Expectation, Disappointment, and Sadness
Disappointment can be profound.
Posted Nov 20, 2011
In a previous post, I wrote about the concept of "sad love." But the emotion of sadness can be felt in many other situations as well, and it is particularly profound in the experience of disappointment.
First, let's consider sadness in general. When sadness is triggered, a heavy emptiness or longing is felt because your brain's appraisal system has determined that you have experienced a lasting loss. You may want to have someone or something that is unattainable or to bring back what was lost, even if what caused your sadness has to do with finally recognizing something that you had subsequently denied.
Sadness is a painful emotion of disconnection from someone or something that you value or had wanted to value. It differs qualitatively and temporally from grief, which may have a greater impact on your perception of the world and is longer lasting.
Sadness helps you to remember, rather than forget, what it is or was that you desired. It promotes personal reflection following a loss that is important to you and turns your attention inward in a way that can promote resignation and acceptance (Lazarus, 1991). Thus, the emotion of sadness attempts to assist you by giving you an opportunity to consider the impact of your loss and the necessity of revising your objectives and strategies for the future.
One study found that sadness tends to decrease one's confidence in first impressions (Schwartz, 1990). Another found that the experience of sadness leads one to struggle with the painful, existential question of "Who am I?" (Henretty, Levitt, & Mathews, 2008).
If sadness can help you to remember and accept reality, achieve insight that can realign your goals, alert you to be cautious before making decisions, and create an opportunity for you to observe yourself, then perhaps its adaptive purpose is evident: Like all emotions, sadness, in spite of how it makes you feel, is simply trying to protect you.
Disappointment is a profound way in which sadness is experienced. People seem to do whatever they can to avoid recognizing that they are disappointed and will twist their thinking every which way to not recognize a true disappointment.
You may be disappointed in a parent, your child, your spouse, a lover, an employer or job, an event, or in yourself. In any case, disappointment is the experience of sadness involving unfulfilled hopes or expectations. When you consider what might have been, in contrast to what exists in the present, you may experience disappointment.
In my psychotherapy practice, I have found that people avoid disappointment far more than many other emotional experiences. Disappointment comes with finality--the recognition that you don't have, didn't get, or will never achieve whatever it is that you wanted.
You might experience being angry with a parent, spouse, relative, employer, or friend, and that is far easier to feel than your disappointment in the relationship. Disappointment forces you to admit that you did not get what you wished to have, and it is actually easier for you to protest with anger than it is to encounter your sadness about the course of events.
In an obstinate way, anger will allow you to continue idealizing what could have been while consciously denigrating it, and you will hang onto it only because it's what you needed at the time. Disappointment accepts reality.
There is one more aspect of the sadness triggered with disappointment that is worthy of mention. Usually, it is assumed that people who value happiness are able to hold on to positive feelings and may be resilient, if not immune, to the negative effects of disappointing experiences. But this may not always be the case, according to the findings of a recent study.
Under certain circumstances, valuing happiness may be self-defeating and result in disappointment, depending upon how people evaluate their progress toward that goal (Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, & Savino, 2011). The researchers found that valuing happiness can set people up for disappointment, especially if they compare themselves to an ideal.
So perhaps the way in which to foster resilience is to construct realistic appraisals of what you need, avoid idealizing what could be, and come to terms with what you have.
For more information, see my books about emotions.
This post is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.
Henretty, J., Levitt, H. & Mathews, S. (2008). Clients' experiences of moments of sadness in psychotherapy: A grounded theory analysis. Psychotherapy Research, 18(3), 243-255.
Lazarus, R.S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.
Mauss, I.B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C.L., & Savino, N.S. (2011) Can seeking happiness make people happy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4), 808-815.
Schwarz, N. (1990). Feelings as information: Informational and motivational functions of affective states. In E.T. Higgins & R.M. Sorrentino (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition: Foundations of social behavior: Vol. II (pp. 527-561). New York: Guilford Press.