Disappointment is the experience of not getting something you expected or hoped for. It is a universal human experience, but cultures and individuals can have very different attitudes about and responses to disappointment.
The Declaration of Independence states that all people have a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Notice that there is no right to happiness, only to the pursuit
of happiness. When you pursue happiness, there will inevitably be times when you don’t catch up to it. When that happens you experience disappointment, especially if you were expecting a particular outcome.
For most of us, this happens fairly frequently to some extent. You go to get a piece of cake and discover that someone else got the last piece. You get passed over for a raise or promotion. Your spouse doesn’t complement you on your new haircut. Your pregnancy test came out negative again. Your fiancé doesn’t show up for your wedding.
Of course, these examples represent situations that will likely result in some very different degrees of disappointment, and create different emotions. But the basic experience of disappointment is the same.
For most people, two questions arise as they become aware of the phenomenon of disappointment: first, how do I avoid being disappointed; second, what do I do when I experience disappointment.
Our society focuses a lot on avoiding disappointment, and most people know lots of strategies to help them do so. In our society, many of these strategies focus on trying to control our circumstances or environment so we get what we want or what we expect. These strategies inevitably fail sometimes, since we human beings don’t have control over everything in our world. The result is disappointment. (Your expectations, however, are within your ability to control, or at least to manage. For more on this subject, click here).
So when you do experience disappointment, what do you do with it? You have seen people respond to disappointment in different ways: rage, depression, trying to find the silver lining, acceptance, etc.
Child development psychologists usually consider that learning to self-soothe in response to disappointment is a fundamental part of growing up. But not everyone learns to do it well, or how to do it in all circumstances. Self-soothing, at a very basic level, is providing yourself with a feeling of physical comfort. You see this with children in actions like thumb sucking, rocking, stroking themselves, or holding a blanket or stuffed animal. Listening to music, exercising, dancing, writing, walking in nature, and looking at art are examples of other ways to self-soothe.
When people don’t know how to self-soothe, they will often try to get rid of feelings associated with disappointment, sometimes in destructive ways. Alcohol and drug use, abusive or violent behavior, fleeing into fantasy, sexual obsessions, and distracting oneself with various forms of entertainment (TV, internet, video games, etc.) can all be ways of avoiding uncomfortable feelings for a person who hasn’t learned healthier ways to self-soothe. There are mental strategies as well, such as denying one feels disappointed, blaming others, making excuses for others’ behavior, etc.
Disappointment is especially hard to accept when you are disappointed by someone who you trust and expect to give you what you want. Constant disappointment with a loved one can lead to blame, resentment, and eventually even rage. It is extremely important to relationship health that you find effective ways to deal with disappointments in relationships.
One important point I want to make about disappointment: feeling disappointed, or expressing a feeling of disappointment, is not necessarily unhealthy. Seeking help in dealing with disappointment can be an effective form of self-soothing. You might express disappointment to a friend who makes you feel better by listening to you.
Communicating disappointment in a non-blaming way is a very useful skill to develop. You might tell the person with whom you are disappointed, so that you can make sure they know your expectations of them and find out if they know something you don’t about the situation. For example, you would probably feel less disappointed that a friend missed a lunch date with you if you discovered that her stove caught fire as she was leaving the house. If you just get angry and refuse to return her phone calls, you will never know what happened.