“One of my close friends didn’t come to my wedding, even though I gave her months of advance notice. I know she can afford the trip, and I even made a point of letting her know how important it was to me. ‘Disappointed’ is an understatement for how I’m feeling about this!”
Disappointment is a fact of life, and unmet expectations of other people are one of the greatest sources of it. If you look again at the sentence you just read, you may notice the phrases, “fact of life,” and “unmet expectations.” These two terms hint at keys to unlock the prison door of disappointment- which is a prison of our own making. Disappointment is like all of our negative emotional states- we have the power to change it. If we don’t manage our disappointment, it will soon become resentment, and resentment is toxic. When we learn to distance ourselves from our expectations of others and to deconstruct those expectations, we can often get some freedom. When we allow the disappointment of this one person’s action (or inaction) to rest on a level with all the other myriad disappointments we experience in life, we distance ourselves from the behavior we perceive as being disappointing. This also leads to freedom. The through-line here is recognizing that there are different ways of looking at the situation you are currently reading as “disappointing.” Let’s look more closely at how we can care for ourselves when disappointment arrives on the scene.
Sit With It
The best thing to do when a strong, negative emotion is rearing its head is to take some time by yourself to sit with it- to welcome it, listen to it, see what it has to teach. Rumi said it best, in the poem “The Guest House.”
Your initial urge will probably be very different than this suggestion. You may be inclined to numb out with some distraction (social media, television, daydreaming) or substance (alcohol, prescription pain meds.) On the other end of the spectrum, you may be inclined to embody the emotion and to let it loose on other people. If you’ve ever stuck your digital foot in your mouth by firing off an inappropriately angry email, you know why this is a bad idea. I’ve heard it said, “Don’t just do something! Sit there!!” This is funny, and true.
This guy is working it out.
However, sitting with difficult emotions is not easy. This is one benefit of psychotherapy- you get the practice of sitting in the room with an empathetic person as you express challenging emotions and learn, through repeated practice, to listen to and learn from these emotions. This helps you to later go through the process on your own. Some people learn this skill as they mature through adolescence, and some people enter adulthood still needing help with this. The good news is that many of us have access to therapy to work this out.
When you do sit with the disappointment, you may feel terrible. This is a good time to take out a journal and write down your thoughts. You might write, “my friend doesn’t really value me or our friendship, since she didn’t prioritize my wedding.” Write down your fears, too. They could be, “She and I are growing apart, I’m becoming less desirable as a friend, my husband will think I don’t have strong friendships, maybe I don’t have strong friendships, maybe I’m unloveable, maybe my new husband will realize this and leave me.” It’s really important to let all the pain and fear leave your psyche, to be seen on the page. I can guarantee that, if you dig deep, you are going to find some ridiculous and embarrassing thoughts. This is the human condition: we are a bunch of infants running around in adult bodies. The more you listen to the infant and take care of the infant, the less likely you are to act like the infant in front of people.
If this kind of vulnerability is new and uncomfortable to you, do this writing part next to a shredder or a burning wood stove, so you can destroy the document as soon as you are done writing and using it. But before destroying that evidence, sit with the child-like thoughts and fears you may have uncovered, and send well-wishes to that child. Cultivate some compassion for the child. I have learned that placing my hand over my heart cues a sense of both nurturing and being nurtured. Try sitting like that for a few minutes.
Reframe the Disappointment
Once you have honored your own emotions and underlying thoughts and fears, it’s easier to widen your perspective. This is the time when you can deconstruct your expectations of the person and your stories about the disappointment.
Here are some mantras that I find helpful when I’m feeling disappointed by someone. The first one is:
This is not about me.
Because, truly, whatever the other person is going through or whatever his or her shortcomings, the disconnect between your expectations and the other person’s choices are almost never about you. Untangling your disappointment from the ego leads to some freedom. Second:
This is the nature of reality: dissatisfactory.
I’ve heard it called the “inherent dissatisfactoriness of life”- many spiritual teachers talk about how dissatisfaction with the material world is just the price we pay to be in the flesh, dealing with imperfect bodies, imperfect minds, entropy, and all the other things that pose challenges. Hence, the drive to seek meaning in spiritual practice. Whether you believe this or not, there is no denying that the person’s behavior in question is not the only thing you were disappointed about- maybe even that day! Recognizing this may help to accept this disappointment as just another drop in the “I don’t like it” bucket. Third:
This is an opportunity for me to take care of myself.
What did the person fail to do, or fail to do for you? Can you do it for yourself? If so, do it!! Don’t let your disappointment keep you from enjoying what you thought would be coming from the other person. Do it for yourself, and enjoy it.
