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But something else, just as dire, flew under the radar:
The emotion of disappointment.
Over the past few years, we canceled too many weddings. We deferred too many graduation parties. Too many birthday celebrations with loved ones were virtual or drive-by. Too many holidays and many more occasions were quiet, at-home affairs.
In other words, the past few years have been marked by great disappointment. 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.
Read on to learn about what disappointment is and the steps you can take to overcome life’s unmet expectations.
What is disappointment?
First, let’s look at the definition of disappointment.
But how does this relate to our emotions in general?
You may already know about the six basic human emotions: joy, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, and disgust.
In the 1980s, Robert Plutchik presented his “Wheel of Emotions'' theory. This added two more emotions, making eight essential emotions in pairs of opposites.
His wheel included:
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 and 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 bitter disappointment.
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 achieving our goals that we forgo the process. We over-extend ourselves, and we live with unhappiness every day. All of this is for 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 actual circumstances, 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.
The third source of disappointment comes from our experiences in childhood.
You may have experienced a traumatic event around a loss or disappointment during your childhood. From this, 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 it. And if you want to be a leader, or even just navigate professional life with satisfaction and happiness, you will have to learn to regulate your emotions.
Is feeling disappointed good for you?
Yes. And no.
Not in the moment. But the actions you take after you experience major disappointment can completely transform the eventual outcome and help you make better decisions.
Disappointment is less useful as an emotion and far more useful as a data point. Like failure, experiencing disappointment tells us that something was “off.” Be it the circumstances, 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 attainment can feel 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.
Just give it enough time, and you’ll see — disappointment may be the most important thing in reaching your goals. Simply feeling disappointed 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
With the right mindset, you can grow through disappointments. As long as you commit to getting back up and trying 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
- 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 big disappointments into big wins.
1. Let it out
Whether it's disappointment or anger, you need to feel it and let it out. A healthy way to achieve emotional health is to confide in your friends, family, or even a therapist. You could also channel this kind of tough emotion into a creative outlet. Try writing in a journal or doing something physical like taking a long run.
The point is to regulate your emotions by feeling whatever you’re feeling and allowing 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 disappointment can 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 abilities and feel like an imposter. 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 and mindfulness. 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 disappointment before you’ve done all the previous steps.
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 anxiety, negative thinking, and resentment.
Know when to look for help
Sometimes, you need a helping hand in getting over disappointment. You can have a wonderful support network, but it’s still not enough. When this happens, you need to seek professional help.
A mental health professional will talk you through your feelings and help you learn how to handle them. They’ll teach you coping strategies that help you to make sense of what you’re feeling and put things into perspective.
If you don’t know what to do when you are disappointed, you are not alone. But knowing the signs of when you need to seek professional help is important.
Some of the signs of needing professional help include:
- You’re experiencing difficulty regulating your emotions. Emotional outbursts, feeling numb, or overreacting to minor events are all signs of an inability to regulate what you’re feeling.
- You’re unable to focus on anything other than your feelings of disappointment. The disappointment you feel is all-encompassing, and nothing else brings you joy or makes you feel alive and excited.
- You’re unproductive and unmotivated. You lack the drive and motivation to make plans, complete your work, or try new things.
- Your personal and work relationships are suffering. The people you love and work with are affected by your moods or lack of engagement.
- You no longer find joy in any of the activities you’ve always loved. Nothing you do makes you happy, and you stop finding joy in your hobbies and other interests.
- Your sleeping or eating patterns are disrupted. Struggling to sleep or unhealthy sleep hygiene and a lack of appetite become an issue.
- Your physical health is suffering. You feel sick regularly, are plagued by headaches, or are simply overcome with physical exhaustion.
- You feel despondent about the future and that everything is hopeless. Why bother thinking about what’s coming next? It will only be another letdown.
The signs won’t look the same for everyone. But these are the most common indicators that you need professional help to sort through your emotions and cope with the trauma.
How do you seek help?
Your mental fitness is important, and you’re allowed to feel all kinds of emotions. But you need to know when what you’re feeling has crossed a boundary from healthy to unhealthy.
When this happens, it’s time to act.
If you’ve recognized that you are not coping with your disappointment, you’ve taken the first step. Thereafter, you need to decide how to go about seeking help.
If you’ve never visited a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist, ask your friends or family for referrals. If you’d rather keep the matter private, look for recommendations online.
Once you’ve chatted to a mental health professional, they’ll offer guidance on what to do next.
You do not have to deal with your feelings of disappointment and languishing on your own. Mental health professionals are there to help you see the light at the end of the tunnel. They’re trained to teach you how to cope and can create a recovery plan that suits your situation.
You may not see results overnight, but you will see them over time. You’ll also know what to do when you are disappointed in the future, so you don’t get stuck in the same cycle of disillusionment.
Moving on from disappointment
Disappointment is 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. This outlook can increase resilience and drive professional and personal development.
Learn more about how BetterUp can help your organization transform outcomes using proven, people-focused coaching.