How to Deal with Disappointment


Disappointment is a part of life. From being let down by relatively inconsequential things like a series finale or the outcome of the latest football game to major pain points like finding out your person isn’t who you thought they were, the sting of disappointment is familiar. Whichever side of it you’re on – the one who is disappointed or the one who is disappointing – it’s not fun. 

So how do we deal with inevitable disappointment?  

Let’s get right to it.

What Is Disappointment? 

Like all emotions, disappointment is simply a shortcut from our brain designed to give us a message. The message of disappointment? Reality does not match my expectations…in a way I don’t like. We feel disappointed when we thought one thing was going to happen – that it should happen in a certain way – but it didn’t.

And as with all emotions, sometimes the message is important. We need to listen to it and use it to inform our actions. Other times, however, it’s bogus. Spam. A false alarm. Unnecessary inside ick. Differentiating when a feeling is meaningful and when it isn’t is an important part of psychological strength

The Role of Expectations

The heart of disappointment is really unmet expectations, which raises the critical issue of what’s the real problem here. Is the problem a reality? What someone did do or didn’t do or the way things turn out? Or does the problem lie with the expectations themselves? 

There’s the old debate of whether it’s better to set your expectations low and be pleasantly surprised or set them high and run the risk of being disappointed. You can make a case for either, but I’d argue that not setting expectations at all is ideal. 

When we can let go of expectations, what we’re really doing is not placing any demands on the future. Instead, we’re exercising a powerful mindfulness move and allowing things to unfold as they are. Without expectations, we are more open to experience, less prone to judgment, and protected against disappointment. Thus, one way to deal with disappointment is simply to not have expectations. 

While I believe that we’d experience far less disappointment if we held far fewer expectations, I don’t think it’s realistic to go through life expectation-free. I doubt we probably should even if we could.

Sometimes expectations are what keep us safe and secure. Mutually agreed upon and upheld expectations – for example, that I will be there for you and you will be there for me or if I show up for work you will pay me for the work I do – allow us to form trust within relationships. Expectations about how the world works allow us to stay committed to long-term goals; I expect that if I graduate from school, I’ll have more job opportunities or that if I save for retirement, my Future Self will be taken care of. 

Expectations aren’t all bad, but they are the driver of disappointment. So, then, when we experience disappointment, is it an internal or external issue? 

What to Do When You Feel Disappointed

When it comes to complex problems that involve both inside aspects (like thoughts and feelings) and outside factors (like other people, situations, and external experiences), my bias is to start with the insides and then move to the outsides.

In the case of disappointment, this means starting with your expectations. Were they realistic? Reasonable? Did the other person agree to them or share them, or are you placing expectations on them without their awareness or acknowledgment and then feeling disappointed because you didn’t get your way? 

Disappointment may be signaling to you that you need to adjust or let go of your expectations, that if you can be more flexible and open, you may not feel so let down.

On the other hand, sometimes your expectations are completely reasonable, even healthy – for example, you may feel disappointed because someone you trust lied to you. In that case, disappointment is an important call to action. Perhaps you need to have a crucial conversation, set a boundary, end a relationship, or communicate more clearly what you want or need.

When You’re the Source of Disappointment

It’s not a pleasant experience to let someone down or feel like a disappointment to others. But, again, there is a question of where the real problem is. Are they disappointed because you actually did something wrong or questionable? Did you agree to their expectations, then not uphold your end of the deal? Or did they place a demand on you without your consent or even awareness? 

Keep in mind that someone else being disappointed in you may have more to do with their expectations than with anything you did or didn’t do. In that case, it’s important to recognize that their disappointment is their problem, not yours.

In contrast, sometimes their disappointment (or your disappointment in yourself) may be an absolutely natural reaction, and you can use that as a gut-check moment. Are you behaving in a way that is consistent with your values? Are you being the kind of person you want to be? Do you need to work harder? Do things differently? You can use the pain of disappointment to motivate yourself to make changes and to grow as a person.  

Then there are times when things get really complicated, when it’s not an either/or situation, either it’s your problem or theirs. Sometimes disappointment is both natural AND not a sign of a problem. 

Have you ever really wanted to spend time with someone, like your best friend or your partner, but they had something important come up that got in the way? It would be completely understandable, completely human, to feel disappointed. You were looking forward to time together, but that reality is not coming to fruition. Yet, your expectation is not unreasonable, nor did they do anything wrong. You can be fully supportive of them doing the important thing that takes them away from you AND still experience disappointment. They will need to work to understand that it’s okay for you to feel disappointed AND that what they are doing is okay. That’s a hard place to get to – it’s advanced level emotional intelligence – but something to strive toward.

Navigating emotions like disappointment can be challenging, but understanding why we feel the way we do and learning what to do with that information can make all the difference.

“When you have expectations, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.” 
Ryan Reynolds

We would like to thank Dr. Ashley Smith and Peak Mind, for sharing this educational story with us.  Please share your thoughts and/or comments on this or any other article.  And if you would like to get involved and share your experience with Ataxia, please get in contact with us and join our community today.  A place where we empower you to build a healthy lifestyle and raise overdue Ataxia Awareness.  Experience transformative storytelling and share your story to inspire positive change.

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