Disappointment is a part of life that comes up when hopes or expectations aren’t met. All of us feel disappointment at times in our relationships, in other people, and in ourselves. It’s not an easy feeling to sit with, but there are healthy (and unhealthy) ways to cope with this unavoidable emotion.
It might be tempting to handle disappointment by avoiding it altogether. One way to do this is to not have expectations in the first place. But this isn’t realistically possible – imagine trying to have no thoughts or ideas about how something should be or might go! Also, expectations are helpful for us in many ways. So how can we cope with the unpleasantness of disappointment that is sure to come up? Here are some healthy ways to deal with disappointment:
Understanding the Disappointment and Validating It
Acknowledge that you’re experiencing disappointment. It’s tempting to ignore, minimize, or distract yourself from unpleasant feelings. But this can actually make these feelings more of a problem over time. Instead, acknowledging and naming a feeling (even doing this out loud!) can help you cope in a healthy way. Validating our emotions means accepting that they are present, and remembering that it’s ok to have those feelings. Emotions always happen for a reason.
Tolerating and “Riding the Wave” of Disappointment
Have you ever tried making an emotion “just go away,” or even tried creating an emotion you don’t have? Either way, you likely know that things don’t work that way. Once we feel an emotion, that emotion is there until, well, until it fades or passes. In fact, all emotions, including disappointment, pass or fade with time. This happens regardless of how upsetting or uncomfortable they are at first. Sometimes this happens more quickly than others, and some feelings are intense while others less so. But they all do fade with time.
So, part of healthy coping with disappointment is reminding yourself that disappointment is like a wave — ride it until it passes.
Again, being kind toward yourself and validating the feeling can help you ride out a wave of disappointment. Getting support from others can also be helpful. Sometimes focusing your energies or attention on something else meaningful to you helps lessen the intensity of the feeling. If you have already acknowledged and validated your feelings of disappointment, then distracting yourself can be a helpful coping strategy to get through the wave.
Checking Expectations and Adjusting Them to Match Reality
Sometimes, adjusting expectations is the best way to cope with disappointment. If an expectation is rigid or inflexible or doesn’t line up with reality, it’s easier to feel disappointed.
For example, if you believe you should never need to try something new more than once to learn it, or that people should always reply to your text messages within 5 minutes, you might frequently feel disappointed. In a case like this, it’s helpful to soften or realign your expectations to make them more realistic.
Focusing on the Bigger Picture: Expecting and Accepting Disappointment in Life
Another helpful way of dealing with disappointment is remembering that it is simply a part of life. There’s no way to avoid it altogether. Remember, disappointment is a feeling that comes up around expectations that aren’t met. So, if you expect to have a life free of disappointment”you may find yourself disappointed. Accepting disappointing circumstances, despite your emotional reaction, can make things less uncomfortable.
Here are some situations in which disappointment often comes up, and examples of how you can best handle them.
Disappointment in a Relationship
Disappointment can come up in any meaningful relationship. Whether it’s a romantic relationship, a friendship, or a family relationship — every relationship comes with expectations. Valuing a relationship and having expectations for that relationship go hand in hand!
Disappointment in Yourself
Feeling disappointed in yourself is uncomfortable. Sadness and guilt tend to come up when you feel disappointment in yourself. We all have many expectations we hold of ourselves: how we should act, feel, and think, what we should do with our time and energy, what abilities and traits we should have, and so on. Given all these expectations, it’s easy to see why feeling disappointment in yourself is a near-universal experience.
Marcus wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren, so he started to pick them up after school every weekday. But he kept accidentally falling asleep when they’d play calm games or watch a movie together. He felt disappointed in himself because kept sleeping through something that was really important to him, which also made him feel guilty about it.
Marcus believed that because he cared for his grandchildren, he should be able to stay awake while spending time with them, even if he was exhausted from a long day at work. He was really hard on himself and even thought this meant he wasn’t fit to look after his grandchildren. He spoke to his daughter about how he was feeling, and she reminded him that looking after youngsters is hard work! She pointed out that it made sense he often fell asleep, and that it didn’t mean he didn’t value spending time with them. She suggested making time to spend with them on weekends when Marcus was less tired from work. He agreed, and after spending more time with them and not falling asleep, he felt less guilty about being tired after a long workday.
Marcus used two strategies to deal with his disappointment in himself. The first one was seeking support from a loved one. Fortunately, his daughter was able to help him in this situation. Secondly, he used problem-solving — in other words, he changed the situation so he would be less likely to feel disappointed in himself next time.
When People Disappoint You
Just like feeling disappointed in yourself, it’s inevitable to feel disappointed in others sometimes too. Other people have their own ideas, feelings, desires, and challenges, so there’s no way they will always meet the expectations you have of them. When you feel disappointed in someone else, it’s also common to feel frustrated or resentful, or even angry.
Tate often spoke to their roommates about how much they enjoyed day trips like hiking and going to the beach, and suggested they should all plan such a trip sometime. Their roommates agreed and said they could all go sometime in the next few months. A few weeks later, after their roommates were gone for a weekend, Tate found out through social media that the roommates went on a hiking trip with other friends. Tate was understandably disappointed at not being invited to join.
Tate was upset at feeling excluded by their roommates, and reached out to a friend to vent. The friend helped Tate validate their feeling of disappointment at not being invited, after sharing with the roommates how much they enjoyed similar activities. Tate’s friend also encouraged them to adjust their expectations, because their roommates traveled with others who aren’t friends with Tate. Tate also reminded themself that the feelings of disappointment and frustration would pass, and decided to approach their roommates later on when they were feeling calmer.
Tate used three distinct strategies to cope with disappointment in the story above. They reached out for support, adjusted their expectations, and reminded themselves that all emotions fade and pass in time, including disappointment.
Whether you’re feeling disappointment in a relationship, in others, or in yourself, there are various healthy ways you can deal with this unpleasant emotion. Acknowledging disappointment, by naming and validating it, is a good place to start. Validation can also help you “ride the wave” of disappointment, which will pass with time. Getting support from others and distracting yourself are also helpful ways to tolerate feelings of disappointment while they persist. Making your expectations more flexible and realistic can also help lessen the discomfort of disappointment. Lastly, it’s healthy to remember and accept that disappointment is a part of life, and we all experience it sometimes.
Please contact us if you think CBT therapy might help you in your efforts to cope with disappointment in your life.