After the Fall: Managing Disappointment

This is the time of year when we start disappointing ourselves.  We made grand new year’s resolutions, some of which we’ve already trashed.  Perhaps we have already eaten those forbidden foods, failed to exercise, spent too much money, or neglected to take the first step in becoming a better human being.

Disappointments are part of being human. How we handle those disappointments, however, separates those of us who can’t get out of bed in the morning from those who learn and grow from setbacks.

History Not Destiny

For a variety of reasons, some of us learned to set the bar very low for ourselves to avoid disappointment.  This is the strategy of a classic underachiever.  On the other end of the spectrum are the overachievers: those who, perhaps, strive for perfection.   Both strategies ultimately lead to either an unfulfilled life, anxiety or extreme disappointment, since perfection can never be achieved.   Like most developmental predispositions, our destiny is not determined by what happened in our childhood.  Thankfully, we can learn to deal with life’s disappointments in a healthy way at any stage of development.

The Thick Skin Myth

One misconception is that in order to bounce back from disappointment, one has to develop a thick skin: not feel the pain.   Many people I know (including myself) indulged in self-pity after a major disappointment before taking action.

One of the most painful job disappointments I remember was learning on the eve of our company holiday party that my contract was not going to be renewed.  Needless to say, the holiday party was the last place I wanted to be.  I spent the evening in bed, under the covers, quietly sobbing.  The next day, I contacted a friend who “talked me down” and gave me encouragement.

Spending a bit of time licking one’s wounds is not a bad thing.  Feeling the pain of rejection can help us better relate to others; empathy requires that we recognize painful and uncomfortable feelings.

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

In hindsight, many doors opened after I was “canned.”  I went on to develop some very successful business relationships following that disappointment and found work that was more meaningful for me. I never mourned losing that job again. 

The reality about all our disappointments, big and small, is that we don’t see the whole picture.  We don’t know what the future holds, whether that setback will propel us forward or stymie us. Obviously, what we do after the setback will determine that outcome.

Get a Grip

I remember having a meltdown after not doing well on an accounting exam in graduate school.  I had a toddler at the time and a full-time job while attending classes at night.  I am almost embarrassed to admit that a freakin’ accounting exam brought me to my knees.

Maintaining perspective is so important when dealing with those inevitable disappointments.  Sometimes talking about the distress helps.  A friend, relative or counselor can help put things in perspective -- help one see how this event will be a blip on your radar screen in no time.

The Root of Misery

Although disappointment is unavoidable, most misery can be traced to unrealistic expectations.  Expecting people to behave the way you want in work settings, friendships, as well as romantic and family relationships creates an endless stream of disappointment.  Similarly, having lofty and naive expectations for oneself almost always leads to unhappiness.

Share Responsibility

Read any article or book about coping with disappointment and you’ll see this advice: “don’t take things personally.”  I have a friend, who told her then-husband she was leaving him by prefacing the pronouncement with: “Don’t take this personally…”  In fact, some things need to be taken personally BUT that doesn’t mean taking total responsibility.

Circling back to my disappointment about not getting my contract renewed, I needed to take responsibility for not being a valuable enough contributor to that organization.  I was a square peg trying to fit in a round hole; the job wasn’t right for me. Unfortunately, I didn’t totally recognize that fact at the time.  True, the organization could have been more supportive and communicated better. But mostly, what was so hurtful was the way in which I was terminated; it was insensitive.  (On the eve of our holiday party, really??)

So, there is always something to learn from a disappointment.  Some folks internalize all their disappointment, leading to despair and depression.  Some folks externalize disappointments; i.e. blame others, leading to resentment and rage. Either of those extremes is a no-growth choice.

Practice Coping

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) opportunities will always present themselves for practicing your reaction to disappointment.  Instead of dreading disappointment, we can see each one as an opportunity to sharpen one’s coping skills.  Back when I was in direct sales (another square-peg- in-a-round-hole job for me), I attended many sales seminars and training programs.  I remember one trainer suggesting that every “no” in sales gets us closer to a “yes.”  Similarly, every disappointment is an occasion to get better at coping.

The year is young.  In this new year, we can resolve to handle the disappointments that WILL come our way as a gift of sorts. After all, sometimes our greatest successes follow our biggest disappointments. May it be so for you.