The hardware store is out of the item we need. A friend did not show up when they said they would. The job went to someone else. The election went to the other candidate.
Disappointments come in all shapes and sizes. How we handle them depends on our expectations, our inner resources and resilience at the time, our external resources to work around the problem, and the story we tell ourselves.
What did your parents and other adults teach you about disappointment? Did they name it and make room for it? “I see that you’re disappointed. You want to stay at the playground longer and we’re starting home now.” Did they put the blame on you for having expectations and desires? “Who do you think you are to want that toy! Of course we’re not buying it for you.” Did they teach you to swallow your feelings? “I’ll give you something to cry about!”
When they experienced disappointment, did they treat themselves with care, or blame themselves, or lash out at someone else? How did they behave when they were disappointed in you? Was that rare, or constant?
We naturally internalize the voices of the adults around us and continue to treat ourselves as they treated us, and as they treated themselves. We can interrupt this pattern by pausing, noticing the internalized voices, and choosing a different response. We can give quiet attention to our experience, accepting that this is how it is right now. We are allowed to be affected by not getting what we want.
If we were shamed or punished for disappointment, we might feel a need to immediately erase it or distract ourselves. It might take time to separate the reflexive shame or fear or anger that follows disappointment from the feeling of disappointment itself.
When you sit and breathe into disappointment, you might feel tightness in your throat, heaviness in your belly, the corners of your mouth turned down, heartache, or other responses in your body. Your mind might race to figure out a way to fix the problem or assign blame. You might feel deflated or weighed down. What do you notice?
When we take time to sit with a disappointment, we might feel like acknowledgement is enough, or we might feel the need to take action to resolve it.
Disappointment is a mismatch between our expectations and outcomes. One way to resolve disappointment is to adjust our expectations. We can call ahead to the hardware store to check their stock. We can remind the friend ahead of time. We can keep applying to jobs until one comes through. We can work for voting rights for the next election.
We can choose, after a series of disappointments, to stop trying. Go to a different hardware store. Call a different friend. Apply for jobs in a different city. Put our efforts toward a different cause. No one can decide for us where that threshold is. We hold out hope for change until something shifts inside, and then we turn our attention elsewhere.
Keep healthy entitlement
Disappointment can lead us to question our right to expect anything at all. We wrestle with healthy entitlement when our expectations and our environment are out of sync. It can help to seek nourishing feedback that supports a balanced sense of what we deserve and can expect.
Enough as we are
Sometimes we internalize a sense that we are a disappointment. Perhaps we did not meet our family’s expectations for education, career, relationship, or other external measures of success. Perhaps the effects of trauma interrupted pursuit of those goals. Perhaps we have different goals. Perhaps naming abusive dynamics puts us awkwardly at odds with the people whose approval we still secretly want. It can be hard to remember that our value does not depend on our achievements or abilities.
When we are healing from trauma, we might be disappointed that we still have limits and get triggered even after years of work. We might be disappointed when we go through another round of a recurring pattern. We might need to take a break from healing and ease our expectations of ourselves and our healing process.
Get some distance
It makes sense to veer away from the pain of feeling like we are a disappointment. Perhaps we can acknowledge tiny bits of that feeling. Perhaps we can sit with the small child inside who feels that way, providing a kind witness but not drowning in the feeling itself. Perhaps we can put the feeling a little distance away, over by the wall, still acknowledged in the room, but not right on top of us.
When we can get some space from that feeling, we can also find the truth that we are enough just as we are, not a disappointment at all.
Disappointed in others
Disappointment in someone else can be almost as painful, especially if it feels like their actions show disrespect or not valuing us. Often, people’s actions are about themselves, not about us. It still hurts not to be seen, heard, and valued, even if someone is caught up in their own stuff. We might find relief when we can let go of the expectation for change.
Some disappointments are catastrophic, traumatic in themselves. We get served divorce papers, or laid off without warning, or evicted from our home, or deported from a mandatory courthouse appearance. Our whole life changes. We need to grieve the old life even as we struggle to establish a new one. We might have a spiritual crisis if we believe at some level that bad things only happen to people who deserve them.
Catastrophic disappointments rearrange our view of the world and our place in it. We digest them a little at a time, and reach out for all the help and support we can find.
Choose your story
The effect of a disappointment depends a lot on the story we tell about it. Choose a narrative with room for hope. Instead of, “I never get what I want,” choose, “I didn’t get what I wanted this time.” Instead of, “There is something wrong with me,” or “I deserved it,” choose, “I have skills to learn and experience to gain.”
Part of life
Disappointment is part of life. It is easy to believe that if we do everything right and have the right attitude, we will not be disappointed. At the same time, if we are rarely disappointed, perhaps we could expect more and take more risks. When we can sit with disappointment, we find our own balance between acceptance and efforts toward change.
- Melissa McEwan encourages us to Expect More on her feminist political blog Shakesville.
- Jane Meredith’s book Journey to the Dark Goddess offers tools to work with catastrophic disappointments, which she compares to descents into the underworld. She advocates for becoming familiar with the underworld rather than avoiding it until we are dragged into it.
- Julie Rehmeyer’s book Through the Shadowlands chronicles her descent into Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and ultimate ascent into carefully managed recovery. She handles the catastrophic disappointments of her illness with a combination of acceptance and efforts toward change.