Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Power of Disappointment

Great disappointment can be a challenge to overcome yet lead to positive change.

Key points

  • Disappointment arises when there becomes a comparison between what is and what was desired.
  • Disappointments can cause one’s perceptions to shift when one wish they had made a better decision.
  • We have an opportunity to allow disappointment to serve us in an innovative way.

Dreams and aspirations are a natural yet risky part of life. When goals are met, positive emotions are experienced. There is a sense of relief, fulfillment, and achievement. Yet, even best-laid plans can go awry. In the darkness of such life events, when one hoped for fruits to bear based upon passion and labor, there is pain and sadness felt by not obtaining what is believed to have been earned. Despite persistently sowing, no harvest is reaped, which leaves past dreams lost. Disappointment is a natural human emotion when one finds oneself holding dreams that have not been actualized.

For some, past disappointments are challenging to overcome, impacting one’s life in a profound way, shaping behavior, and restricting positive emotions from being felt and displayed. Within the film Fences—directed by Denzel Washington—the Maxson family, comprised of husband, wife, and son, experience momentous disappointments that influence the trajectory of their independent and interconnected lives. Specifically, Denzel Washington’s portrayal of a middle-aged man’s struggle within the character Troy Maxson illustrates the impact disappointment can have and how these emotions can shape one’s global perspective.

Troy Maxson found that his life included past disappointments that permeated through his clear and drunken thoughts. He expressed, during many tirades, feeling that he had opportunities taken from him due to racism based upon being an African American man in the 1950s. Troy held fond memories of playing baseball, an activity that brought him pride. He additionally attributed this sport to rescuing him from a life of crime, and providing him hope for a different type of future. Troy’s accomplishments were substantial, possessing batting averages more impressive than the professional baseball players of his time. His character depicts well the notion that “disappointment does not just reflect that we are not always able to have what we need and desire; it refers also to not being able to be as good and special as we would like to be” (Bronstein, 2015). From Troy’s perspective, being employed as a professional baseball player was his exclusive opportunity to showcase his unique talents. In the absence of such recognition, Troy felt bereaved that his dream and extraordinary capabilities were discarded, similarly to the rubbage he collected on his employment route as a sanitation worker.

As a result of the emotional injury that Troy experienced from his unactualized dreams, he frequently reminisced on his past. The recollection he had of his sporting days frequented conversations with all whom held close relationships with him. His soured understanding of his lack of success remained an ever-present interloper within discussions. Troy’s cloaked disappointment offered shadows upon his global lived circumstances and experiences of not only his life, but of others (Chandler, 2010). Consequently, due to the lack of opportunity afforded to him in sports, he believed no one similar to him in race, and certainly not his son, would have a fair opportunity to achieve success. As a result, when his son, Corey (performed by Jovan Adepo), expressed interest in pursuing football to obtain a financial scholarship to matriculate university, he was met with Troy’s resistance suggesting that because he was of color his opportunities would also be thwarted.

Disappointments can cause one’s perceptions of self, others, and the world to shift, rooting one to ground in a reality that is rigid and has difficulty conceptualizing the world as otherwise (Bronstein, 2015). Particularly, Troy struggled to see changes in the world as suggested by his wife Rose­, acted by Viola Davis. When members of his family and community spoke of opportunities for African American youth, specifically in the realm of sports, Troy’s ability to conceive of a space where African Americans would be invited and encouraged to contribute their talents to professional teams was restricted. Under the influence of disappointment, Troy invested his emotional energies contending with the discrepancy of “What is” (I am a husband, sanitation worker, and not a professional baseball player) and “What might have been” (I might have been a successful baseball player); rather than attempt to remedy that what was once the realities of him and others, may no longer be the reality of the present day for him and for his son (Marcatto & Ferrante, 2008).

Individuals can find it difficult to say goodbye to past unfulfilled dreams and a chronic sense that life is unfair festers. Similarly to Troy’s experience, systems and faceless “others” begin to hold the responsibility for barren hopes in the absence of identifiable persons to blame. When the person cannot let go and move forward, ruminating on the pain caused by disappointment persistently occupy the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of the disappointed. However, we have an opportunity to shift the relationship we have with disappointment to allow it to serve us in an innovative way. In an effort to reduce feelings of disappointment, one may become resolved that some hopes are only aspirational rather than experienced (Chandler, 2010, p. 592). We can take action and attempt to understand our responsibility for the unsuccessful situation that led to the disappointment. Others utilize reframing to understand that disappointment “can fuel and promote development, helping us search for new experiences, new ideas, and new ways of communicating" (Bronstein, 2015, p. 1173).

Although in the film Fences, Troy found that his sporting efforts did not yield the success he had hoped, he continued to possess a desire to live in a just world and obtain what he believed he deserved. Troy recognized in his work environment individuals were not rewarded for their tenure as a consequence of race. Rather than continue to perform the same job duties until retirement, he became motivated to bring his concerns to the union. Though he could not turn back the hands of time and become a professional athlete, he could fight in his current work setting for a fair work environment. “Failure to achieve the end desired is consistent with continuing to strive to get what one wants. So frustrated desire is a kind of pain which can motivate the continued activity of trying to get” (Munoz-Darde, 2016. p. 780). Troy’s continued drive to advocate for change fostered his ability to utilize his past disappointments in a manner where he could exert himself and create change. At long last, Troy was successful in experiencing a victory, a moment where he could feel pride in himself and his efforts once more, be recognized and celebrated; and in turn, find a moment of inner peace.


Bronstein, C. (2015). The analyst’s disappointment: An everyday struggle. JAPA, 63(3), 1173–1192.

Chandler, J. (2010). Women and men as managers: The importance of disappointment. Gender, Work and Organization, 17(5), 590–611.

Munoz-Darde, V. (2016). Puzzles of regret. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, XCII (3), 778–784.

Marcatto, F. & Ferrante, D. (2008). The regret and disappointment scale: An instrument for assessing regret and disappointment in decision making. Judgment and Decision Making, 3(1), 87–99.

More from Katherine Marshall Woods Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today