You’ve considered some new ways to look at the disappointment. Now let’s dig deeper, to your expectation that set up the disappointment. First, was your expectation a reasonable one? Once you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you may find that your expectation simply wasn’t reasonable. Maybe it was something that you would do- but was it something that the other party could reasonably be expected to want and be able to do? For example, if you were disappointed that your friend with three jobs and two kids did not give you 24 hours advance-notice of a lunch invitation… maybe your expectation- while reasonable in most circumstances- is not reasonable here? Expecting your partner to remember your favorite beverage when he’s at the grocery store is pretty reasonable. Expecting your mother- who has never been expressive of her feelings- to tell you she is proud when you land a new business deal isn’t- unfortunately for you- reasonable.
When looking at the reality of the situation, we can see the places where we haven’t been reasonable- the places where we need to accept reality- and also the places where we can ask more of our loved ones. Maybe you have heard the Serenity Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
There is much, much freedom to be had in this sentiment. When we can see the parts that we simply cannot change (a friend / relative / coworker who is not interested in being reliable, for example,) we can let those expectations go. Sure, we also then adjust down our vulnerability to that person- but without any hard feelings. This approach- acceptance- is against a lot of people’s natures. Humans are problem-solvers, and sometimes the problem is another person! If we could just decide how everyone else would act, the world would be great- right?? This is the dream of every dictator. When you find yourself wishing someone were more this way and less that way, remember Stalin and instead radically accept the person for who they are. You don’t need control of other people- managing yourself is hard enough!
On the other hand, when we see the parts that we can have a hand in changing (a partner / coworker / friend who simply doesn’t know the best way to relate to us,) we can speak up and help change the situation. This is where setting some boundaries- described in the next section- comes in.
Now that you are much clearer in your thinking about the disappointment, and have gotten a deeper understanding of what pieces were your perception and what pieces were truly unacceptable behavior, it’s time to communicate skillfully. It’s important to remember the things you appreciate about your coworker or loved one before you broach this conversation. Look deeply to see the paradoxically good qualities tied to the disappointing behavior. For example, if your college-aged daughter skipped her Sunday phone call home and didn’t answer her phone when you called, only to call the next day and say she had been backpacking that weekend, you might be disappointed that she didn’t tell you ahead of time so you could make other plans and not worry. If you look deeply, you may also see your appreciation for her spontaneous and adventurous nature.
Next, look for times that you have made the same mistake as what you are finding disappointing right now. There is almost always an example… for example, didn’t you miss the Sunday call by an hour last month, because your phone battery died and you weren’t somewhere you could re-charge? Look deep for this- taking responsibility for your own regrettable actions allows you to have empathy for the other person, allows you to see how easy it is to do what they did. When you share your regret with the other person, you also clear the air and you model taking responsibility for your mistakes. To set your boundary, find a good time to talk with your loved one or coworker. Share your appreciation, share your regrets for times you’ve made similar mistakes in your relationship, and then set your boundary. For example:
“Lisa, as your mother, I so appreciate your spontaneous and adventurous nature. I love that you are taking time to build friendships and enjoy the mountains even when you have such a demanding course load. I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry I didn’t plan accurately last month and I wasn’t able to call you for our weekly phone call. I know you set aside that time and I’m sorry you had to wait. This last weekend, I was pretty worried when I didn’t hear from you on Sunday- and even more worried when I tried calling you. I do my best to not catastrophize, but that kind of stuff keeps me awake at night. In the future, I’d like for us to both make a better effort to keep our phone call- and to always let the other person know if we won’t be available.”
Or, on the topic of the missed wedding:
“Sadia, I appreciate that you are such a go-getter- you’re always doing creative things, and going to new places! I was recently thinking about the time you planned a group vacation in Mexico and I was the only one from our group of friends who didn’t make it- I’m sorry I didn’t make a better effort! Last month, when I was looking around at all the friends and family in town for my wedding, I was very hurt to not see you there. We can’t turn back time and put you in those memories, but I need for us to have a conversation about how that went down, so I can put it behind me. I want to know that you value our friendship and value me… if, in fact, you do.”
When you approach another person with well-considered thoughts and perspective, you are much more likely to see a positive outcome. The communication style I am describing here- influenced by both Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication and the Beginning Anew conflict resolution style of Plum Village Monastery- allows both parties to feel seen, heard, appreciated, and accountable.
Important skills you are strengthening:
Share Your Experience
If you have some ideas or experience with managing disappointment, please share them in the “comments” section.