How to Cope with the Loss of a Dream

The loss of a dream can feel like an emotional emergency.

Posted Nov 04, 2020

Christian Erfurt/Unsplash
Source: Christian Erfurt/Unsplash

Many of us know what the loss of a dream feels like.

Perhaps you ...

  • tried to get into veterinary school but didn’t.
  • opened a restaurant and it went under.
  • got divorced, broke up, or asked a close friend on a date and they turned you down.
  • got interviewed for your dream job but didn’t get it.
  • wanted a daughter after two sons and found out you’re pregnant with a third boy.
  • had an election not go your way.

Here are some tips for coping with these types of disappointments.

1. Does it feel like an emergency? Is it an emergency?

When we lose a dream, it can feel like an emergency; it’s like there are police sirens blaring and flashing in our minds. It's helpful to ask yourself, “Has anything changed about my day today compared to yesterday?”

In most cases, losing a dream relates to what you hope or fear will happen in the future, but your day-to-day reality doesn’t change immediately. Use that breathing space. Do today whatever you liked to do yesterday. Hug your children. Go for a walk in the 1 pm sunshine. Sip your coffee, watch the show you’re bingeing on Netflix, take your kid to the playground or dog to the dog run, change your sheets. By enjoying normal things you help your brain and body understand that your situation isn’t the same as being in a building that’s on fire. You’ll calm down a little, and your heart rate and blood pressure will ease off. (Here are two detailed posts — here and here — to help you implement this tip and give you specific ideas.)

2. When one door closes, another one opens.

People who cope expertly with stress and life’s uncertainty don’t just survive it; they thrive. Thriving is often about making use of specifically what the closing of a door breaks open for you. For example, in coronavirus times, it might be moving from a big city. Use the push to do something that you weren’t as motivated to do under the other circumstance. When a door closes, what opportunities open in your mind? For example, if living in the U.S. not suiting you? Then maybe make that international move. Others have done it, even if most people only think about it. 

In terms of politics, perhaps you were hoping to elect federal officials who would do X, Y, Z. If that didn’t work out, what’s Plan B? If federal officials aren’t going to do it, your leftover option is to start in your own community. For example, perhaps your number-one issue is that you want to see a prevention-focused health care system. If you were hoping someone else would do what you really want, and that’s off the table, now it’s up to you. Can you imagine if everyone who wanted that did it in a small way? 

3. Don’t over-attach yourself to one way of solving a problem or satisfying your emotional needs.

The full Alexander Graham Bell quote I mentioned is “When one door closes, another one opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the ones which open for us." When something doesn’t go your way, you can’t fixate on the lost opportunity. Well, you can, but it won’t get you very far. You need to think more broadly about why the dream was meaningful to you. When you do, you’ll see other ways to meet the (emotional or other) needs you were attempting to meet. (To better understand human needs on a deep level, see psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman's book, Transcend. )

4. What unique resources do you have?

Generic answers about how to thrive under extreme stress sound hokey because they don’t tap into the unique resources each person has. Some people have ample material resources — e.g., they can easily pick up and move rather than being stuck in a small apartment during coronavirus. Other people have different kinds of resources. What are your unique skills, relationships, talents, drives, quirky ways of looking at the world, etc.? Whatever they are, that will be what you will use to thrive under extreme stress and recover from life's knocks to the teeth.

5. Allow yourself enough recovery.

Sometimes people think, “I’ll mooch for a week after a disappointment, then spring into action.” That’s OK, but another approach is to observe how your needs for emotional recovery ebb and flow. There might be moments when you need a good cry. There will be others when you need to lighten the mood with some humor. And yet other moments when throwing yourself into something else important to you feels better. You can listen to these ebbs and flows, and alternate.