How to cope with disappointment
2020 has been a very difficult year and one, that for many people, has been filled with disappointment. Maybe because we have been unable to go on planned holidays, hold celebrations for significant life events, grieve for loved ones as we would wish, or simply missing out on spending time with friends and family.
Disappointment is a powerful emotion we frequently experience, and one which can have a big impact on our psyche: how we think and feel about ourselves and the world.
Disappointment can trigger feelings of anger and sadness because disappointment is a type of grief; we grieve for our unrealised hopes and dreams.
Disappointment can be triggered by events not working out as we’d planned, such as not getting the dream job you applied for, your football team failing to qualify for the finals, or your lottery numbers not coming up.
Disappointment in relationships
In relationships, we frequently feel disappointed by people failing to act in the way we want them to and letting us down. Being constantly disappointed by a partner or a friend can lead to feelings of blame, resentment and rage. For a child, being let down by their parents, or other significant adults can cause lasting psychological damage. Children whose parents frequently disappoint can grow up with a lack of trust in other people and may experience difficulties in forming relationships as adults.
The level of disappointment we experience depends on how invested we are in our future hopes. I now realise that I will never dance solo at Convent Garden; but as I only started taking ballet lessons in my late 40s, this is not a crushing blow. However, had I been training since I was four years old, and set my heart on a dance career, my feelings at being turned down for a place in the Corps de ballet would be very different.
Frequent disappointment and the associated feelings of anger, sadness and hopelessness can affect our mental health and well-being. Over time, these feelings could develop into anxiety or depression. People who frequently experience disappointment may develop a world-view that the Universe is against them, that nothing ever does (or ever will) go right for them. Maybe they will stop trying because they do not feel they will ever succeed.
This can affect self-esteem, as a person may start to think that they will never achieve their goals and begin to feel worthless.
How does disappointment evolve?
We feel disappointed when we dwell on what might have been the case, rather than what is actually happening in the present. Disappointment stems from having plans and dreams for the future, which do not come to fruition. It is the realisation that the present does not match our imagined future. And it comes with finality, recognising that you do not have, did not get, or won’t achieve what you wanted.
Disappointment can feel crushing, all-encompassing, and it can be a deeply powerful emotion. In a way, disappointment is a result of denying reality. We fight against the situation or try not to accept it because it is not fair.
Strategies to cope with feelings of disappointment
Over time, I have learnt some strategies to cope with the feelings of disappointment.
One strategy is acceptance. When I experience disappointment, it helps me to realise that I feel sad and angry because life is different from how I want it to be; and at this point, I practice acceptance. I acknowledge that there is a mismatch between what I want, and what I have got. I recognise that what I desire to happen is not going to happen.
I might also have to accept that what I wanted was unrealistic: that maybe my goal was not achievable. Or maybe that I was expecting someone else to behave out of character from usual or in a way that does not chime with views or beliefs they have previously expressed.
Acceptance is a difficult skill and takes a lot of practice. It does not necessarily involve being happy about the situation. In fact, part of the skill of acceptance is to acknowledge that life is different from how I want it to be and that I don’t like it.
Being able to recognise how we feel about something is the first step in being able to process our emotions. Once I acknowledge that I am feeling sad and angry, I can allow myself to experience these emotions and then let them go. And acknowledging how we feel can often take the power out of emotions so that they are less intense. We can practice compassion towards ourselves because it is ok to have our feelings. We can talk to ourselves as we might talk to a friend, with kindness and understanding, and without judgement or blame.
The practice of mindfulness reminds us to focus on the here and the now, where we are in this minute, on this day. This allows us to accept reality as it is, in the here and now. Acceptance enables us to move on, to make changes, or formulate new plans, based on where we are in actuality.
Disappointment can be valuable in telling us that we might have been living in a fantasy world. Maybe we were expecting someone to make changes that they are unwilling or unable to make. Maybe we tend to set ourselves unrealistic goals that we could never achieve.
When we can take a step back from a disappointment, we can learn from it. We can understand better what is important to us, and we can gain an insight into the way we view ourselves, the world and other people. By accepting reality as it is, rather than how we want it to be, we can set realistic goals, make positive changes and feel more at peace.