Disappointment Hurts. What Can You Do About It?

Research helps explain what you can do to lessen the impact of disappointment.

Posted Apr 13, 2018

Air Images/Shutterstock
Source: Air Images/Shutterstock

Margaret* was shopping for a dress for a special occasion. “I just can’t decide,” she said. “I try to imagine myself in each dress, and I’m not sure whether or not it will make me feel comfortable and attractive at the same time. Maybe I’m asking for too much from a dress, but I don’t want to get to the occasion and feel like I’ve made the wrong choice.”

Gary* thought he was in love: “But I don’t want to move too fast. What if it doesn’t last? What if I’m wrong about what I’m feeling — or it doesn’t work out?” He was afraid to make the decision to move forward in the relationship, because he was afraid of being disappointed.

Studies tell us that many of us fear disappointment so much that we actually change our behavior just so we won’t have to feel it.

What makes disappointment so painful? Why are we so afraid of it? And what can you do to be less afraid of the feeling, so that you can make decisions based on something more important than avoiding a negative emotion?

The answers are pretty straightforward: Disappointment is, in and of itself, a painful or sad feeling that happens when something disrupts our positive feelings and hopeful expectations. According to Patricia DeYoung, who recently published a book about chronic shame, the disruption caused by disappointment may bring feelings of shame along with it. And shame, DeYoung tells us, makes us feel bad about ourselves. We think that somehow we are at fault — either for causing a disruption or even for having had high hopes in the first place.

In my book on women’s friendships, I write about the psychological phenomenon of “optimal disappointment,” in which normal and manageable experiences of disappointment in childhood help us build the “feeling muscles” to tolerate and even grow from manageable distress. Parents who understand that disappointment is simply part of life can help children cope with age-appropriate letdowns and the sad and angry feelings that go along with those moments. When these feelings are acknowledged, the child is then helped to make the best of the situation and move on — and maybe even grow from the letdown. Children can learn not to be afraid of disappointment. When parents themselves are afraid of these feelings, however, they may try to shield children from all possible setbacks and losses, even those that are age-appropriate and manageable. And then children learn to fear these feelings as well — without developing the psychological and emotional know-how to handle the inevitable obstacles of every life.

Similarly, according to another study, ongoing feelings of entitlement can lead to painful and repeated disappointment. According to Joshua Grubbs, the primary author of a study from Case Western Reserve, "At extreme levels, entitlement is a toxic narcissistic trait, repeatedly exposing people to the risk of feeling frustrated, unhappy, and disappointed with life."

There are other reasons that we fear disappointment as adults. Perhaps you have experienced a traumatic letdown in your life, or a series of painful moments of hopeful expectations dashed for one reason or another. Of course you are going to be afraid that another disappointment will create similar feelings of distress and unhappiness. That is not only normal; it’s even a sign of health. Our feelings help keep us from repeating bad and painful experiences, so your fear of disappointment is trying to do exactly that — keep you from feeling traumatic pain.

But, of course, not all disappointment is traumatic. And in order to start being less afraid of disappointment and better able to make decisions, you have to teach yourself that future disappointments do not need to be as painful or as upsetting as past ones might have been.  

davinci / 123RF Stock Photo
Source: davinci / 123RF Stock Photo

How can you do that? One way is to follow a simple and extremely modified version of something called “exposure therapy,” in which you are gradually exposed to small amounts of a situation or experience that causes you anxiety. In this variation, you put yourself in tiny, insignificant situations in which you have to make a decision that might disappoint you.

For instance, go to a new coffee shop to get your morning coffee. Allow yourself a reasonable amount of time to choose and order your coffee. Pay attention to your hopes and expectations: Are you hoping that you will have the best coffee experience of your life? Or are you assuming that the coffee will be terrible? When the coffee arrives, pay attention to your reaction. Do you hate it immediately? Are you pleasantly surprised? Do you decide it’s the best coffee in town?

Whatever your reaction, try to discuss it with yourself as though you are talking to a young child struggling to deal with his or her expectations and reactions. Remind yourself that it’s okay to be upset if you don’t like it, and to be excited if you do like it. But also remind yourself that you will have other moments like this, and that they do not have to be terribly significant in your life. They do not reflect on whether or not you are a good person, nor do they tell you how the rest of your day, week, or life is going to go.

What you are practicing is regulating your feelings in moments of disappointment and pleasure. And the more you can do it in small, optimal moments, the easier it will be to do it in bigger, less optimal situations.

Over time, with more practice, disappointment will not be such a looming problem. And decisions that you have avoided because you were afraid of being disappointed will gradually become easier.


*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy


Joshua B. Grubbs, Julie J. Exline. Trait Entitlement: A Cognitive-Personality Source of Vulnerability to Psychological Distress.. Psychological Bulletin, 2016; DOI: 10.1037/bul0000063

The Impact of Disappointment in Decision Making: Inter-Individual Differences and Electrical Neuroimaging. Hélène Tzieropoulos, Rolando Grave de Peralta, Peter Bossaerts, Sara L. Gonzalez Andino. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2010; 4: 235. Published online 2011 Jan 6. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2010.00235

Patricia deYoung. Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational/Neurobiological Approach. Routledge, 2015.

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