Dealing With Disappointment
By Valerie Sher, Ph.D.

Disappointment to a noble soul is what cold water is to burning metal;
it strengthens, tempers, intensifies, but never destroys it.
– Eliza Tabor

       There are times in our lives when we face disappointment and failure. When we are used to things coming easy, it may roll off of us and we get back up, dust ourselves off, and try again. Or it can be devastating and challenge how we think about ourselves and our abilities. When we are used to chronic disappointment from others or our own efforts, we can become habituated to low expectations and develop a sense of hopelessness and lose confidence in ourselves. At the core of disappointment can lie a sense of failure, of shame, a feeling of “I am not good enough” that is hard to stomach.

       While some disappointments are unavoidable as a part of life, repeated disappointment may be due to faulty irrational thinking or inappropriate expectations and we may need to reevaluate. If our needs are chronically not being met in a relationship, perhaps we need to learn better communication to ask for what we want, accept things as they are, or leave. Perhaps we need to evaluate whether our expectations are achievable or need to be reassessed. Psychotherapy can be helpful during any step along the way.

        When faced with disappointment, we may blame ourselves or others which can keep us stuck and make things worse. Often blaming others or getting angry is a way to avoid the experience you are having because its hard to sit with such intense feelings. We may cover our disappointment and shame in alcohol, sex, being busy, TV, playing video games, or watching pornography to dull the pain.

        In my own experience with a major disappointment, I was devastated. I had never worked so hard for something or wanted something so much. I was max’ed out financially, emotionally, and physically. I was inconsolable. And there it was. I was alone with this intense feeling of disappointment that could only be looked at, experienced.

       As I reached out to my friends, they began to tell me their stories of disappointment and I was struck by the poignancy of what they shared. I was in awe of the rawness of their stories, and how it shaped them. One had been denied a scholarship they desperately wanted. Another had lost a job they wanted with great determination. Most were opportunities that could not be reclaimed. They were paths untaken, roads unexplored.  Some of the people I spoke with came to realize that it was a blessing in disguise and loved how their lives had unfolded. Some still had regret for what had not been learned or experienced.

        As I moved from dealing with my grief and talking with others, I moved into finding a solution. I tended to my heart, took steps towards what was still available to me. I learned and grew. Ultimately, there was success at the end though it didn’t unfold the way I expected.

        When faced with disappointment, there’s the opportunity for learning, wisdom to cultivate if you take time to consider it. It’s a chance to reinvent yourself. It’s a chance to discover inner strengths, commitment, determination. It’s a chance to be real with yourself about your failures and successes. It’s a chance to discover something important, something meaningful about life and/or ourselves. We can let it destroy us, or we can find its gifts and let it transform us. We must recreate ourselves again and again. After a disappointment, there is an invitation to get up, adjust our glasses, dust off our pants, and learn to walk again in a new skin, from a different perspective, colored with the wisdom we’ve gained or the character we’ve built from going through it.

 Things to do when facing disappointment:

  •  Practice feeling the depth of your sadness, loss, grief, shame or other emotions. This is an important step in integrating your experience and learning to roll with what life throws at you.
  • Talk to a trusted friend, your partner, or a therapist. Don’t hide or pretend it didn’t happen.
  • Invite others to share their stories of disappointment. You may be amazed and touched by what you learn.
  • Evaluate the lessons – How can you learn and grow from this?
  • Is this goal/experience/relationship etc., still open to you? If not, let yourself grieve the loss of this in your life.
  • What course of action might you take? What do you want now? Even little steps can be monumental in moving from loss and grief to empowerment and goal achievement.

If you have a helpful story about how you’ve dealt with disappointment, please share your story in the comment section below.