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Coping with Disappointment

When someone you look up to lets you down

Roberta* was devastated when she learned that her father, who she adored, had been having an affair for a number of years while he was still married to her mother. “How could he?” she demanded over and over again. “It goes against all of the values he taught us.”

At first she cried every time she thought about what she saw as his betrayal. Then she began to get angry. “He’s a liar, a fraud,” she said bitterly. “He’s not the man he made himself out to be.”

Disappointment is part of life. According to Heinz Kohut, it is also necessary for human development. If we aren’t disappointed, we often don’t have motivation to grow. Another psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott, said that if parents were perfect, children would never want anything and never try to do anything new.

But to promote growth, disappointment needs to be experienced, at least at first, in small, manageable doses. Kohut believed that manageable or “optimal” disappointments and frustrations in childhood help us develop the capacity to deal with the more painful disappointments we all encounter throughout life. In other words, tolerable disappointments experienced when we are young, while our parents are there to help us cope with them, build psychological “muscles” and skills for coping with these feelings.

This doesn’t mean that parents should look for ways to disappoint their children. But it does mean that rather than trying to protect them from all unhappiness, we should consider the normal, small and tolerable frustrations and dissatisfactions that go into a young life – for example not being able to find a favorite toy, not being able to buy candy at the grocery store, having to stay with a babysitter for a few hours, and even having to share with a sibling – to be part of the process of building coping skills.

But what happens when the pain feels like too much for a youngster to tolerate? Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that the more we love someone (or something), the more deeply we feel disappointed in them. Kohut also believed that painful disillusionment reflects intense love and admiration for another person. As a result, he suggested, in both small and large disappointments, the process of repairing the rupture with the admired and/or loved one can build healthy coping skills and better relationships. When the person who causes the distress can recognize the impact the situation and their behavior have had on others, and can genuinely acknowledge empathy for them, the pain often gets better. When the person can also take responsibility for his or her actions, and can offer – or even try to offer – some sort of explanation for their behavior, that can help as well.

This process can be complicated, but several steps can help when someone has disappointed you.

  1. Talk about it. Bringing the pain to the surface may seem to make things worse at first, but keeping it buried deep inside often causes it to fester. Talking to friends, relatives, or a professional can help you process the feelings.
  2. Remember that there is always more than one side to a story. Try to get more information before taking any action or making any decisions about responding to a situation.
  3. Put yourself in the other person’s place. Even if you believe it, try not to say, “I would never do that.” You might, if you were in the exact same position.
  4. Be kind to yourself. Anger, which may be your primary feeling, is often a reaction to hurt. Try to acknowledge how badly hurt you feel; and try to soothe your pain gently and kindly.
  5. Talking to the person who has disappointed you, if possible, can be helpful; but sometimes it can make things worse. So be clear about what you hope to accomplish in the discussion. Attacking them will probably not help. A mutually revealing conversation might. Trying to engage in a realistic discussion of what they have done and why it has upset you, may be useful. Trying to help them also explain their point of view can also be healing.

The first time Roberta tried to speak to her father, all she could do was yell at him. She demanded that he tell her that he was a bad man, and that he explain himself to her. “How could you hurt Mom like this?” she shouted over and over. His eyes filled with tears, but he just stood and listened to her. When he did not defend himself or agree that he was a bad person, as she was demanding that he do, she left the house and refused to speak to him for months.

One day he left a message on her home answering machine when he knew she would be at work. “I just want to tell you that I’m sorry,” he said. “I am so sorry that I hurt you, and that I hurt your mother. I cannot explain what I did, but I want you to know that I love you and will always love you. I hope that you will eventually be able to love me again.”

Roberta’s husband heard the message before she did, and told her about it. Her first impulse was to erase it, but he stopped her. “What he did was wrong,” he said, “but we don’t know what all was going on for him. We do know that he still loves you, and he probably needs you right now. You don’t need to condone his behavior – in fact, you shouldn’t. And you don’t even need to forgive him. But can you let him know that you still love him, even though he has disappointed you so deeply?”

Roberta thought long and hard about it, and finally agreed to speak with her father. She told him that she would not be able to trust him completely for a very long time; but that she still loved him. And although she continued to feel angry and disappointed in his behavior, she no longer felt devastated by it.

One of the keys to coping with disappointment in others, I think, is this: we are all human, and humans are by definition imperfect beings. We all, every one of us, disappoints someone at some time or another. Recognizing this fact of human experience can help us deal with the pain of disillusionment when it comes, as it inevitably must, and to deepen our capacity to love and connect with our flawed fellow creatures.

There are, of course, other issues that have to be addressed – such as whether or not the other person (like Roberta’s dad) has or will stop the hurtful behavior, is going to get help, is going to make reparation, and so on. These and other questions will be the topic of my next post, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these issues even before it goes up.

*names and identifying information changed to protect confidentiality

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