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Why the Fear of Disappointment Is Detrimental to Your Life

Three ways to stop disappointment from holding you back from what you want.

Key points

  • Some people would rather sacrifice their hopes, dreams, and desires rather than feel the sting of disappointment.
  • One's definition of disappointment determines how strongly one experiences it.
  • One way to reframe feelings of disappointment is to not globalize it to one's entire life.

In 2015, I gave a TEDx talk on why people don’t get what they want in life, explaining that in general, people have a default tendency to act based on what they expect, not what they want. What someone expects is often very different from what they want. For example, everyone wants to win the lottery, but few people buy lottery tickets because they don’t expect to win. The fix: Consciously choose actions based on what you want.

Since then, thousands of people have written, telling me that what holds them back most is the fear of disappointment. The fear of disappointment is an expectation that you will not get what you want. If your actions align with this expectation and you decide to do nothing toward achieving what you want because you don’t believe you will actually get it, then you will create the self-fulfilling prophecy of not getting what you want. For many people, however, not getting what they want is preferable to trying and being disappointed.

Why is disappointment such a powerful negative emotion that people would rather sacrifice their hopes, dreams, and desires than feel its sting? The answer lies in the meaning that you give to disappointment. The reality is, not getting what you want never feels good to anyone, however, the intensity to which you feel the emotion of disappointment can be exponentially magnified by your interpretation of it. To prevent the fear of disappointment from paralyzing you, below are a few ways to help re-define your meaning of disappointment.

1. Don’t globalize disappointment.

If you globalize the disappointment in one situation to your entire life, then disappointment is going to cause a tremendous amount of pain. Globalizing sounds like this: If I don’t get what I want this time, it means I will never get what I want. If a relationship you have doesn’t work out and you believe that you will never have a relationship as great as the one you just lost, and you will have to suffer miserably on your own for the rest of your life, then the disappointment of that relationship not working out is going to feel monumental.

Instead, remind yourself that just because it didn’t work out this time doesn’t mean the future won’t be different. While some people like to say the past is the best predictor of the future, the reality is, the best predictor of the future is what you decide to do. To quote Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” The only way that a situation from your past has any influence over your future is if you allow it to prevent you from acting on the future you want. If you decide that because your past relationship didn’t work out that you will never go on another date for the rest of your life, then you are allowing the past to limit you. But that is something that you can control. You are the only person who determines what actions you will take in the future.

2. Don’t personalize disappointment.

Another common way to make disappointment feel bigger than it deserves to be is if you personalize the situation. Personalization sounds like this: If I don’t get what I want it means I am not good enough and don’t deserve it. When you overly personalize a disappointment, you make it about who you are as a person and do not take into account the many situational factors that had nothing to do with you. If you apply for a job but don’t receive an interview, there were likely many qualified applicants for the position, or maybe they had already hired someone before the job was even listed. If a relationship you were in doesn’t work out it is possible the other person had commitment issues or wasn’t over a past relationship. The point here is there are always situational factors that influence any event. Additionally, whether or not a situation works out the way you want it to says nothing about your worthiness then or in the future. While there may be some things you did contribute to influence a situation in one way or another, what is important to realize is that it was one event and events are what we experience they are not who we are.

3. Learn from the disappointment.

Success is often built on failure. Some of the most successful people in the world weren’t successful until they encountered multiple failures first.

  • Michael Jordan did not make his high school basketball team. He was later named the greatest athlete of the 20th-century by ESPN.
  • Steven Spielberg was rejected by the University of Southern California film school three times.
  • The Beatles were rejected by three different record companies before they were signed.
  • The book Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected by publishers a total of 123 times. The series now has 65 different titles and has sold more than 80 million copies all over the world.
  • There are thousands more stories just like these.

What helped these people become successful was that they didn’t allow the disappointment of rejection to keep them from trying again, and most importantly they learned from every attempt they made how to improve and what they could do differently the next time. The truth is sometimes we aren’t yet ready for what we want, but the process of trying can help you get ready if you allow it to. Sometimes you need the bad relationships to teach you how to have a good relationship. If you don’t take disappointments as obstacles but rather as opportunities to learn, you empower yourself to grow.