That job didn’t work out like I thought it would.
Ugh, I didn’t expect that to get canceled.
My dad promised he would show up this time.
Disappointment comes in all shapes and sizes. It could be that your spouse canceled date night at the last minute because something came up at work. Or you were rejected by your dream school. Maybe your mom unexpectedly got sick. Or you were furloughed shortly after starting what you thought was your dream job. Or you trained your butt off for your first-ever marathon and twisted your ankle the week before the gun went off.
Dealing with disappointment, heartbreak and unexpected transitions is a frustrating but normal part of life. Some heartbreaks are major and life-altering, while some disappointments are just minor irritations.
Regardless of their size or scope, disappointments still hurt—sometimes a lot.
Since these letdowns are part of what it means to be human, it would serve us well to figure out how to deal with disappointment. But before we jump into the practical tips, let’s define the problem.
What Is Disappointment?
Disappointment is the painful experience of being let down when your expectations don’t play out the way you hoped. It’s when reality doesn’t match your picture of what could have been. Disappointment can produce feelings ranging from mild annoyance to profound heartbreak and confusion—maybe even despair. The higher the hopes, the bigger the letdown.
Hope, longing, desire, expectation—these all embody our human tendency to visualize the good things we want in life. But just because we desire something doesn’t mean that it’s guaranteed to happen. Or, if it does happen, it’s often not quite as amazing as we thought it’d be.
Dealing With Unmet Expectations
Disappointment springs from the gap between hope and truth. It springs from unmet expectations. Put another way: Disappointment is when you don’t get what you want or what you think you deserve. Some of our expectations are reasonable, and some are wildly inaccurate fantasies. If you’re like me, you often need a reality check to reign you in.
One of the difficulties in communicating our expectations is that we speak with words but we think in pictures. I’ll explain what I mean by using an example: Let’s say my wife sits me down for a talk—about being a better husband.
Yes. That talk.
She tells me that she needs me to step up and be a better husband. And like always, she’s right. We think we’re on the same page about this because we agree on the words—I know I need to step up my game! But my picture of “better husband” is nothing like hers. I take this to mean that I need to earn more money with a second job, hit the gym a little harder, and give her some “her time” in the mornings and on the weekends. But when she said, “better husband,” the picture she had was someone who was more present at home, less consumed by work, who listened and didn’t try to solve everything, and who was ready to be a full partner with the kids and homemaking.
We both heard the same words—“be a better husband”—but our pictures were different. And that gap between the pictures in our heads and the reality in front of us created disappointment for both of us. The good news is, if we choose to learn from our letdowns, we can get better at understanding our expectations and communicating them—to ourselves and to the people around us.
9 Ways to Deal With Disappointment
Dealing with disappointment (aka unmet expectations) is the process of grieving the picture that you had in your head, letting it go, and deciding to create a new picture. Let’s unpack that process in these nine steps.
1. Give yourself permission to grieve.
Grieve might sound like a dramatic word here, but it’s not. Disappointment is like a small death of something you hoped for—even if it’s something seemingly trivial.
No matter how big or small your disappointment, give yourself permission to grieve what you’ve lost (or maybe never received). Don’t try to gloss over or numb your unpleasant emotions. Name your feelings. If you’ve been passed over for a big promotion at work, you might chalk it up to feeling depressed or having anxiety, when in reality, you’re actually angry, hurt and disappointed. These are natural reactions to having your hopes let down.
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So, allow yourself to feel. Have a hard cry. Sit in your grief, but don’t bathe in it. You must lean into and process your negative emotions in order to eventually let them go and make a plan for how you’re going to move forward.
2. Don’t compare your grief to someone else’s.
It’s tempting to try and minimize our grief by comparing it to others who are “worse off” than we are. We end up getting stuck in an endless cycle. I saw this line of thinking all over the place during the COVID pandemic: Yeah, we had to cancel my son’s birthday party, but one of my friends had to postpone her wedding. Yeah, I had to postpone my wedding, but at least I still have my job. Well, I lost my job, but at least no one in my family has died. And on and on it goes . . .
The problem with this approach is that we deny ourselves the permission to grieve. Plus, it might seem noble, but it’s not actually doing you or anyone else any good. Minimizing your sadness doesn’t make someone suddenly feel better somewhere else in the world.
Own your grief and don’t apologize for feeling sad.
