Getting out from under the crushing weight of disappointment9 min read

A bloom of sadness and anger

Disappointment flourishes in the space between expectations and reality, the greatest expectations often kindling the bitterest of disappointments.  It fires up when our dreams come crashing down, when we’re let down by friends or lovers, or when we let ourselves down with failures, real or just imagined.  It’s one of those emotions that can leave us crushed and, worse still, your disappointment in me can feel as bad as my disappointment in both myself and in you.  So what do we do when disappointment strikes?  And how can we stop it happening again?

Just what is disappointment?

Disappointment is a variant of sadness – with a pinch of anger thrown in for good measure.  Like all emotions, disappointment is an important source of data.  Our emotions alert us to what’s going on and we ignore them at our peril.  So what is disappointment alerting us to?  It’s the emotion that fires up when our expectations fall out of sync with reality, and the size of the gap between our expectations and reality affects just how disappointed we feel.

Disappointment’s target

Disappointment always has a target. I can be disappointed in you.  You can be disappointed in me.  I can be disappointed in myself and you can be disappointed in yourself.  We can also be disappointed in more distant or abstract targets – our sports teams, when they lose; our favourite bands, when they sell-out; our politicians, for failing to deal with the climate crisis; and even abstract ideas like ‘people are essentially good’, when all the available evidence suggests it’s not that clear-cut after all.

When I’m the target

It sounds like a cliché, but some of us really can be our own worst critics.  We have unreasonable expectations about how we should look, how well we should perform, how good a friend we should be, even how exciting the lives we lead should be.  The list goes on, but every time we fail to meet our impossible expectations the disappointment remains the same.  And it can become a heavy weight to drag around.

Being disappointed in yourself isn’t intrinsically bad – on the contrary, it can be a useful prompt if we act or perform badly or let people down, and it can remind us to do better and be better.  But we also need to let go of our personal disappointments.  If we recognise we should have done better, then the point is to learn from it and do better next time.  Otherwise we just accumulate our failures and failings to no real purpose other than to remind us how rubbish we are – and I can’t say I recommend that.

When you’re the target

As well as our self-expectations, we also have expectations of each other and of what’s acceptable in our friendships and relationships.  Sometimes this will be obvious – like ‘Don’t have sex with my boyfriend’ – and sometimes it will be less clearcut.

I might expect you to answer my call at the drop of a hat, while you’ll call when you can get around to it.   Because we’re all brought up with different values around how things should be dealt with – and because, well, who sits down with a pen and paper to compare notes? – some of our disappointments can simply be rooted in our different and equally legitimate ways of doing things.  This calls for a little clarifying and a minor adjustment of our interpersonal boundaries so we know what we can expect of each other.

But when the more obvious expectations – that promises will be kept, that our friends and lovers will be loyal, that we can rely on our circle of friends and family in a time of crisis – are breached, this calls for more than just a light touch.  In a sense, our disappointment, with all its hurt and very real pain, demands justice – or at the very least, recognition.

When I’m your target

The feeling of being let down by the people we love can be devastating – but your disappointment in me can equally cut to the quick.  One of the most unsettling things a parent can say to a child is, “I’m so disappointed in you”.  Whether the disappointment is reasonable or not, and whether it’s a gentle chide or a sharp admonishment, we can be left feeling ashamed, hurt, guilty and remorseful too.

When someone expresses disappointment in us, it’s an evaluative act – on some level, it says you failed.  And that hurts.  Sometimes an expression of disappointment can be warranted and justified.  I broke a promise or acted badly, and your disappointment is legitimate – so I’d better apologise and make sure it doesn’t happen again.  But expressions of disappointment can sometimes be used, consciously or not, to control or to punish.  I’m so disappointed in you becomes an exercise in browbeating, criticising, and undermining.  It still hurts the same, but this time the rationale for disappointment is neither legitimate nor justified.

