5 proven ways to deal with disappointment

March 5, 2021 - 15 min read

disappointed woman


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What is disappointment?

What are the causes of disappointment?

Is feeling disappointed good for you?

5 ways to deal with disappointment

In 2020, our collective mental health came under the microscope. Long periods of isolation exacerbated the loneliness already felt by many.

But something else, just as dire, flew under the radar:

The emotion of disappointment. 

In 2020 we canceled too many weddings. We deferred too many graduation parties. Too many birthday celebrations were virtual or drive-by. Too many holidays, like Thanksgiving, Rosh Hashanah, Christmas, Diwali, and so many more occasions were quiet, at-home affairs.

In other words, 2020 was a year marked by life’s disappointments. And if there’s one thing we were all challenged by, it was learning how to deal with disappointment, emerge from it, and build resilience in its wake

That’s what this article will teach you to do. 

Read on to learn about what disappointment is and the steps you can take to overcome life’s unmet expectations.  

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What is disappointment?

You may already know about the six basic human emotions: joy, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, and disgust.

In the 1980s, Robert Plutchik came along with his “Wheel of Emotions” theory, which added two more — eight essential emotions in pairs of opposites. 

His wheel included: 

  • Joy
  • Trust
  • Fear
  • Surprise
  • Sadness
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Anticipation

the wheel of emotion - how to deal with disappointment

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The wheel of emotions defines how human emotions cycle through each other and expand beyond these preliminary emotions into more refined or complex experiences. 

The results are emotional states like annoyance, boredom, aggressiveness, admiration, and awe.

Disappointment is one such offshoot — a complex emotion that stems from sadness. It’s what we feel when our expectations for the desired outcome are dashed. 

We all instantly recognize the feeling of being let down, the anger we might feel when something we thought we deserved didn’t happen, or the grief we experience when we miss out on an opportunity.  

That's the subjective experience of disappointment. 

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What are the causes of disappointment?

Disappointment, like many other emotions, has evolutionary roots. In other words, we need these complex emotions to survive and grow. 

There are three main causes of disappointments. 

The first is called the “arrival fallacy.” 

This unique experience of disappointment occurs when we’re so focused on attaining our goals, that we forgo the process. We over-extend ourselves, and we live with unhappiness every day, with the quiet promise that when we “arrive,” our destination makes the struggle worthwhile.

If you’re experiencing arrival fallacy, it’s because there is an internal misalignment. What you thought would bring you positive emotions turned out to be unfulfilling.

The second cause of disappointment comes from the expectations we have around external factors. 

When an unrealistic expectation doesn't match the circumstance, we don't want to accept what happened. 

And if we have high expectations around a situation or an outcome, we experience even more intense disappointment.

disappointment equations - how to deal with disappointment

The third source of disappointment comes from our experiences in childhood

If you experienced a traumatic event around a loss or a disappointment during your childhood, your psyche draws a negative conclusion about the circumstance. 

Positive thinking is not a habit you’re familiar with. 

When you mature into adulthood and face a situation similar to the traumatic event in childhood, your mind automatically replays the earlier experience of loss and disappointment. But it’s not an objective evaluation of the circumstances — it’s a subjective experience. 

The discouragement you experience can quickly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy — unless you learn how to deal with disappointment. And if you want to be a leader, or even just navigate professional life with satisfaction and happiness, you will have to learn to embrace and move through this feeling.

Is feeling disappointed good for you?

Yes. And no.

Not in the moment. But the actions you take after you experience disappointment can completely transform the eventual outcome and help you make better decisions

Disappointment is less useful as emotion and far more useful as a data point. Like failure, experiencing disappointment tells us that something was “off,” be that the circumstance, the process, or our expectations. 

In other words, it’s time to look for a different way. And the best place to do that is the place James Clear calls “The Valley of Disappointment.” If you persist with your actions in this valley, you can reach a breakthrough. 