3. Write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal.
I know this feels cheesy and Dear-Diary-ish, but it’s backed by research, and it works. Unfortunately, our feelings are both important and often highly inaccurate. They lie to us. They often get jumbled up in our hearts and minds and make us feel confused and downtrodden. I don’t care how tough or cool you are, write down your feelings and scour each of them for truth.
Seeing your feelings on paper allows them to stop spin-cycling in your head and become manageable. It takes away some of their power and gives you some much-needed space between your emotions and your ability to think.
4. Don’t allow disappointment to become your identity.
There’s a deadly lie that can spring out of a disappointing experience, especially if it’s a pattern. You can easily start to believe that you are a disappointment. Let’s say that you’ve experienced several long-term relationships ending in awful breakups. It’d be easy to assume the hurt as an identity: I suck. There must be something wrong with me. And on it goes.
Hear me on this: Disappointment is something you experience. It’s not something you are. Of course, it might be time to do some self-examination to understand the role you play in disappointing patterns (such as romantic breakups). But your contributions—good or bad—do not dictate who you are.
Refuse to let disappointment become your identity.
5. Spend time with someone you trust.
I often say that your friends and community are your emergency fund for life. When you’re hurting, you need other people. Having a conversation with a real-life human about your disappointment will help you brush it off and move on.
A word of caution: Choose your confidant wisely. This isn’t a gossip session or an excuse to wallow in anger and spiral into negative thought patterns. Don’t dump on this person, and don’t drag them down. Simply process how you’re feeling and enjoy the company of someone you can trust in the midst of the sadness you’re feeling.
6. Refuse to throw yourself a pity party.
Have you ever ignored leftovers in your fridge for too long? You know what happens, right? Tiny spores find their way into the food, and when the temperature and moisture are just right, mold starts to grow. Eventually, the mold will eat away at all the food—and maybe even the container. Gross.
This is a powerful (and disgusting) metaphor for what happens when you choose to hold on to hurt. Hurt is a petri dish for bitterness. At first, feeling sorry for yourself and obsessively replaying scenes of what happened might seem benign. But before you know it, the bitterness has spread. It infects every part of your life and spoils the way you see people and circumstances. Eventually, bitterness will corrode your peace of mind, ability to have relationships and take risks. You’ll be a victim of your own life.
Bitterness does you no good. Refuse to throw yourself a pity party. Instead, let go of the hurt, forgive, and move forward.
7. Plan something to look forward to.
Disappointment is unnerving because it reminds you that, no matter how hard you try, you can’t control other people or external situations. The good news is that you can control you! Your thoughts and your actions are under your control. Take action by making a plan for something to look forward to. If your disappointment is causing loneliness, plan a fun evening with your family or your friends. If your disappointment came from a professional letdown, set a time with your leader to talk through the issue and make a plan to grow in your career. Refuse the victim mindset by making a plan for how to move forward.
8. Choose optimism.
Viktor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” We get to choose optimism. We get to choose to look for beauty in the rubble. We get to decide how we respond to difficult times.
And remember, whining doesn’t smother the burning embers of grief. It pours gasoline on them. Joy and optimism are a choice, not a personality type. I want to say that again: Joy and optimism are a choice. Lean toward joy and healing, even in the midst of pain. But do it slowly, of course—don’t be fake or deny the difficulty. But remember that there’s always, always light at the end of the tunnel. And take the time to laugh alone, with your family, or with roommates. Put on some good stand-up comedy or a Seinfeld episode. Laughter is good for the soul.
9. Learn from your disappointment.
Do you know what I love about being human? The fact that as long as we have breath, we have the opportunity to learn. To grow. To become better and stronger and wiser and kinder. Even when it comes to crappy things, like heartache and canceled plans, we get to decide how we frame our experiences.
I encourage you to become a scholar of your own life. One way we can learn from our disappointment is to reflect (journal, like we talked about earlier) and find meaning in what we’ve experienced. Here are a few questions to help you dig deep:
• What role did I play in the outcome of this event?
• Why did this event (or person) hurt me so much?
• What part did I have to play in this disappointment?
• Is this a pattern? And if so, what can I do to change it?
• How did my parents respond to disappointment and grief? What kind of model did they set for me?
Letdowns can become defining moments if we choose to learn from them. If we brush them aside, ignore or bury them, or shake our angry fists and walk away, we miss out on a chance to grow into more of the person we were created to be.
I want to encourage you, no matter how big or small your hurt and disappointment, to choose hope and healing. May you have the courage to lean into your disappointment and grief and the wisdom to know when to leave it behind.
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