or “Nothing ever works for me.”  Avoiding disappointment is not possible in life; trying to do so is not a very constructive way of dealing with life’s challenges.

When disappointment occurs regularly, it may be advisable to reevaluate our perceptions and behaviors.  We can examine whether we are inviting disappointment.

  • Could we have been clearer in our communication of what we were expecting from others?
  • Do we really know what we expect from ourselves?
  • Are we listening to what others are saying to us?
  • Could we have done something different to arrive at a different outcome?
  • Given what we know about ourselves, how can we adjust our expectations to be more effective the next time?
  • What support and resources do we have at our disposal to help us move through our feelings of disappointment successfully?

To deal with disappointment constructively, it is important to not let it deteriorate into apathy, sadness and depression.  Sustained negative rumination is not a prescription for change.  When we become preoccupied by bad news, we lose sight of what is right in our lives and in the world around us.  We only internalize feelings of sadness and anger.  Hanging on to these feelings can result in us unconsciously making them a part of our identity.

When we catch ourselves thinking negatively, we should redirect our energy and focus on positive solutions.  Although from an unconscious perspective we may be reluctant to let go of a disappointing experience, in the long run it will be more detrimental to continue holding on.  When we become too preoccupied with thinking about situations that have not met our expectations, we only create unnecessary stress and more of the same.

Disappointment is not meant to destroy us.  It has the potential to strengthen us and make us better.  In spite of its devastating emotional impact, we may even consider encounters with disappointment as journeys toward greater insight and wisdom.  That said, to be able to make these journeys of self-reflection and reevaluation meaningful, we need to look beneath the surface.  Only by working through painful associations will we be free from them.

In spite of whatever disappointing experiences come our way, our challenge will be to not let bitterness take root.  We would do well to keep in mind that although disappointment is inevitable, being discouraged is always a choice.


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