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Dealing With Disappointment

Four questions to manage the gap between expectations and reality.

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We all deal with disappointment. Maybe it was an online flirtation that seemed to hold so much promise or a job interview that seemed to go really well—and then, in the end, things just didn’t work out as we expected, and we felt disappointment.

As an emotion, researchers describe disappointment as a form of sadness—a feeling of loss, an uncomfortable space (or a painful gap) between our expectations and reality.

When we believe that there’s something we must have to be happy and fulfilled, we can set ourselves up for disappointment. Though unpleasant, our experiences of disappointment provide valuable information about our beliefs about ourselves, other people, and what will make us truly happy.

Next time you feel disappointment, ask yourself these four questions to get back on track with understanding yourself and what you truly want.

1. What? We believe that only a certain thing can make us happy.

Exposure to media messages teaches us to associate happiness with certain things, like expensive objects, beautiful people, or important titles. So we can develop some pretty fixed ideas on what will make us happy, and eventually train our minds to believe that we’ll only be happy if we get those things. We mistakenly believe that it’s the thing that is going to make us happy, and when we don’t get it, we’re disappointed. Researchers have found that there’s no guarantee that if you get the things you want you’ll be happy—in fact, there’s quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. People’s satisfaction with things is very short-lived. Experiences in which we enjoy what’s happening in the moment have a much more lasting effect on our overall happiness. And the great benefit is that you can start enjoying the present moment anytime—and it’s free. Focus on how you want to feel in the moment, rather than how you believe you’ll feel once you get the thing you want so badly.

2. Who? We believe a certain person is the only one who can fulfill our desires.

A common misconception is believing that if we meet “the one,” then everything else in our lives will fall into place, and we’ll live happily ever after. We learn to associate a small number of positive personal attributes with many others: It’s called the halo effect. For instance, if we meet someone who’s tall and good looking, we’re more likely to believe that the person has a number of other positive qualities (like being rich, trustworthy, intelligent, and fun), but all we really know about the person is... they’re tall and good looking. We may be profoundly disappointed when that person on whom we pinned our hopes on doesn’t meet our expectations.

The key is knowing how you want to feel in relationships and to focus on that instead of how you think the other person should be. You may want to feel at ease, interested, and engaged. So instead of thinking, “They should be interested in me and engaging me and making me laugh,” think about being interesting, engaging, and in good humor yourself. It’s a simple shift in intention that can save a social encounter from the clutches of disappointment. And it may help you approach the situation as one that helps you get clarity on what you want in a relationship, instead of what the other person should or should not be doing for you.

3. When? We set a time limit for how long it will take to get what we want.

Our expectations about when things should happen are influenced by social norms. There are unspoken rules for how long it’s supposed to take to achieve a certain career goal or relationship status. So we put our goals on a timeline. We often gauge our success based on how well our peers are doing; this is called social comparison. We compare ourselves with those who have the same goals and are similar in age and background. Social media can fuel such comparisons: It's difficult to remain unaware of our friends’ successes. (But it’s important to remember that very few people post updates to let everyone know that they haven’t reached their goals!) If we don’t meet these deadlines, and we watch others reach their goals quicker, we can become disappointed—what’s more, we can become discouraged and give up. It’s important to remember that these time limits are self-imposed, somewhat arbitrary, and often unrealistic.

The key again is remembering how you want to feel—it’s unrealistic to think that if you’re suffering along every step of the way toward your goal that you’re going to be in a state of bliss once you finally achieve it. A better indicator of a satisfying outcome (whenever it occurs) is how you feel along the way. If you enjoy the process, you’ll be less focused on how long it takes to get there.

4. How? We have fixed ideas about how it’s all going to come together.

Perhaps the most difficult expectation to relinquish is how. Once we have a desire, we often immediately began to think of ways to go after it. If we can’t think of a good way to get what we want, we may simply give up on the spot—and feel disappointed. Or, we may develop elaborate schemes for how to get what we want, which usually involve other people following a script that we have written for them and/or having a series of events unfold in a particular way. When life doesn’t go according to our plan, we may interpret it to mean that we can’t have what we want, and we can feel disappointed.

In this case, it’s important to distinguish between the means and ends—that is, remembering that what we need to do to get what we want may be different from the end result. Abraham Maslow identified one characteristic of self-actualized people as an uncanny ability to distinguish between means and ends. They’re able to keep an eye on what they truly want and at the same time stay open to various ways that it can come about. Consider that there are many ways of reaching your goals and getting what you want in life that you may not be aware of yet. Remember the quote by Rumi: “What you’re seeking is seeking you.” Consider being open to yet unknown possibilities.

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Going Deeper

Being open to possibilities takes practice, particularly when you’re navigating the uncertainties of going after something new that you really care about. Having a regular meditation practice—a time to sit with ourselves and let go of striving toward our goals—can help build tolerance for feeling our emotions and create openness for new possibilities. Try sitting for 10 minutes with the intention of letting go of your expectations about something you’re trying to create in your life. Simply observe how your mind reflexively searches for reasons, plans, and schemes of action. As these thoughts arise, intentionally (and gently) let go of them, and simply allow yourself to be without needing to do or get anything. After 10 minutes of letting go of expectations, you might feel refreshed and may be able to see things differently.

Copyright Tara Well, 2017, all rights reserved.

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Aspinwall, L. G.; Taylor, S. E. (1993). Effects of Social Comparison Direction, Threat, and Self-Esteem on Affect, Self-Evaluation, and Expected Success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 708–722.

Gilovich, T., Kumar, A.; Jampol, L. (2014). A wonderful life: Experiential Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 1, 152-165.

Maslow, A. H. (1970). Motivation and Personality. Harper

Nisbett, R. E.; Wilson, T.D. (1977). The Halo Effect: Evidence for Unconscious Alteration of Judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 250–56.

Well, T. (2017). Are You Sure? Four Strategies to Deal with Uncertainty and Self-Doubt. Psychology Today.

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