Expectations on the reasonable-unreasonable axis

I’ve always harboured a wish to be an astronaut.  It was never going to happen – I was never good enough at maths and I just don’t have the physicality for it.  Yet I’ve always felt a tinge of disappointment when I gaze out at the heavens and wonder at what might have been.  At the heart of this is an unreasonable expectation – it was never going to happen, yet still…    

It’s an important distinction to make – and it’s something that’s often overlooked.  Where our expectations are reasonable, then our disappointment is justified.  I expected you to come when my life fell apart, and you didn’t.  I’m justifiably disappointed.  I expected you to skip your sister’s wedding and come to the cinema with me instead, and you didn’t.  I’m disappointed in you, but there’s no justification because the expectation was completely unreasonable.

Whenever we’re the target of other people’s disappointment or when we find ourselves feeling disappointed in ourselves, the people around us, or in the life situation we find ourselves in, it’s always worth asking ourselves:  is the underlying expectation reasonable?  If not, you might want to just shrug your shoulders and redefine your expectations before letting your disappointment find its mark.  But if the underlying expectation is reasonable – well that’s a different story.

How to combat disappointment

I’ve read, time and again, that people who are disappointed should change their expectations to avoid future disappointment.  That’s fine when our expectations are unreasonable.  If I accept I’ll never be an astronaut – and was never going to be an astronaut – then that little disappointment will eventually melt away.

But what about when our expectations are reasonable, yet we’re repeatedly let down by our friends or lovers?  Are we just supposed to accept the unacceptable and adapt to their unreliability?  If I expect less, I won’t get disappointed.  The logic works, but what do you end up compromising?  No, this won’t do – the price is just far too high.

So this is what we do.

If disappointment fires-up because there’s a gap between our expectations and reality, then we can do one of two things:

1)  We can modify our unreasonable expectations so they converge with reality

2)  We can change our reality so it converges with our reasonable expectations

Say, for example, I have an unreasonable expectation that all of my friends will drop everything and come running when I call them.  I’ll inevitably feel disappointed every time they’re too busy to come running because, sadly, I’m not at the centre of their universe.  Here, I’ll probably want to re-evaluate my expectations so they’ll get closer to the reality of what friendships are all about.

If, on the other hand, I’ve a friend who repeatedly breaks promises and fails to show up, then I perhaps need to consider whether this person’s actually a friend, and whether I want them in my life.  This disappointment’s perfectly reasonable.  If I choose to walk away, I change my reality as I seek out other friends who do meet my perfectly reasonable expectations.

What happens when we’re the target of someone else’s disappointment?  If a friend tells me I’ve repeatedly failed her and she’s deeply disappointed in me, then I’ll need to consider whether these failures are real or just perceived.  Again, if the disappointment is justified and based on reasonable expectations, then I should probably apologise and do everything I can to put things right; but if the friend’s disappointment is not justified, then I’d be better standing my ground and challenging my friend’s expectations.

The same thing is true when we’re disappointed in ourselves – is the justification reasonable and the disappointment warranted or am I giving myself a hard time over an unreasonable expectation?

Who gets to decide what’s reasonable?

There’s a perfectly reasonable question about who gets to define what expectations are reasonable – and which ones are not.  We might turn to something like virtue ethics to give us an idea, and in many instances we’re already able to keep our own counsel.  But where this fails or when in doubt, perhaps the best thing to do is to talk – talk with the people who’ve disappointed us, talk about what we expect and why we think it’s reasonable, and listen to what they have to say about things from their side. 

If we speak openly and listen carefully, express what we want to say clearly and really hear what the other person says, then we’re closer to finding a shared position on what to expect of each other – and so avoid further disappointment.

Letting disappointment be your guide

Disappointment is a useful signal that tells us that something’s wrong – we don’t need to linger on the feeling, but we do need to figure out whether it’s justified or not before taking action.  That way, disappointment will serve us well as a useful guide to action, and not be just a source of lasting sorrow.

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