Dealing with Disappointment

If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.
Henry David Thoreau

Many years ago, people expected to be disappointed with their leaders, bodies, relationships, and circumstances. Life was brutish and short. In the second half of the 20th century, when Americans were riding a post-war high, this view radically shifted. Since then, we have been bathed in advertising that blatantly says, “Buy this and you will be perennially happy.” It used to be cigarettes, booze, and cars. Now, it’s more likely to be the latest technological breakthrough. Regardless, the essential message is the same: You can attain joy 24/7. Clearly, that sets everyone up for one disappointment after another. In addition, we humans are really good at disappointing each other in personal relationships. But that is not the problem. The problem lies in our unrealistic idea that disappointments are awful, we can’t stand them, and we shouldn’t have to deal with them.

On the most prosaic level, your Netflix streaming videos will not always stream, and your iPod can freeze. Those are just minor, annoying inconveniences, and most people take them in their stride. You know things break down; but, it’s an entirely different situation when you are disappointed with yourself, your mate, child, sibling, or parent.

To make matters even more challenging, Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun and author, has said: “It’s amazing how often disappointment hardens into anger.”

And, here’s the cherry on top: If you are dealing with abandonment issues you will likely frame each disappointment as just another abandonment or rejection. (See chapter: People Are Who They Are.)

The good news is by working skillfully you can head many of these disappointments off at the pass. How? By managing your expectations, and creating an inner sanctuary. (See chapters on Self-Soothing, Fall in Love With Yourself, Self-Compassion, It’s OK Sweetheart, Overcoming Abandonment Issues.)

Here are a few techniques to help you break away from some unhelpful, possibly habitual, patterns that just create more unhappiness and anger around disappointment.

* Ask yourself: “Is this about me? Did this person deliberately plan to hurt or reject me? If so, you may want to rethink that relationship, or the context in which the behavior occurred. You might feel differently about it if it happened during a fight, or just out of the blue. If it really had nothing to do with you, you can more easily detach. All humans have traits, and not all traits are lovable. Once you know it’s not about you, you can say something to yourself like: “I know s/he’s often sarcastic and I don’t like it, but that’s just how s/he is.” Then, you get to assess the situation without the added distraction of thinking it’s about you, because it isn’t.

* What are my expectations of myself? My family? My friends? Am I demanding or expecting more than is reasonable? This can be a sticky wicket, as many people think: “Well, I expect a lot from myself and thereby expect a ton from others.” That is exactly the kind of thinking that can create long-term disappointment that might harden into anger. Why not look lovingly at everything you do expect from yourself and see if you can’t lessen your internal pressure by being kinder and gentler. Miraculously, that also helps you develop more compassion and patience with other people’s issues.

* What thought habits have I cultivated that make me react so deeply to disappointment? Am I telling myself it’s awful or I can’t stand it? Do I think that person is horrible and should be punished? What if I challenged those thoughts? How awful is it, really? I know it’s unpleasant, and even very disturbing, but must I make it worse by thinking I can’t stand it?

* What if I started to think of each of my expectations of myself and others as little straight-jackets? They really do limit the range of behaviors I deem acceptable, hereby limiting my growth and the potential for growth in my relationships. What if disappointments actually foster my development? Each one certainly makes me sit up and take notice. They clearly provide opportunities for me to flex my emotional muscles, to let go of preconceived notions of how people and things have to be for me to be content, to love others as they are, and to accept myself with all my own idiosyncrasies. Of course, there is a limit to your tolerance for accepting people who perennially disappoint you. That calls for a re-evaluation of the relationship.

* Am I often disappointed in people? If so, perhaps I am habitually setting up unrealistic expectations, which could easily lead to anger. Is this also true of my relationship with myself? Am I a perfectionist, demanding such high standards and behaviors that no one, not even I, can meet them? If so, you might want to shift them.

* An insidious thing can sometimes happen when addressing these inner demands. You can begin to think, “Why bother, everyone will disappointment me. I’m better off not counting on anyone.” This only leads to feeling more isolated, depressed, and anxious. It may seem like a Herculean task to shift your expectations based on reality, yet it will end up creating better relationships with yourself and others.

* How can I reassure the little child inside me that most of the time people are not doing what they do to purposely hurt me? By taking the very best care of you, on every level: physical (sleeping enough, eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting fresh air, dealing with addictions), social (making time for friends and family), self-actualization (developing your skills and talents, expressing your creativity), financial (creating the best relationship you can have with money, planning for the future), spiritual (meditation, mantra work, possibly a religious organization, 12-Step group, yoga), and relationships (dealing with unhelpful patterns of behavior).

* Last but not least, choose to believe that everything, including all those pesky disappointments (especially, the huge ones), is happening for your highest good. How could that possibly be? Because it all helps you evolve, adjust, adapt, and, ultimately, set more realistic expectations for yourself and others. Then, when people disappoint you you won’t be surprised or blame them. Remember, their behavior is not about you.

(Here is a link to a wonderful talk and short meditation on expectations and disappointments by Mandy Young:

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

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Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.