Disappointment, disillusionment and counselling

Clients sometimes come to counselling to process feelings of disappointment. They feel let down by family, friends, or managers. Their part of the deal is done, why doesn't the other party follow through? I have noticed that underneath the disappointment lies, in fact, disillusionment.


In this article, you'll find out what disillusionment is and why it's a more appropriate term than 'disappointment'. You will understand how the process of illusions takes place, both theoretically and practically and how counselling can help gain control. 

Appointments and illusions

Let’s start by looking at the wording – dis + appointment/dis + illusioned. We can see it is about appointments and illusions. Appointments are mutual agreements – one side extends an invite, and the other one accepts it. Both understand and openly accept the stated terms of the deal.

A basic version of an appointment would be:

  • Invite: “These are the terms our company offers, what do you think?”
  • Reply/Acceptance: “Yes, sounds good, I accept”.

Illusions, on the other hand, are a one-way street. A person believes an invite has been extended to them and accepting that invite will result in having a need met.

Here's an example:

  • Illusionary invite: If you do not protest, you will be liked and protected around here.
  • Illusionary acceptance that turns into a belief: I will submit and go along with what is asked of me to receive validation and protection. (Important to note this belief will shape the behaviour).
  • Disillusionment: Submission does not lead to validation and protection.

In this example, there are multiple possibilities for why validation and protection might not be offered. Here are just three of them:

  1. Due to being a healthy environment, validation and protection are offered anyway, so those who are submissive don’t get any preferential treatment and this leads to disillusionment and pain because the sacrifice of submission is useless. 
  2. Because it is a toxic environment, no one is offered validation and protection, and this leads to disillusionment since submission is useless. 
  3. Validation and protection are offered but not as a result of submission. They might be offered in return for performance or another type of displayed behaviour, not submissiveness. Once again, submission has not provided what the person displaying the behaviour hoped for. 

Validation and protection are just some examples of values, you can replace them with whatever value/need you can think of. 

A formula for illusions

Let’s have a look at the format of these illusions: “If I do X, I will get Y”.

What makes illusions peculiar is the sacrifice-fulfillment dance. The sacrifice is what I do – the X in "If I do X...". If I work hard (and sacrifice enjoyment), if I don't ask for things (and sacrifice my desires), if I am kind (and sacrifice my healthy expression of frustration) – then something will happen. That is the second half of the formula: "I will get Y...".

What people expect to get is the validation of a need – attention, love, appreciation, you name it. You work hard and get approval. Don't ask for things and get love. Be kind and get appreciation. 

The conflict starts when these illusionary beliefs do not stand the test of reality. I worked hard, and all I got was more work. I didn't ask for things, and I don't feel loved. I was kind, and no one appreciated it. That brings about piercing pain, anger, or sadness and often leads people to seek counselling.  

Expectations play a central role in both appointments and illusions. In illusions, there is ambiguity which allows space for projecting your expectations. However, it is usually disillusionment that clients speak about when referring to themselves or others falling short of expectations. When describing the pain resulting from not achieving what they envisioned, when people they trusted let them down, when things turned out differently from what was expected, or when dreams turned into nightmares.

The genesis of illusions

Adult illusions stem from unmet childhood needs. Children do not have the capacity to reason and express their needs using adult language. Parents might not be emotionally attuned to their children's needs; therefore, there is a misalignment and parents are not able to meet those needs. Other times, parents might be emotionally unavailable because of their own issues.

From his position, the child will always perceive the parent as perfect, so when there is misalignment, the natural conclusion a child draws is “It is my fault”. The child is left to figure out on his own the behaviour required to satisfy the parent. As a result, they’ll adapt their behaviour. Their beliefs about themselves, the world and life in general are created in an artificial environment that is not identical to the adult environment. It was created in artificial circumstances that will no longer exist when they become adults – and by not being aligned with the adult-world reality, it is an illusion. It is this misalignment that later leads to disillusionment. One of the reasons why the adult is strongly attached to this illusion is the survival value it previously had. 

Let’s have a look at scenarios that might shed some light on this process: 

Scenario 1: Adam, a 41-year-old professional, wanted to see a counsellor because he could not understand why he felt miserable despite his successful career. He described himself as being result-driven and successful in anything he gets involved in. When speaking about his upbringing, we find out that he was often told “success is what matters” and every time he achieved something, his parents would make time for him and the atmosphere at home improved. Also, both parents wanted for him what they couldn’t get for themselves.

