Dealing with Disappointment

Disappointment is an emotional experience that seems particularly keen and yet not so often discussed. To be called a disappointment by someone we love, respect, or wish to please is gutting. To be disappointed ourselves seems so painful or undesirable that we work hard to measure expectations, create distance. “I’m trying not to get my hopes up so I won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work out.”

A related word is “disillusionment,” a painful state of losing one’s cherished imagination of how the world is. In the long-term, losing one’s illusions is adaptive, helping us to see more clearly and accept the world as it is. When we get stuck in the state called “disillusionment,” however, we enter a different kind of illusion—a state of hopelessness that shuts down the capacity to see what is possible, and the impetus to act.

A woman with a veil, leaning against a tree, looking forlorn. A peacock at her feet looks back up at her. Untitled (Disappointed) by Jogesh Chandra Seal.
A woman with a veil, leaning against a tree, looking forlorn. A peacock at her feet looks back up at her. Untitled (Disappointed) by Jogesh Chandra Seal.

Another relevant d-word is “desire.” There is something I want, an experience I desire deeply. That experience might be that the person I like feels the same way about me. That experience might be the satisfaction I imagine I’ll feel when the person against whom I’ve harbored a grudge finally admits that I was right all along. On a grander level, that experience might be a certain political outcome, a certain kind of society. Perhaps I’ve always wanted to have a surprise party thrown for me and attached a meaning to it.

Disappointment and disillusionment arise when the desire is thwarted—shown to be based on faulty premises, shown to be impossible, or otherwise defeated. These experiences also arise when desire is achieved and fails to be what we hoped it would be. Maybe someone ruins the surprise for me, or the party goes off successfully but one of the attendees is rude and stomps all over the fun.

Implicit in disappointment and disillusionment is expectation. There is a hoped-for experience that fails to occur. Often this involves people. We expect people to behave a certain way and find ourselves bitterly disappointed when they don’t. That bitterness may express itself outward in anger, by attacking others, accusing them of poor behavior. It may express itself inward as depression, attacking ourselves as being unworthy of what we want.

Befriending disappointment helps with resilience. When disappointment is an awful experience to be avoided at all costs, we shrink away from risks and vulnerability and stick to what’s known, even if we are unhappy. For many, we’d rather feel the disappointment we know than risk further disappointment. We’d rather nurture and cherish some beliefs that may turn out to be illusions, fearing that their loss will mean the complete absence of hope. Such closing off keeps us safe but stuck.

Experiencing and listening to disappointment teaches us more about ourselves and the world as it is. Disappointment does not mean the desire was wrong. It is information. It shows us the beliefs and actions that didn’t work for manifesting the desire. It shows us that we live in an imperfect, constantly moving world. It can help temper our expectations and, if we allow it, teach us gratitude for the things we belief we should take for granted.