Written by Radonda Rowton, MAC, LPC
Of all emotions, disappointment has been the hardest one for me to identify in my life. Disappointment sounds weak to me. It feels messy, and confusing. The mental and emotional gymnastics I’ve gone through in order to avoid naming and experiencing my disappointment is laughable. Historically, when I’m disappointed, before I let it register, I would try to see the positive, and then I spent time reframing and renaming my feelings. Many times, I hadn’t admitted to my own self how much I wanted something because I had already succumbed to guilt as I wondered if I have a right to feel disappointed about something since, I probably didn’t deserve it anyway.
I’ve had such a hard time coming to grips with my own disappointment, that I don’t know how much comfort that I have been to other people in theirs. I didn’t mean to be patronizing when I said things like; “Oh, no, sweetie, don’t be disappointed!” or “Look at all these other opportunities available to you!” Because I had been told somewhere in my past that disappointment was seen as a lack of gratitude, I learned to silence it. Since I honestly try to be a grateful person, admitting disappointment has been a struggle, but the truth is, we all struggle with disappointment, and if we can’t (or won’t) name it, it tends to linger until we do.
A few years ago, I was experiencing huge emotional uneasiness. I felt pretty sad however I wouldn’t say that I was primarily sad. It felt more like sadness on steroids, with a little resentment mixed in, and I couldn’t put my finger on the cause. I could sort of ignore my feelings when I kept myself busy, but when I was alone and trying to unplug, I felt a deep void. I had a lot to be grateful for in my life, but my heart felt heavy, and something was out of sync. The way I was feeling didn’t match how I thought I should be feeling as I took stock of my life. I’d been thinking about it for some time, but I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it. One night, at around 3 am, I woke up to find the word disappointment floating around in my mind. I thought to myself, “Disappointment? What do I have to be disappointed about?”
Almost like a movie reel, several memories flashed through my mind highlighting quite a few disappointments that I’d had and just swept under the rug. Some hopes and dreams that didn’t come to fruition, expectations that weren’t met, opportunities that passed me by had all stacked up, and now they had all started to weigh me down. Disappointment is heavy. The thing about emotions is that when we try to bury them, we bury them alive, and then they rear their ugly head when we least expect it. For me, disappointment felt awful. Topping it off with resentment and a desire to assign blame for what I felt, felt even worse. Thoughts like I didn’t deserve my hopes and dreams, and that “this is as good as it gets” cut to the front of the line. As I reflected, I realized that there were opportunities that I should have put myself out there for but didn't, and now there was nothing on the horizon. So, I allowed shame to enter my mind and stayed silent. The vicious and draining cycle of crummy feelings piled up with shame as the foundation, a little guilt and blame sprinkled in and topped with silence. The result was that none of these beliefs lined up with who I wanted to be and once I identified that the emotion was disappointment, it made perfect sense to me that I’d feel the way I was feeling. Almost as soon as I came to that conclusion, I realized that I had the run the risk of seeming ungrateful in order to understand disappointment for what it really was. Disappointment is the emotion that we feel when our expectations are not met.
So, how do we stay out from under the weight of disappointment?
Call it for what it is and allow yourself to fully experience it. It’s okay to be disappointed and we are not being ungrateful to say that something didn’t meet our expectations. If we aren’t ever disappointed it may mean that we are living too much in our comfort zone and are not allowing ourselves to experience what it’s like to try something new. Where we get into trouble is when we allow our self to wallow in self-pity and ruminate on what could have been. In whatever way that our hopes and expectations didn’t become reality, there’s a natural sense of disappointment and loss that is very real. There’s no need to brush feelings under the rug or rationalize them away.
Create the time and space you need to process your feelings. Some disappointments are small and annoying, and others are grander scale and life changing. If you’re were like me and allowed a bunch of large and small disappointments to stack up, it might take awhile to unravel. Giving our self that time that we need and allowing the process to take place creates a new spaciousness in our mind and heart. Of course, that can’t happen when we try to speed up the process or skip it altogether. Be as gracious to yourself as you would be to a friend in the same boat.
What are your favorite self-soothing techniques?
Prayer and meditation?
Listening to music?
Escaping into a book or a movie?
Taking a bath?
Going for a walk?
Spending time with friends?
Do that! Holding space for yourself is an important step in the process.
Look for new perspective. Once you’ve allowed yourself the time and space to acknowledge and experience the pain of disappointment, ask yourself “who can help me get where I want to be?” Are there people in your life who can help you come up with some strategies that might serve you better next time around? Do you need help balancing your expectations with reality? Find a counselor and surround yourself with supportive people who believe in you and will help you to keep believing in yourself!
Finally, take a moment to envision new possibilities. How does your current reality now make space for new dreams in your life? What changes do you need to make to make these dreams realistic and achievable? Make a list, discuss it with others and start planning.
I’ve learned that disappointment and painful emotions are part of the human experience. Trying to numb or avoid them not only doesn’t work, but it also limits our capacity for experiencing what we do need in life...experiences that bring peace, joy and hope. If we spend all of our time numbing our painful emotions, we find that we numb the positive emotions as well. Learning to embrace and be present with our emotions, both the painful and the positive, will allows us to feel more alive and more available to others in their challenges and celebrations.