Here’s how it works: 

  • We set a goal or outcome we desire.
  • We overestimate the good things that might happen when we first start a task leading to the realization of this goal.
  • Simultaneously, we underestimate the “negative” things that might also happen.
  • This is why the first part of any goal feels so treacherous — you’re living in the valley of disappointment.
  • But if we keep our expectations steady through time, the same things that disappointed us end up leading to a breakthrough.the valley of disappointment - how to deal with disappointment

Just give it enough time, and you’ll see — disappointment may be the most important thing in reaching your goals. Simply feeling disappointment tells you three important things:

1. It means you’re passionate about something

“Expectation is the root cause of all heartache,” or so the saying goes. But the very fact that your expectations missed the reality of the outcomes means that you were brave enough to show up for something. 

2. It’s an opportunity for growth

You can grow through disappointments, as long as you commit to get back up and try again. No matter what you thought you deserved, what happened is what you truly deserved. 

So, from this disappointment, you can start to align your expectations with reality. You can also tailor your decisions so that you avoid this particular kind of disappointment again. 

3. It can make you stronger

Disappointment that stems from childhood trauma can be debilitating. It can make us feel like we can’t try new things because we might fail. But it can also be the starting point to getting stronger and more resilient due to overcoming adversity. 

Researchers say the benefits of adversity include greater mental fortitude, increased emotional intelligence, clearer thinking, and a stronger stance against negative thinking.

5 ways to deal with disappointment

Those “perks” of disappointment — showing up for something, growing, and becoming stronger through adversity — occur when you know how to deal with disappointment. 

Follow this five-step plan for transforming disappointments into wins.

1. Let it out

Whether it's disappointment or anger, you need to feel it and let it out. A healthy way to do this is to confide in your friends, family, or even a therapist. You could channel this kind of tough emotion into a creative outlet, such as writing in a journal or do something physical like taking a long run.

The point is to feel whatever you’re feeling and allow it to pass.  

Research has shown that emotional suppression can hinder our personal growth. Without the ability to feel emotions and actively express them, you have trouble adapting to new and unfamiliar situations. 

2. Get perspective

Communication with friends and family about your disappointing situation can help bring some much-needed clarity. When you get an outside perspective other than your own, you can begin to see things for what they really are, rather than how you feel about them. 

3. Know your own heart

Of course, you have to balance that external validation with your own inner wisdom. 

The problem with emotions like disappointment is that it can completely derail our visions of ourselves. We can start to doubt. Our sense of self can become skewed when too many disappointments stack up. 

That’s why it’s so important to know your own core values and principles before you embark on any goal. Better yet, do yourself a favor and examine your “Why’s.” 

Keeping these “why’s” alive will help you get up and try again while keeping your self-worth intact.  

4. Practice self-acceptance

Once you’ve checked in with yourself and your supporters, it’s easier to accept where you are as the right starting point for a fresh start. 

Part of practicing self-acceptance is to continually root yourself in the "now." Eckhart Tolle calls this "the power of now" — a practice similar to meditation. Accepting the present moment allows you to acknowledge what is real. 

Like breath, disappointment comes and goes. So breathe into it and let it pass.

5. Don’t let it fester

The worst thing you can do is brood over negative experiences. 

Again, the variable here is time. You certainly don’t have to “bounce back” from a disappointment before you’ve done all the previous steps. 

winston churchill quote - how to deal with disappointment

(Image Source

But, once you’ve given yourself some time to come to terms with your circumstances, it’s time to begin again. Otherwise, disappointment could easily sour into negative thinking, resentment, and bitterness. 

Disappointments are an inevitable part of life. It might uplift you, as a silver lining often does, to know that disappointments mean you’re living life. And you may be exactly where you need to be, learning precisely what you need to grow. 

At BetterUp, we’re all about harnessing the power of a growth mindset to increase resilience and drive professional performance and personal development. 

Learn more about how BetterUp can help your organization transform outcomes using proven, people-focused coaching.

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Published March 5, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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