Dealing with disappointment

When you’ve pinned all your hopes on something, it can be crushing if you don’t get what you want. Here’s what you can do to avoid disappointment laying you low.

“And the winner is….” …not me. I had been nominated for a writing award and was at a posh dinner sitting with my best friend by my side listening to the winners being announced. My heart had been racing as my category was announced and the list of nominees read out. I smiled – in what I hoped was a modest way – when they read out my name. But then the winner was announced and it was some bloke on one of the best broadsheets in the country and I had to do my ‘game face’. This is the face that you see stars pull at the Oscars when someone else wins. It is the face of the good loser, the person who later says in interviews “I was just honoured to be nominated”. Regrettably I don’t have a very good game face. My game face is a Vicky Pollard ‘Am I bovvered?’ aggressive, about-to-cry and can’t-handle-disappointment face. My best friend almost fell off his seat laughing at my struggle to stop my emotions showing on my face. “Thank God they aren’t projecting your face onto a screen for all the audience to see,” he said, unhelpfully.

This little incident is not the first time I’ve had to deal with disappointment and it probably won’t be the last. We encounter disappointment daily from a latte that isn’t frothy enough to an email response in the negative rather than the positive to a proposal or work idea. We also have to deal with the bigger disappointments life can throw at us like fertility problems or a love interest not being interested in us. While the small disappointments irritate, the large ones can break our hearts so learning to deal with disappointment is a key strategy for happiness in life.

Experts say you should think about how important the disappointment is in the greater scheme of things. Will you care in 20 years’ time about it? Can you do something practical to replace the disappointment with something useful that ensures you retain some hope in the situation? How can you turn it around?

Great advice you never take
All great advice but it can be difficult to remember this when you’re in the eye of the storm with a much-cherished dream dashed. I remember once asking a man I fancied out to go to a concert with me. I had VIP press tickets, there’d be a free bar and the show was one of the most anticipated of the year. I figured I had it in the bag. I refuse to ask men out and so this was a softly-softly ‘just good friends’ approach. I formulated the invitation via email in my head (asking on the phone would have left me a fat-tongued idiot who wouldn’t have been able to get her words out) and then typed it out 20 different times in 20 different ways before finally pressing ‘send’ with my heart going like the clappers. I waited and checked my emails every two seconds for about two hours before his response came pinging back. Opening the email I discovered that he couldn’t make it. Aaaaargh.

I went from despair to mortification and back again and a low level sense of disappointment was with me for many days.

The problem here is one that is common to many women; we read more into things than we should. I didn’t read his response as a straightforward ‘can’t make it’ in the way I would have if a friend I didn’t fancy said that to me. I read it as a rejection of me personally and of spending time with me. He had no clue as to what I was obliquely asking him or of the agonising I had done prior to sending the email. He just thought I was a pal asking him, another pal, to a concert. End of story. He didn’t know that by not being able to make it, he was dashing my hopes of seduction, eventual marriage and 2.4 children. (If I’m perfectly honest there was probably also a cottage by the coast that he’d have whitewashed for me on a hot summer’s day with his shirt off. Little did he know that his simple ‘sorry, can’t make it’ also destroyed the hopes of many a coastal estate agent.)

No doesn’t mean never
Seriously speaking though, this is an important point. We often make our disappointments much more far-reaching than they need to be because we’ve added a whole bunch of sub-text that the person disappointing us may not have intended at all. I could have asked him to something else a month later but instead, my abject terror of being what I saw as ‘rejected’ again stopped me taking that chance. ‘No’ doesn’t mean ‘never’ and you shouldn’t let one disappointment stop you trying again. Ask any top level athlete and they will tell you how much getting up again after failing you have to do in order to reach the top of your sport.

The problem is that the closer we get to our goal, the more the disappointment stings if we’re thwarted at the last post. Suppose you saw your dream job advertised and you got through to the second interview, your expectation of getting the job is raised by the fact that you’ve managed to make it through the first couple of hurdles. If you then don’t get the job, the disappointment is considerably more acute than if you’d had a letter of rejection right at the start, at the point of submitting your application. Some people manage this sort of disappointment by not raising their hopes up too much or, worse, by not applying in the first place. It may seem logical to protect yourself from the pain of being disappointed by never putting yourself forward, never applying for the dream job or never asking out the man of your dreams but this is not a solution. The rot that sets in from never risking yourself is much worse than the temporary embarrassment or hurt of being disappointed.

One of the best ways I’ve found to avoid the experience of disappointment closing me off to risk in future is to ‘reward failure’. We are often told that we should only reward success but we learn as much, if not more, from our failures. By treating ourselves to something when we’re disappointed, it’s the equivalent of being given a lollipop when we’ve fallen over as a child. It cheers us up, dries our tears, and makes us realise that we will live to see another day. The next time I face disappointment, I will rally myself with a fruit smoothie and wait for my ‘game face’ to stop looking like a smacked derriere.


Dealing with it better

  1. Be kind to yourself. It is natural to be upset when disappointed; there is a sort of grief in it. Let yourself be a bad mood or tearful for a bit. Happiness isn’t never being unhappy; it is being able to sit with sadness when necessary, returning to contentment and equilibrium in due course.

  2. Don’t dwell. While it is fine to be upset, don’t dwell for ages in that state. Allowing yourself to fall into a spiral of despair is not healthy. Accept that you’ve been disappointed, but don’t start to believe that this one outcome is the only path to happiness you ever had or will have. 
  3. Set new goals. Have some fun envisioning what a different success looks and feels like to you. Then set yourself a new big goal and break it down into smaller, achievable ones that you can make on your way to getting your big goal. If it doesn’t work out, repeat until it does.

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