I think of disappointment as a situation or event when reality does not match our hopes or expectations. It is when things don’t go as we’ve planned or at least would like them to go. It’s a common human experience. We’ve all been disappointed—lots.
For example I was disappointed to learn, recently, about my heart disease. But frankly, this is just one disappointment in my life. There are so many more—some daily disappointments which could be considered minor and other big disappointments that persist for years or a lifetime. Of course, I’m not alone. We all feel disappointment. Life is up and down. You win some and lose some. “Some days are diamond and some days are stone.”
I want to suggest that our disappointments are not only inevitable but even good. Yes good. They help us find balance and perspective. They bring variety (even adventure) to our lives. They are a source of learning and wisdom. And, perhaps most importantly, they help us develop character.
Think about it. Because of our disappointments we have the opportunity to learn gratitude, humility, courage, determination, faith, discipline, patience, openness, honor, and so much more. So many qualities that we consider most noble, qualities which enable us to become better people, come when things do not go our way (whether the relatively minor inconvenience of rain every day of my vacation to the longer-term impact of losing my health, a job, or the love of someone important to me).
So let me offer some suggestions for dealing with disappointments, especially the big disappointments that knock us off balance and threaten our dreams and well-being.
- Accept disappointment as inevitable. If we think they won’t happen then we will be all the more devastated when they do. Allow them. Make space for them. We want life to be perfect. It is, instead, sloppy and unpredictable. Disappointments are frequent in our quest for success. So many of our most meaningful victories are given birth from the ashes of our disappointments.
- Know that disappointment is temporary. There is an ebb and flow to life. It is when we feel devastated that we need to remember that “this too shall pass.” Things will get better—sometimes sooner and sometimes later. Dawn follows darkness. Sunshine follows rain. It is the nature of life.
- Admit your disappointments. I listened to one person, recently, who said that all disappointment is essentially fiction, made up. I disagree. Disappointment (although subjective and rooted in self-chosen values and beliefs) is real and it is healthy to admit them to ourselves. Those who want to deny and minimize the impact of disappointment run the risk of pushing negative feelings underground. They will eventually come out in the form of physical illness, anxiety or depression or even addictive/avoidant behaviors. Better to be real. Pause, take some deep breaths and admit how you feel. Have your moment(s) of sadness, hurt, anger, self-pity, or grief.
- Make it “okay.” Say the words—“It is okay.” or “I can allow this to be part of my life.” This does not mean we like what is happening or that we feel all buoyant as we whisper these words. But such a declaration allows us to stop fighting against reality and accelerates our healing and forward movement. Making it okay is opening our arms to the possibilities of life rather than being overwhelmed by its limitations.
- Learn from it. Learning from a disappointment means that we view it in a different way, a way that allows us to grow. We can ask ourselves what we can learn from a particular disappointment. How can I grow from this disappointment? How can it make me better? Take a few moments and write a number of alternative ways of thinking about a disappointment. Keep writing and exploring different options until you come up with some that you can honestly believe and feel good about. Then notice how your feelings change as you grow in wisdom and confidence.
- Reset your aspirations. It is easy, when disappointed, to give up, to retreat into a cocoon; to play life safely by minimizing risk, failure, discomfort, or rejection. Don’t go there. What makes humanity great is that we aspire, we expect a lot of ourselves. So embrace and learn from your failed expectations. Then lift your head and aspire again. Adjust your course, if necessary, but keep moving forward.
Are you stuck in a disappointment, something that continues to weigh you down, which inhibits either your happiness or forward progress? The steps I am suggesting above are not a quick fix. Sometimes making peace with our big disappointments takes time. However, it begins by facing them. Think of your biggest disappointments as scars. They prove you are battle-tested and ready. They show your strength and resilience. They have helped shape you into the person you are today. Accept them. Learn from them. And continue moving forward towards the realization of your purpose and deepest desires.