How to deal with disappointment
Disappointment is part of being alive and by its nature disappointment is not a pleasure, but if you approach it in the right way it can be a useful part of your journey.
You have big dreams, don’t you? Virtually every Life Coaching weekend seminar in a vineyard somewhere has featured a PowerPoint presentation that featured slides advising, “If you can dream it, you can do it” or “Every success story started with a dream.” We are encouraged endlessly to dream, to aspire, in order to achieve. There’s a kernel of truth in all that optimistic visioning, but there’s also a hard outer shell that is often ignored. That shell is disappointment, and you can easily break a hopeful molar on it as you bite in expecting the sweet soft centre of fulfilment. Yet, as soon as you set up the target of expectations then you have also opened the field of disappointment.
The bigger the expectation, the greater the risk of disappointment, and the zeitgeist these days encourages everyone to dream big. The reality is, however, that there can’t be 5.85 billion best-selling authors (that’s the number of people over age 15 in the world), any given suburb can only handle so many vegan cafés, and if everyone became a bitcoin billionaire the economy would dissolve. None of this should discourage anyone from dreaming, but the wise dreamer knows that disappointment is the other side of the aspiration coin. It is also true that disappointment does not just come with fanfare and in a flowing red cape and sequins, it can also appear in tracksuit pants and slippers. Yes, disappointment happens daily and it happens to us all, on many different levels. Disappointment might be:
• You fail to get the job.
• Your new partner proves to be less than ideal.
• You can’t yet afford your ideal home.
• Your new hairstyle draws suppressed giggles from your workmates.
• That shirt you ordered online during lockdown appears to have been manufactured for a hobbit-size “L”.
Rather than pretending disappointment is not a possibility, the true explorer acknowledges that it is how you deal with disappointments that will determine the quality of your life. In that spirit, here we will explore the skills and weapons you can arm yourself with for those inevitable moments when expectations are not met and disappointment knocks on your door.
When something bad happens to you, your immediate response will be dictated by the questions that you ask, and that in turn will be shaped by your mindset. It’s not a matter of thinking in a right or wrong way, it’s about thinking in a way that works.
Perhaps the most productive approach when things go wrong is to see your disappointment as a gift. It is an opportunity for many things. It is an opportunity to experience humility and to be aware of a greater plan at work as opposed to focusing on what you want to happen. Disappointment is also an opportunity for learning.
Life coach Yvonne Collier says, “Remind yourself that disappointment is feedback and be prepared to adjust your actions to take on this feedback. Take advantage of the gap. When things go wrong, there is a gap before you act and react. The gap can be filled with an immediate knee-jerk reaction or it can be filled with something else. What story will you tell yourself in the ‘gap’? Are you a victim or a hero? You have a choice.”
The choices that you make in that gap between disappointment and your action will determine the flavour of what happens to you next. You choose the stories that you will tell yourself about what has happened. Business coach Victor Sultas says that in the gap the best thing that you can do is ask “generative questions”. Sultas says, “It is important to ask the right kinds of questions when a disappointment occurs. Ask yourself, ‘How is running away from what has happened helping you or others?’ Make a mental and verbal stand by asking, ‘What other options do I have? What else is available to me? Who can assist me? What is the opportunity in this situation? What’s right about this that I’m not getting? What’s the gift of this situation? What are the possibilities?’ Start by focusing on what the options are and possibilities appear. Disappointments contain seeds of success if you are willing to see that you create our own reality.”
To keep it simple, Dr Tara Well, associate professor of psychology at Columbia University, writing for Psychology Today has outlined the four questions you need to ask when disappointment occurs. Those four questions follow a shortened form of the basic journalistic model of: what, who, when and how?
Ask yourself what you were wanting or who let you down? Then remind yourself that things and people cannot fill an inner void. Instead focus on how you want to feel in the moment and have that feeling as your goal; do not expect things or people to take you there. Then turn your thoughts to the when and how of your disappointment. It is common to set a time frame for when you expect to get the things you want, and you will have ideas as to how it will all come together. If you set a timer on your goals or compare yourself to others, as social media so readily invites you to do, then disappointment is bound to follow because timing is so arbitrary. Similarly, your plan about how your goal will be realised cannot possibly take in all the infinite possibilities that surround you. Keep an eye on what you want and take steps to get there, but don’t expect it all to follow a plan. Stay open and disappointments transform into possibilities.
The key words that keep emerging already when coping with disappointment are “possibilities” and “choices”. This all implies a requirement for you to be flexible in your thinking and to keep seeing things from a fresh perspective. This is where meditation and breathing come in. When your mind is continually bombarded with thoughts it wears you down and saps your energy. Meditation gives you the inner strength to endure situations, no matter how unbearable they may appear at the time. It brings qualities of centredness, steadfastness and equanimity.
When things go well it is normal to feel happy, and when disappointments occur it is easy to feel sad, angry or agitated. Looking for the gifts in what has happened, reframing it and using techniques like meditation to focus your mind and transcend your emotions enable you to avoid the devastation that disappointment can bring and maintain your balance.