Every time Adam would get good grades or win a competition, Mum would prepare something delicious and Dad would be more cheerful. Little Adam was incapable of separating reward from love and happiness. As a child, he was not able to understand that his parents would love him anyway and that he should not base his worthiness on success and winning.

As a child, he had the need to be loved, validated, and appreciated and he connected the dots, starting to create the illusion system – “success brings love”. Why is this a system? The implicit consequence of “success brings love” is “failure makes one unlovable”. Furthermore, “If success brings love” and “being loved is happiness,” then “success brings happiness”. And the whole illusion system starts to take shape. Adam lived all his life believing that once he climbed the ladder, happiness would follow naturally, only to find out when getting there that this was not the case. He created his illusion of happiness, and it ended up in disillusionment. 

How can counselling help Adam? 

In counselling, we might start with exploring terms such as success and happiness and what they mean for him. Then, we would go on to understand how the false link between success and happiness was created and why he is emotionally attached to it. We would explore his feelings about the disillusionment he is experiencing. Finally, in redefining success and happiness, Adam will also find better ways to realistically achieve both.

Scenario 2: Emily, aged 26, came to counselling describing herself as a person who "doesn’t know how to stand up for herself and push back when others are pressuring her". She was experiencing difficulties in her marriage because she didn’t find the power to voice her preferences when she disliked her husband’s choices. Similar issues were emerging in her professional life – she was not able to push back and say no, so always ended up receiving more work.

When speaking about herself and her upbringing, you could easily see how Emily was made to believe that not making herself heard and not protesting would keep her safe. Her mother wanted a baby doll rather than a human being, so when Emily expressed her wishes and needs, she was faced with the prospect of punishment and rejection. Whenever Emily was submissive and didn’t express needs, things were fine.

In early childhood, Emily interiorised the following beliefs: “Not speaking up, not expressing needs, not challenging will keep you safe” and “asking for things, speaking up is dangerous and leads to rejection”– this was the reality for her as a child, but it is an illusion in the adult world. She was not able to reason using an adult perspective and understand that her needs were normal and that her mother’s incapacity to relate was the result of a depressive episode.

There were instances throughout her life that didn’t match that illusion – her younger sister did push back when their mother had the same behaviour and there were no serious consequences, her work colleagues do speak up when they disagree with decisions made by management, and no one gets fired. She can recount those situations which goes to show that she was and can grasp reality, but she looked the other way and continues to do so. Acknowledging the illusion triggered painful feelings in Emily and, as a result, she decided to avoid facing reality – this was done out of awareness.  

Despite knowing she is significantly underpaid, Emily could not find the strength to ask for more or push back on additional work. In her marriage, she was not able to voice her preferences, even though she described her husband as being a kind person. She found herself being angry a lot, complaining about everything and having a nihilistic approach towards life. The pain of disillusionment was surfacing and Emily could not understand its source. 

How can counselling help Emily?   

Through counselling, Emily can understand the origins of her “shut up, comply and you’ll be safe” and why she is so attached to this belief. Her avoidance of reality will be gently challenged, and she will be able to understand how looking the other way is a defence mechanism that protects her in the short term from the pain of acknowledging reality, but in the long term, makes things worse.

As a child, she needed to adapt her behaviour to survive and feel safe. As an adult, she can decide what approach she should take given the situation and not accept anything compulsively. Pushing back or having an opinion will not be met with punishment and even if there is retaliation, that is manageable.  

What next?

If you feel that you are not getting what you deserve despite doing everything "by the book", take a step back and reconsider the rules of engagement. Could it be that, similar to Adam, you have created a false association between behaviours and rewards? Or did Emily's uneasiness at asserting her needs resonate with you? It is within your grasp to shift from illusion to seeing reality in all its nuances.

I helped others make that move, and I can help you too. Get in touch for a free consultation call to discuss more. I hope to hear from you soon.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Central London EC4Y & Surbiton KT6
Written by Robert Preda, BSc. Psychology, MNCPS Accred, ACC, BPS | Counsellor
Central London EC4Y & Surbiton KT6

Robert Preda is a Transactional Analysis Counsellor, based in London.
The series entitled "Literature, Life and Therapy" aims to draw parallels between the inner world of fictional characters and our everyday experiences. Learn about them and you'll learn about yourself!
Find out more about counselling: https://www.seekandbecome.com/counselling/

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