Disappointed? Disillusioned? 8 Ways to Deal With a Letdown

Feeling letdown is normal. What you do next is all-important.

Posted Mar 28, 2015

Have any of these happened to you?

  • You start a new job and love everything about it – your terrific boss, your fabulous co-workers and your first assignment. Even your little cubicle is in the perfect location, with a bit of sunlight from a nearby window and near all of the right people. And then, sometimes all of a sudden, sometimes just bit-by-bit, you start to feel less excited. Maybe you even start to dread going to work. 
  • You meet a special person – a boyfriend or girlfriend, or even a new friend or roommate. You love being with them and can imagine spending the rest of your life together. Everything about them and with them seems…well, special. And then, you start to notice that they don’t do everything exactly the way you wish they would. Maybe your roommate leaves the dishes in the sink one time too many; or you realize that your new love tends to wear the same shirt too many days in a row. Or maybe he doesn’t listen to you, or she talks too much… how did you never notice that before?
  • You put a deposit on a rental or a down payment on a purchase – an apartment, a house, a car – that you’ve been dreaming of forever. You are so excited! And then, somehow, you start to notice all of the downside. The apartment is in a noisy neighborhood. The house doesn’t have a proper entryway. The car is smaller than you thought.

You feel let down. And then you start to wonder: How did you miss these flaws in the first place? How did this happen? And what do you do now?

So let’s talk about that letdown. What is it? Why does it happen? Does the letdown have to take away all of your good feelings?

First of all, it’s important to know that idealization and disillusionment are normal. A sense of everything being special is how we get ourselves into new situations. It’s also a reaction to the flow of natural chemicals, like endorphins, through our bodies that occurs when we get excited about something. The “high” feeling colors our view of what we see, makes things look maybe better than they would look otherwise, and by doing so, gets us to take those early steps towards development.

And then reality steps in. Eventually, the high wears off, the endorphins and other “feel good” chemicals stop surging through our bodies, and we start to look at things more realistically. As the good feelings dissipate, we start to feel a physical letdown as well as a psychological one.  “Meh” replaces “Wow!”

Performers are so familiar with this feeling that they’ve given it a name: “post performance depression.” First, during a performance, there’s the excitement of preparing, working hard, enjoying the audience reaction, and being part of a close-knit group of colleagues working together towards the same goal. There’s a physiological part to all of this hard work, too. The body is releasing not only stress hormones, but also neurotransmitters and endorphins that are related to an improved mood and state of mind.

And then it’s over and the excitement, hard work, and even the moments of frustration and depletion are done. The letdown is both psychological and physical. The body stops producing all of those delicious chemicals that bathe our brains in good feelings. Dancers, singers, actors, writers all suffer from the loss of the intensity – even of something that was clearly never perfect!  

So how do you cope with this shift in your own life? It’s an important question, because how we manage this change in our feelings can make the difference between success and failure, happiness and misery, and a good life and a disenchanted one. 

Here are four important ideas to keep in mind when you feel that letdown:

First, it’s normal.

Second, it’s not your fault.

Third, it’s not the other person’s fault.

And fourth, the feelings will pass.

But you probably do have to go through the feelings before you can get to the other side. The question is, what can you do to make the feelings more tolerable? What can you do to help them pass?

Let’s start with the excitement first, and then we’ll talk about the letdown.

  1. It is completely normal to start on any new ventures with high hopes, high expectations and a sense of pleasure about what we have already seen. If we didn’t feel that way, we wouldn’t start anything new. Of course some of us, disillusioned one too many times, squash those feelings before they take flight. These are folks who look at any new venture and find all of the faults. And if this describes you, you may actually (although sometimes unconsciously) be trying to prepare for the eventual letdown that is bound to come.
  2. Idealization and disillusionment are both normal parts of human experience. (I talk about this in my posts on “Disappointing Dads” and “Coping with Disappointment"). The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut points out that we need to have small, manageable experiences of idealization and disillusionment throughout childhood in order to manage the realities of life. According to him, idealization of both ourselves and other people helps us develop a sense of safety in the world, as well as a sense of our own capacities.
  3. Small, manageable disappointments starting early in childhood help us learn to be more realistic. Each time we feel let down by our loved ones or by our own failures, we build the muscles we need to cope with the inevitable disappointments that will come to us throughout life.  
  4. The key word here is “manageable.” Too much or too little disappointment in childhood makes it hard for us to develop a more realistic view of ourselves, and we are susceptible to feeling let down over and over again as we mature. But with what another psychoanalyst, Howard Bacal, calls “optimal disillusionment” – that is, enough to hurt, but not so much that we are overwhelmed – we gradually develop a mature, relatively accurate view of ourselves and of others.
  5. As we get older, even the healthiest person can have unrealistic expectations. You may have gotten so excited about your new job that you can’t see any of the flaws – at least at first. I felt that way about my first job in a large psychiatric hospital. Everything about the hospital was painted with the glow of my excitement. I loved my supervisor, my clients, my colleagues, my office – even the hospital’s cafeteria seemed impossibly perfect to me. And of course it was – impossibly incredible. I gradually began to see flaws where once I had seen perfection. I was lucky. The let down was gentle. I never stopped enjoying the work or appreciating the organization I worked for. But it often happens differently.
  6. Don’t take it literally. If you have been feeling let down at work, or after a big presentation, or because your wedding is – after all that planning – over, remember – what you are feeling is completely normal. It does not mean that you did something wrong, that you are a failure, or that you have chosen the wrong person to marry!
  7. Appreciate what you did. Take stock, realistically evaluate what happened, and enjoy the pleasures of the experience. Did you really knock their socks off at the big presentation? Enjoy remembering the look on your boss’s face! Was the wedding wonderful? Look at the photos and reminisce, alone, with your honey, or with your best friend or your mom! Did you actually get that award? Frame it, or put in in a place of honor where it will remind you of what you accomplished!
  8. Move on – make plans for future adventures, achievements, and activities. Sometimes you can’t make plans until you have allowed yourself some downtime. That’s fine. Sit with the low feelings. But do something nurturing for yourself at the same time. Watch an old favorite movie. Read an old favorite book. Comfort yourself. And wait until the right moment, then start thinking about what’s next. Do you want to start a new writing project? Do you and your new spouse want to learn to cook together? What can you do to celebrate the past, enjoy the present, and plan for the future?   

Because here’s the thing: After any exciting moment, there has to be a let down. Physiologically, psychologically, and emotionally, we are not built to be “up” all the time. The hormones that bring us up will dissipate and we will come “down.”  The real trick to managing the experience is to know that the opposite is true as well. In most cases, (unless you are suffering from a serious, chronic and unremitting depression or physical illness, and even, sometimes, in such cases), your mood will eventually improve and you will be into the next “up” before you even realize it.  

Copyright fdbarth@2015

Teaser image source: iStock_000012480442