It is hard to consider your options and make good choices if your disappointment has left you a blubbering mess in the corner. You need to think in advance about the emotions that disappointment will inevitably generate and how you might deal with them. You need a DAP (Disappointment Action Plan) to deal with the emotions (never underestimate the power and prestige you add to something by giving it an acronym).
The first thing to be aware of is that emotions can be signposts to what is going on inside you. Equally, they can also be red herrings dragged across your path and distracting you from the true issues at hand. Victor Sultas says, “Each emotion is filled with information, it is a message or an action signal to alert you. It is asking you to take notice, observe and be aware. Everyone deals differently with emotions. How you manage emotions is your individual choice. I observe my emotions first and then ask them what they are communicating to me? Sometimes the body needs to release pent-up emotions, so I walk, do yoga or move and stretch.”
To wallow or not to wallow?
When you experience disappointment it is tempting to look on the bright side, but is that really productive? To adopt a false positivity is as damaging as becoming excessively negative. Research has shown that simply repeating positive “affirmations” that are not genuinely believed simply serves to heighten anxiety (refer to the article “The positivity trap” on page 26 of this issue). If you feel pain at some disappointing life event, then experiencing that pain is to some degree appropriate and necessary. The question becomes, how much of the experience is necessary and when does it cross over into harmful wallowing?
Who could say that they have never wallowed, rolling in the muddy waters of some unproductively murky mood? Even as you do it you know that you shouldn’t, but the pain itself that has initiated the wallowing seems to be somehow soothed by rich waters of the negative emotions you have immersed yourself in.
A touch of wallowing, or at least the willingness to experience the nature of your disappointment, is a good thing. The key then is being able to recognise the negative state of wallowing as opposed to the positive state of engagement. Buddhism offers some practical advice on this.
Buddhist nun Robina Courtin observes, “From a Buddhist perspective the mind is a knowable thing, there are laws and fundamentals which you can learn that govern the mind which you can then build upon. These laws will dictate that there are very specific characteristics to the unhappy, neurotic, negative states. There are also characteristics of the positive states. You first have to learn these laws and then start to practise. In the Buddhist model of the mind positive characteristics are feeling spacious, peaceful and connected to others and there is a sense of harmony. Negative states include anger, jealousy, hurt and there is no sense of connectedness.”
To be able to recognise whether your own wallowing is of a negative or positive nature, you need therefore simply to look at the qualities that go with it. If, in response to a disappointment, you are feeling angry, jealous or hurt for a prolonged period then you are in a negative state, and having recognised that you can give yourself permission to move on.
The meditation factor
Throughout this article we have mentioned the virtues of the meditative state to help you cope with disappointment. Obviously though, if you have never meditated before or if you do not have a knowledge of your own mind then you will not be able to suddenly move into a meditative state or develop instantaneous self-awareness when disappointment comes along. Think of it as like sailing a yacht; you do not wait until a storm hits you in mid-ocean to learn how to sail. Your mind is your yacht and you need to know everything about it from its rigging, its sails, its hull, its keel to the way it performs in different winds. The degree to which you are prepared and have trained yourself in the working of your yacht will determine how you handle the conditions on any given day, and most especially when the cold, squally winds of disappointment whip inside your windbreaker and place an icy grip on your nether regions.
If you want to learn to sail a ship you go to people who know ships. Probably your best bet would be a ship’s captain but a sailor would be able to offer some help and a shipbuilder might be useful too. If you want to train your mind, you will need to find someone who has done it themselves to guide you on your way.
To do this, according to Courtin, “You need a person who knows how to look at their mind. In the West we have therapists, people who are supposed to be good at introspection. They are supposed to be good at being a sounding board for you to see yourself. Buddhism is being your own therapist. In Buddhism you are really training your mind to look inside and see the neurotic states of mind and the positive ones and then to slowly grow the positive and weaken the negative. It is as simple as that but we so mystify it.”
By training yourself in meditation, working with your expectations and engaging with your disappointments in an aware and prepared manner your equanimity can remain undiminished by life’s setbacks. This is not about denying reality; it is about embracing it. Through developing coping mechanisms for the disappointing times in life you can prevent yourself becoming lost in negative emotion and can stay squarely in the centre of your being, ready to move forward into whatever comes next.
Your DAP (Disappointment Action Plan)
When disappointment happens:
- Watch your emotions.
- Ask yourself what they reveal to you.
- Engage in physical activity.
- Use breathing to control your emotions.
- Meditate and find awareness of your emotions — this awareness itself can change the emotions.
When disappointment strikes you can create an honest awareness of what happened and hit your personal reset button.
- Make a list of the things that you did to contribute to the situation. Do not allow yourself to write about others or even consider them. This is about you. Write at least four things that you have done to contribute.
- Look at these points; embrace them, love them, accept them. Do not analyse, question or justify your actions. Now let it go.
- Spend some quiet time saying a thank you for whatever gifts the disappointment has brought or will bring.
- In that quiet time contemplate how you would like to move forward from this point.