Disappointment comes in all shapes and sizes. Dealing with disappointment, heartbreak and unexpected transitions is a frustrating but normal part of life. Some heartbreaks are major and life-altering, while some disappointments are just minor irritations. Regardless of their size or scope, disappointments still hurt. But since these letdowns are part of what it means to be human, it would serve us well to learn how to deal with disappointment.
What is Disappointment?
Disappointment is the painful experience of being let down when your expectations don’t play out the way you hoped. It’s when reality doesn’t match your picture of what could have been. Disappointment can produce feelings ranging from mild annoyance to profound heartbreak and confusion—maybe even despair.
Hope, longing, desire, expectation—these all embody our human tendency to visualize the good things we want in life. But just because we desire something doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to happen—or be as amazing as we thought it’d be.
Dealing with Unmet Expectations
Disappointment springs from the gap between hope and truth. It springs from unmet expectations. Put another way: Disappointment is when you don’t get what you want or what you think you deserve. Some of our expectations are reasonable, and some are unrealistic.
One of the difficulties in communicating our expectations is that we speak with words, but we think in pictures. Dealing with disappointment is the process of grieving the picture you had in your head, letting it go and deciding to create a new picture. Let’s unpack that process:
Give yourself permission to grieve
Grieve might sound like a dramatic word here, but it’s not. Disappointment is like a small death of something you hoped for. No matter how big or small your disappointment, give yourself permission to grieve what you’ve lost (or never received).
Don’t try to gloss over or numb your unpleasant emotions. Name your feelings. If you’ve been passed over for a big promotion at work, you might chalk it up to feeling depressed or having anxiety, when in reality, you’re angry, hurt and disappointed. These are natural reactions to having your hopes let down. Sit in your grief, but don’t bathe in it. You must accept and process your negative emotions to eventually let them go.
Don’t compare your grief to someone else’s
It’s tempting to try and minimize our grief by comparing it to others who are “worse off” than we are. We end up getting stuck in an endless cycle. I’ve seen this line of thinking all over the place during the COVID pandemic.
The problem with this approach is we deny ourselves the permission to grieve. Minimizing your sadness doesn’t make someone else feel suddenly better. Own your grief, and don’t apologize for feeling sad.
Write down your thoughts and feelings
Our feelings are both important, and often, highly inaccurate. They lie to us. They get jumbled up in our hearts and minds, and make us feel confused and downtrodden. I don’t care how tough or cool you are, write down your feelings and scour each of them for truth.
Seeing your feelings on paper allows them to stop spin-cycling in your head. It takes away some of their power, and provides space between your emotions and your ability to think.
Don’t allow disappointment to become your identity
There’s a lie that can spring out of a disappointing experience, especially if it’s a pattern. You can easily start to believe that you are a disappointment. Let’s say you’ve experienced several long-term relationships ending in awful breakups. It’d be easy to assume the hurt as an identity: I’m a bad person. There must be something wrong with me.
Disappointment is something you experience. It’s not something you are.
Spend time with someone you trust
Your friends and community are your emergency fund for life. When you’re hurting, you need other people. Talking about disappointment with someone you trust will help you brush it off and move on.
Choose your confidant wisely. This isn’t a gossip session, or an excuse to wallow in anger and negativity. Don’t dump on this person, and don’t drag them down. Process how you’re feeling, and enjoy the company of someone you can trust.
Refuse to throw yourself a pity party
Have you ever ignored leftovers in your fridge for too long? You know what happens, right? Tiny spores find their way into the food, and when the temperature and moisture are just right, mold starts to grow. Eventually, the mold will eat away at all the food.
This is a powerful (and disgusting) metaphor for what happens when you choose to hold on to hurt. Hurt is a petri dish for bitterness. At first, feeling sorry for yourself and obsessively replaying scenes of what happened might seem benign. But before you know it, the bitterness has spread. It infects every part of your life, and spoils the way you see people and circumstances.
Plan something to look forward to
Disappointment is unnerving because it reminds you that you can’t control other people or external situations. The good news is you can control you. Your thoughts and your actions are under your control.
Take action by planning something to look forward to. If your disappointment is causing loneliness, plan a fun evening with your family or your friends. If your disappointment came from a professional letdown, set a time with your leader to talk through the issue and create a plan to grow in your career.
Viktor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
Whining doesn’t smother the embers of grief. It pours gasoline on them. Joy and optimism are a choice, not a personality type. Lean toward joy and healing, even during pain, but do it slowly. Don’t be fake or deny the difficulty. Take time to laugh alone, with your family or with friends.
Learn from your disappointment
Do you know what I love about being human? As long as we have breath, we can learn and grow. Even when it comes to crappy things, like heartache and canceled plans, we can decide how we frame our experiences.
I encourage you to become a scholar of your own life. One way we can learn from our disappointment is to reflect, and find meaning in what we’ve experienced. Here are a few questions to help you dig deep:
Letdowns can become defining moments if we choose to learn from them. If we brush them aside, ignore or bury them, or shake our angry fists and walk away, we miss out on a chance to grow into more of the person we were created to be.