The art of coping with disappointment

It seems that as a society we are beginning to become more open about huge life changing experiences and about problems such as anxiety and depression. We are able to acknowledge that fear, jealousy and hopelessness are worth reflecting on and asking for support over. I feel though, that one of the most scary, upsetting and emotionally draining feelings is not often openly acknowledged.

Disappointment. The feelings around disappointment can be gut wrenching, those experiencing it can feel powerless and very distressed. I would like to talk here about the art of coping with disappointment.

This pandemic has shown us in vivid detail how quickly things can change, how plans have to be abandoned. We are a nation currently living with great disappointments (and many small daily disappointments), and the resentment and anger those disappointments can bring. The pandemic brings with it many many challenges - we are sometimes finding we are stronger than we imagined - so let’s look at the art of coping with disappointment.

Disappointment is an emotional reaction to something that hasn’t actually happened, something we had anticipated happening. It also has a physical response with levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin or dopamine decreasing.

Disappointment actually does hurt. Denying our feelings may lead to us feeling more unhappy. So first - accept how you are feeling. Work through what this feels like, then as soon as you are able let it go… because it never in reality actually existed. It was a wish, a hope, maybe an expectation. If you feel angry, bring this down to feeling annoyed. Don’t speak to yourself negatively, it will only make things worse. Acknowledge “I feel awfully disappointed, this hurts, but I will be okay.”

Man looking at reflection in puddle

Give yourself a time limit to mourn the disappointment. This isn’t self-indulgent, it’s acknowledgement of your feelings. You are not silly, weak or immature - you are starting to learn to deal with disappointment. It can be one of your new challenges.

It may be enough to just say to yourself 'that was disappointing', but you may also want to explore why it is. Whilst acknowledging this may be because you have had lots of disappointments in the past, it isn’t useful to see this disappointment as evidence your life is terrible. Focus on this disappointment and how you can cope with it and move on. You are learning to deal with disappointment. You are learning a new skill. It really is important to avoid negative self-talk, it isn’t useful. It won’t make you feel better. If you struggle with this, adapt so instead of thinking “awful things always happen to me” change that to “sometimes I feel that awful things always happen to me.”

Limit your reflection time on your disappointment and then say goodbye to it. If you manage to do this the first time, acknowledge your strength and hope this works next time - because we will have disappointments throughout our lives. If it doesn’t work, acknowledge that you tried.

If you have a creative way of thinking, and it feels right for you, consider spending 10 minutes or so imagining how the event or situation could have been well below expectations. If this feels comfortable for you, it can be amusing and very therapeutic. Think instead of how amazing it could have been, how boring or pointless or ridiculous it could have been. The truth is, we will never know because it never really happened. 

As you start to realise that whatever didn’t happen isn’t going to happen - at least not how and when you expected - you can begin to revise your expectations.

Remember, you are letting go of something that never actually happened. Now you are accepting that reality and deciding what to do about it. Give yourself realistic options about if you can do the same or similar thing in the near future, if not, when you can. If you need to plan it, do that. Otherwise assure yourself that if you want to you can always do it in the future. There is a possibility that the disappointment that seemed to take on a huge significance at the time, may lose its importance a few weeks later. It may have only seemed very important because of how you reacted to it.

If you are now in position to accept that although you were disappointed, you have or are starting to deal with both your feelings and the practical aspect of the event, you have started to increase your tolerance to disappointment. This I believe, is the heart of the whole thing. If you believe you can face disappointment and come out smiling, you can. As you learn to cope with disappointment you will devise your own ways of dealing with it. The most important start is to acknowledge it and remind yourself you have survived disappointment before. Ask if there is actually any gain from feeling miserable about disappointment than start to work on it in your own unique way.

Once we have established that there is little to gain from disappointment, we can start to develop the art of really dealing with it. We acknowledge it exists and that it can be painful. We accept that we have faced it before and survived. If it is a disappointment that feels manageable, deal with it straight away, plan something to do instead of just let the idea go: it has happened and that’s okay. If it’s a bigger disappointment, acknowledge it and accept it might take a little effort to move on.

woman with hair blowing in the wind

If it feels overwhelming, distract yourself for a while. You can do this by making an appointment with the disappointment for later in the day or in the week. Avoid any distraction technique which isn’t good for you. This might include drinking alcohol or internet shopping - both can seem to be a good way of coping, but is that how you want to always cope? 

When the appointed time comes to face the disappointment, you may feel you don’t need to face anything, it is already slipping away. That’s fine, say goodbye and get on with your life. If not, decide how you are going to get beyond this disappointment. What steps you can take immediately and afterwards. Give yourself a time frame. Again, try to deal with this with humour if possible. How long should you remain miserable over this particular disappointment? An hour? A week or a month? Is there any way of shortening that time? What steps can you take to make it a shorter time? I am not making light of your misery, I am suggesting you to take control of it. 

It is hard to continue to feel disappointment if you use mindfulness. This is because disappointment is feelings about something that doesn’t exist and never did exist, apart from in your imagination. If you feel anxious or sad, slow down your breathing, remind yourself the feeling will pass. Then wonder what can you actually do today to help you feel a little happier. Living in the moment (which may take practice) can be the first antidote to disappointment. Reducing the reaction is a success. Acknowledge the success.

You are the expert on you, therefore you will be able to devise your own unique methods of moving beyond disappointment and towards a more peaceful and relaxed day. Here are a few ideas that might work:

  • go for a walk
  • bake your favourite cake
  • give money to charity (especially if you have just saved money by not doing whatever it was you had hoped to do)
  • make plans for the future- be realistic
  • write about how you feel then write about how you want to feel
  • make a list of things you feel grateful for (time this, maybe just a minute)
  • write a list of your positive qualities (and note how they will help you cope)

Or anything else you can think of that might help you get beyond the sense of powerlessness that is disappointment.

At the risk of sounding like I am nagging - give up speaking to yourself in a critical tone. Acknowledge the disappointment, accept what it is and find a way of moving on. If that is too painful, make a date with dealing with it and distract yourself for a while. Ask yourself, how much of my time should I give to disappointment? See it for what it is - one event that didn’t happen. And remember if the event had happened, it may well have been a disappointment in itself! 

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Saltburn-by-the-sea, North Yorkshire, TS12

Written by Dahlian Kirby

Saltburn-by-the-sea, North Yorkshire, TS12

I am a counsellor and writer. I run therapeutic writing groups and also work with individuals on therapeutic journal writing by e-mail and post. I have a PhD in applied ethics.

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