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How we deal with disappointment

John Delony: advice on dealing with disappointment

Disappointment comes in all shapes and sizes. Dealing with disappointment, heartbreak and unexpected transitions is a frustrating but normal part of life. Some heartbreaks are major and life-altering, while some disappointments are just minor irritations.

Regardless of their size or scope, disappointments still hurt. But since these let-downs are part of what it means to be human, it would serve us well to learn how to deal with disappointment.

What is disappointment?

Disappointment is the painful experience of being let down when your expectations don’t play out the way you hoped. It’s when reality does not match your picture of what could have been. Disappointment can produce feelings ranging from mild annoyance to profound heartbreak and confusion – maybe even despair.

Hope, longing, desire, expectation – these all embody our human tendency to visualise the good things we want in life. But just because we desire something does not mean it’s guaranteed to happen – or be as amazing as we thought it’d be.

Dealing with unmet expectations

Disappointment springs from the gap between hope and truth. It springs from unmet expectations. Put another way: disappointment is when you do not get what you want or what you think you deserve. Some of our expectations are reasonable, and some are unrealistic.

One of the difficulties in communicating our expectations is that we speak with words, but we think in pictures. Dealing with disappointment is the process of grieving the picture you had in your head, letting it go and deciding to create a new picture. Let’s unpack that process.

Give yourself permission to grieve

Grieve might sound like a dramatic word here, but it’s not. Disappointment is like a small death of something you hoped for. No matter how big or small your disappointment, give yourself permission to grieve what you have lost (or never received).

Do not try to gloss over or numb your unpleasant emotions. Name your feelings. If you have been passed over for a big promotion at work, you might chalk it up to feeling depressed or having anxiety, when in reality, you’re angry, hurt and disappointed. These are natural reactions to having your hopes let down. Sit in your grief, but don’t bathe in it. You must accept and process your negative emotions to eventually let them go.

Don’t compare your grief to someone else’s

It’s tempting to try and minimise our grief by comparing it to others who are “worse off” than we are. We end up getting stuck in an endless cycle. I have seen this line of thinking all over the place during the Covid pandemic.

The problem with this approach is we deny ourselves the permission to grieve. Minimising your sadness does not make someone else feel suddenly better. Own your grief, and do not apologise for feeling sad.

Write down your thoughts and feelings

Our feelings are both important, and often, highly inaccurate. They lie to us. They get jumbled up in our hearts and minds, and make us feel confused and downtrodden. I don’t care how tough or cool you are, write down your feelings and scour each of them for truth.

Seeing your feelings on paper allows them to stop spin-cycling in your head. It takes away some of their power, and provides space between your emotions and your ability to think.

Do not allow disappointment to become your identity

There’s a lie that can spring out of a disappointing experience, especially if it’s a pattern. You can easily start to believe that you are a disappointment. Let’s say you have experienced several long-term relationships ending in awful break-ups. It would be easy to assume the hurt as an identity: I’m a bad person. There must be something wrong with me.

Disappointment is something you experience. It’s not something you are.

Spend time with someone you trust

Your friends and community are your emergency fund for life. When you’re hurting, you need other people. Talking about disappointment with someone you trust will help you brush it off and move on.

Choose your confidant wisely. This is not a gossip session, or an excuse to wallow in anger and negativity. Don’t dump on this person, and don’t drag them down. Process how you’re feeling, and enjoy the company of someone you can trust.

Refuse to throw yourself a pity party

Have you ever ignored leftovers in your fridge for too long? You know what happens, right? Tiny spores find their way into the food, and when the temperature and moisture are just right, mould starts to grow. Eventually, the mould will eat away at all the food.

This is a powerful (and disgusting) metaphor for what happens when you choose to hold on to hurt. Hurt is a Petri dish for bitterness. At first, feeling sorry for yourself and obsessively replaying scenes of what happened might seem benign. But before you know it, the bitterness has spread. It infects every part of your life, and spoils the way you see people and circumstances.

Plan something to look forward to

Disappointment is unnerving because it reminds you that you cannot control other people or external situations. The good news is you can control you. Your thoughts and your actions are under your control.

Take action by planning something to look forward to. If your disappointment is causing loneliness, plan a fun evening with your family or your friends. If your disappointment came from a professional let-down, set a time with your leader to talk through the issue and create a plan to grow in your career.

Choose optimism

Viktor Frankl said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

Whining does not smother the embers of grief. It pours gasoline on them. Joy and optimism are a choice, not a personality type. Lean towards joy and healing, even during pain, but do it slowly. Do not be fake or deny the difficulty. Take time to laugh alone, with your family or with friends.

Learn from your disappointment

Do you know what I love about being human? As long as we have breath, we can learn and grow. Even when it comes to painful things, like heartache and cancelled plans, we can decide how we frame our experiences.

I encourage you to become a scholar of your own life. One way we can learn from our disappointment is to reflect, and find meaning in what we have experienced. Here are a few questions to help you dig deep:

• What role did I play in the outcome of this event?

• Why did this event (or person) hurt me so much?

• What part did I have to play in this disappointment?

• Is this a pattern? And if so, what can I do to change it?

• How did my parents respond to disappointment and grief? What kind of model did they set for me?

Let-downs can become defining moments if we choose to learn from them. If we brush them aside, ignore or bury them, or shake our angry fists and walk away, we miss out on a chance to grow into more of the person we were created to be.

John Delony is a mental health expert with PhDs in Counsellor Education and Supervision and Higher Education Administration from Texas Tech University. Prior to joining Ramsey Solutions in 2020, Dr Delony worked as a senior leader, professor, and researcher at multiple universities. He also spent two decades in crisis response, walking with people through severe trauma. Now as a Ramsey Personality, he teaches on relationships and emotional wellness. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube or online at www.johndelony.com

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Published September 25, 2021 at 7:57 am (Updated September 25, 2021 at 7:44 am)

How we deal with disappointment

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