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Learn to let it go: how to deal with career disappointment

November 14, 2022 - 12 min read

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What is career disappointment, and what causes it?

How to deal with disappointment at work

The only way out is through

Michael Jordan missed 26 game-winning shots in the NBA. Thomas Edison failed 1000 times at inventing the lightbulb. And Serena Williams, one the greatest tennis players of all time, still loses matches.

These talented individuals experienced some crushing disappointments. But instead of quitting, they licked their wounds and kept going — cementing their legacies as resilient and talented individuals.

Failure is a fact of life. It doesn’t matter how talented you are; you’ll encounter disappointment in your career at some point. And how you react significantly impacts how your situation will play out.

If you rage quit a job because you didn’t receive a promotion, you’ll find yourself unemployed and surrounded by burnt bridges. But if you respectfully ask for feedback and try to learn, you can focus on improving or calmly look for opportunities elsewhere. 

Keeping your composure is easier said than done. Disappointment is a difficult emotion and makes us vulnerable to some of our worst impulses. And, if you don’t deal with it appropriately, it can easily grow into bigger mental health issues like anxiety or depression.

Whether you were passed over for a promotion or let go during a recession, learning how to deal with career disappointment is a valuable life skill that will get you through the tough times. Here’s what you need to know.

What is career disappointment, and what causes it?

Career disappointment involves a combination of surprise and sadness. You feel shocked when something doesn’t go how you expected. Then you feel sad because you’re grieving the loss of what could have (or should have) been.

Disappointment is painful, and some experiences will be more difficult to accept than others. Losing your job will likely hurt more than having your vacation request denied. 

But within every negative experience, no matter how big or small, there’s a lesson to be learned. The trick is to approach disappointment with the right attitude and avoid succumbing to negative emotions.

Here are some common reasons you may experience disappointment at work:

  • They promised you a promotion but gave it to someone else. Your boss gave you all the right signals: they invited you to departmental meetings, paid for your additional training, and then said that you’re ready for a promotion. But, when a position finally opened up, they gave it to someone else. 

  • You received an underwhelming job offer. After weeks of searching for a new job, going through job interviews, and writing skills tests, a company finally gave you an offer — but it’s nowhere near the market rate for a person of your caliber.

    The benefits package is also lackluster, adding insult to injury. This professional disappointment is especially hurtful if you’re desperate for a new role due to a toxic work environment or unemployment.

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  • A top performer just quit your team. As a manager, few things are as valuable as dependable and high-performing employees. So, when one of them blindsides you with a resignation letter, it’s hard not to take it personally.

  • You were fired. You may have lost your job due to a business decision. If your company was going to meet its financial goals this quarter, someone had to leave — and you were on the list for layoffs.

    Alternatively, you may have lost your job due to a mistake, sending you to another level of discouragement. Not only are you disappointed in yourself for losing your job, but you're mad at yourself for fumbling so badly.

  • You were denied your preferred days off. Every year in December, you may plan a trip to your parent’s house for the holidays. You always request your days off weeks in advance and, upon approval, purchase your plane tickets.

    But the week before your flight, your boss might say it's your turn to be on-call in case of emergencies. This means you can’t leave town anymore — you have to be available on short notice to go to the office.

No matter your situation, your disappointment is valid. When you have a plan for your career path that doesn’t go the way you hoped, you’ll need time to build up your confidence again. 

But the worst thing you can do right now is beat yourself up. Talk to your best friend, have a good cry, and make some time for self-care. Then prepare to learn from your past failures and plot the next phase of your career development.

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How to deal with disappointment at work

How to overcome disappointment is one of the most valuable things you can learn. Life will never stop throwing you curve balls, and how you adapt says a lot about your character.

Here are some strategies on how to deal with crushing disappointment:

1. Don’t dwell on it for too long

Whatever happened, you’ll need time to get over it. Make sure you take sufficient time for self-care. Punch it out at the boxing gym, cry at your favorite movie, and focus on your family and loved ones for a while. Doing the things you love can help you recalibrate after a difficult experience.

And if you’re having a difficult time recovering, consider talking to a mental health professional. They can give you healthier coping strategies and set you on the path toward recovery.

But don’t let it consume you. Give yourself some time to lick your wounds. When it starts to sting less, you’re ready to make an action plan.

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2. Change your narrative

After gaining some distance from the experience, try looking at it from a different perspective. For example, if you were fired, consider your manager’s point of view. If they reprimanded you several times for the same mistake, you’d need to fix the problem before starting your next job.

And if they genuinely fired you out of the blue, rest assured that it wasn’t completely your fault — but you should probably look for a healthier work environment in your job search.

3. Learn from the experience

After examining the incident from every angle, what can you learn? 

If you thought your boss would promote you over your co-worker after a couple months on the job, you might need to set more realistic expectations and develop your self-awareness. You may also want to attend professional development courses to expand your skill set. These lessons will help you in the long run.

4. Plan you come-back

You’ll have to pick yourself up eventually. Internalize your lessons and create a plan for how you want to recover from this setback. 

After being denied a promotion, you may want to update your LinkedIn profile and start looking for a new role. If you’d rather stay at your company, ask your boss for feedback to find out how to become a more valuable contributor to the team.

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5. Keep your chin up

Avoid tying your self-worth to this disappointment. Your career may be important to you, but it’s only one part of who you are. Focus on the other good things in your life, like your friends and family. This can help ease the sting.

And, in the grand scheme of things, remember this is a blip in the grand story of your career. Take what you need from it and forget the rest.

6. Set realistic expectations

Disappointment is less likely to occur in the future if you can manage expectations. This doesn’t mean giving up hope — quite the opposite. It means taking smaller, achievable steps to build your confidence and slowly progress toward your goals. 

Keep your head down and focus on one realistic step at a time. When you look up again, you’ll be surprised by how far you’ve traveled.

7. Remember, you’re not alone

You’re not the first one to experience career disappointment, and you won’t be the last. Professional athletes lost championship-deciding games. CEOs were fired after losing millions of dollars. You shouldn’t find joy in the suffering of others, but you can at least find solidarity. 

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The only way out is through

No one can teach you how to deal with disappointment — the only way to learn is by going through it yourself. Unfortunately, this may involve some growing pains. 

But as you reflect on your experiences, learn your lessons, and pick yourself up, you may surprise yourself. You’re much more resilient than you think. And by the time you come out the other side, you’ll be a stronger and more well-rounded person. 

Then you can take your lessons with you to build a bigger and better career. You’ll have better attention to detail because you’ve made mistakes in the past. You’ll know what you want from a new job because you’ve been in toxic environments. You’ll be a better mentor because you’ll actually have lessons to teach.

Dwelling on past letdowns is like holding on to a ball of fire: the only person you’re burning is yourself. The sooner you can let go, the sooner you can move on, heal, and take the next step in your career.

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Published November 14, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

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