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6 Strategies for Managing Disappointments

How to navigate the aftereffects of rejection.

Key points

  • Taking time to remember the specific reasons for our pursuits provides a valuable perspective on disappointing outcomes.
  • Acknowledging our feelings of disappointment, however painful, reduces the initial sting while preparing us to continue taking healthy chances.
  • Evaluating the discrepancy between expectations and outcomes can reveal alternative approaches to achieving our goals.
Tim Samuel/Pexels
Source: Tim Samuel/Pexels

When outcomes don’t live up to our expectations, when our hopes are rejected, we feel disappointment—a distinctive combination of frustration, sadness, loss, and anger that can have ramifications for future behavior.

We can feel disappointment over a range of outcomes—large, small, and in between. The greater the disparity between outcomes and expectations, the greater the disappointment. Managing our disappointments helps us in the short term by tempering the initial sting of an unpleasant outcome. And it helps in the long run by showing that avoiding disappointment shouldn’t deter us from seeking change and opportunity.

Here are six strategies for managing disappointment.

1. Remembering Why We Took the Chance in the First Place

After a disappointment, it’s useful to set aside the outcome for a moment and recall the reasons and motivations for our efforts. Most of us concentrate on getting through the present, so afterward, it takes effort to remember what led to our actions. Outcomes often obscure the primary influences.

By placing ourselves back in time and recreating the original context, we can better understand our initial choices. In that way, we can accurately evaluate our reasons and motivations without the influence of hindsight bias.

2. Acknowledging Our Feelings

We really did want the job, and the rejection was unpleasant. We shouldn’t dwell on the outcome, but we also shouldn’t engage in premature positivity. Accepting the emotion of disappointment, however painful, allows us to understand our disappointment more fully.

This understanding then removes the power of disappointment and diminishes its future influence, opening us up to a wider spectrum of opportunities later. If we know how disappointment feels, it’s not as ominous when deciding about future endeavors. Moreover, recognizing our disappointment makes us more self-aware in general.

3. Evaluating Our Expectations

Were our expectations realistic? Depending on our answer, we may change our approach or our expectations. In Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett wrote, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Although Beckett didn’t intend inspiration, his words can be interpreted that way. And they can also be augmented. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Try again differently, possibly succeed.

We may also consider making the same effort while lowering our expectations of success, thereby reducing disappointment if the outcome is the same. We shouldn’t repeat this strategy too often, but sometimes it’s useful to take the attitude that it couldn’t hurt, so it’s worth trying again.

If people say, “I am so disappointed in you,” that disappointment is also an interaction between expectations and outcomes efforts. Were their expectations reasonable?

Yon Kukov/Pexels
Source: Yon Kukov/Pexels

4. Limiting Extrapolation

Having one proposal rejected doesn’t mean the next one will be. Being turned down from one graduate program–or five–doesn’t mean we should quit applying. Even after an entire round of rejections, we can talk to professors and other students to get feedback. And with this new knowledge, we may apply to different programs or change our approach the following year. Similarly, do not interpolate. A disappointing outcome does not make a person a disappointment.

5. Reframing the Events

After a disappointing outcome, we can focus on finding a benefit. This reframing is neither denial nor bland positivism. (“It was meant to be.") It’s a sound and specific reinterpretation. If an ambitious proposal is turned down, we can appreciate the extra time available for other desirable activities.

More broadly, disappointment teaches us that we can overcome disappointment, boosting resilience.

Reframing larger disappointments can allow us to devote energy to new opportunities. Reframing small disappointments in our daily lives can lead to immediate improvements with long-term benefits. Admittedly, this is a minor event, but I went bowling with a friend whose superior athleticism was tangible, astonishing, and unbeatable. Instead of trying to win, I took the opportunity to practice different methods for spinning the ball. I lost spectacularly, but I improved my game.

Viewing such small losses as disappointments dilutes the power of labeling an outcome as disappointing—for larger events.

6. Considering Probabilities

Apply the laws of probability, the most dependable laws on Earth. The sun will come up tomorrow morning, but chances are we won’t see a rainbow. If we engage in behavior where success is unlikely (such as sending unsolicited manuscripts to The New Yorker for publication), we will most likely be rejected. We can choose to continue with the difficult opportunity and lower our expectations of success, thereby decreasing disappointment. Or we can maintain our expectations and try a more likely endeavor, such as submitting to a local publication or an online platform that encourages new writers.

On the flip side, if we were really expecting a favorable outcome and thought we had it, the laws of probability also tell us that unlikely events do happen once in a great while. The turkey that sees the farmer every day and gets food does not expect what will happen the day before Thanksgiving when the farmer approaches without food.

Our disappointments are not that dire—perhaps an unexpected loss of funding for a new position or the sudden reappearance of an old romantic partner of the person we are dating. But in these unlikely cases, we should always look back and acknowledge that the unusual and unlikely can occur.

We can manage disappointments and not allow them to dampen the liveliness of our lives.