It rains when you were hoping for sunshine.
Your team loses a match.
A family meal is spoilt as the cooker fails.
A romantic interest is not reciprocated.
You fail to get a job you had set your heart on.

Disappointments like these are part of life.

You shrug your shoulders (that is British weather) and move on.
You laugh and make a joke of it (if only we could afford Harry Kane) and move on.
You work around the potential catastrophe (a take away meal is only a phone call away) and move on.
You wonder if you have BO (so buy a new deodorant) and move on.
You analyse what went wrong, check with your career adviser (and see it as a stepping stone to greater fulfilment) and move on.

Nevertheless there is a grief reaction when you are disappointed for it is a loss (for more information see Uniquely You/Grief).  It may be short lived and over in minutes or perhaps days, so you may hardly notice it. You get on with life.  There is barely a hint of stress in what has happened.

But sometimes disappointments go deep. They hurt. They distract. They take control.  You lose sleep thinking about them. They upset your mood so you become miserable.  They may make you angry. You come to believe they say something about your personality or role in life:

‘I am a failure.’
‘No one likes me.’
‘They are laughing at me.’

And such like.  Disappointments hit you hard.  They affect your sense of being.  They may change the course of your life – maybe for better, maybe for worse.  They can be a significant cause of stress.

What makes the difference?

Rarely will it be just the individual disappointment that is so hard to bear.  Usually a number of other factors play a part – this is an illustration of layering.  Sometimes it is not one disappointment but a series of disappointments that overwhelm you.  Most of us will survive failing one job interview or one romance but failing one after another does something to your self-esteem and self-confidence.   Or something big, a major commitment, where you may have changed your life or been willing to, and everyone knew about it – then it fails.  That is calamitous.  It is embarrassing. Your plans, hopes and expectations crash down around you and it is almost as if your life has come to an end.


Does any of this bring back memories?  Have you felt sad, upset, angry as you have read these few paragraphs?

If so, it is time to stop.  Take time to reflect on your experiences of disappointment, especially those that you found most distressing.  These notes are only going to be of value to you if you relate them to your personal experiences.

Jot down what you remember. Read these notes again and see what else you can recollect.  Take time to reflect on each incident.  Here are some questions to ask of yourself to help your reflection:

What actually happened?
What were you hoping for?
What was it that disappointed you the most?
What emotions do you remember experiencing?
Who else was involved?
Who knew about you disappointment?
What did they say or do?
How did their response affect you?
How did you respond to the disappointment?
How did it change your behaviour?
How did it change the way you thought about yourself?
How did you deal with the feeling of disappointment?
In what way does the experience still trouble you?

Take your time using these questions to help you reflect on each of the significant disappointments you have experienced. You will learn about yourself and this will help you in the future as it is inevitable that there are more disappointments to come. That is life!

Done that?

Now to consider where disappointments fit into the journey of life and how you can incorporate them in a positive way into your life.

Fulfilment spectrum

Sometimes you can cope with your disappointment by keeping it in perspective.

Here is the formula you hope will work:

Expectation     +            Fulfilment        =              Contentment

It is what you expected so you are likely to take it for granted and move on to the next project or dream.

Sometimes your expectations are realised in surprising abundance so the formula becomes:

Expectation     +      Over-fulfilment   =            Elation

You have achieved more than you expected. Wow! Stunning!  Time to celebrate! You may reassess your capabilities and goals. You may raise your expectations next time presuming that your skills, insight and abilities have been underassessed and undervalued. Or was it just the ‘luck of the draw,’ or due to factors that you had not anticipated?

Sometimes your expectations are not fulfilled, either in part or in total so the formula becomes:

Expectation     +      Under-fulfilment  =              Disappointment

If you can see this as part of a fulfilment spectrum you are coping with your disappointment. Hopefully, you can argue with yourself that this is life, you win some and you lose some, the future cannot always be predicted.  Many people recognise that, once over the initial shock, disappointments can be important learning and growth points.  Unlike contentment or elation, disappointment tends to make you re-examine your assumptions, attitude, knowledge and skills and then it can be the springboard that leads to greater success than would otherwise have been achieved.

How to cope with disappointment

1.  When the reality strikes home let your feelings out; it’s natural that you feel upset or even inconsolable so express your feelings. Do not be ashamed to cry or express your anger and distress though this does not have to be done publicly. However, avoid taking out your unhappiness on others.  Talk honestly in private to close friends or write down your account but be cautious about blaming others unless you have incontrovertible evidence.  A message written in haste expressing your disappointment in terms that can be taken as blaming others may have repercussions that may have a serious harmful effect on your future relationships.

2.  Put your problems in perspective. You will tend to focus on the negative aspects of your situation but make a point of finding some positives, such as:

Breaking an engagement is heart breaking but better now than getting a divorce in a few months.
An accident or illness prevent you taking part in a sports event – but now you have time to spend with family and friends.
Your project is rejected by your employer but could this be developed into a self-employment opportunity?

3. Be thankful. It is easy to complain and focus on disappointments so you need to make a deliberate decision to look for things to be thankful about. How about your health, family, home, running water, food and goods in abundance? Check out Getting Started/Techniques for Managing Stress and go to ‘Be Positive.’

4. Allow yourself time to grieve over your disappointment. It is a ‘loss’ so you need time to come to terms with it.  You will move from unbelief,

this cannot really have happened,
I will wake up and be back to normal,

through anger,

why was this allowed to happen?
someone must pay for this,

and depression,

all my hopes have ended,
what is there to live for?

to new beginnings,

let me get on with life.

More details about this process are in Uniquely You/Grief.  There are no rules about how long this process will take but when you spontaneously start thinking positively again you know you are recovering.

Maladaptive Reactions to disappointment

This section is about the ways you react to disappointment that end up making the situation worse or even creating additional stresses.

1.  Disappointments are largely neutral as a cause of stress. They are just part of life. Problems may arise, however, from how you interpret the disappointment – what it means to you. This may happen unconsciously.  It is probably not a conclusion you reach after logical thought.  It is partly a response to the circumstances. But also it is a reaction that relates to your personality, past experiences and general state of emotional well-being.  It is multi-layered.

Here are the sort of arguments you may have with yourself:

‘Disappointment leads to discouragement – is it worth trying?’
‘Disappointment leads to disillusionment – the reality is unbearable.’
‘Disappointment leads to despair – there is no hope, reality will never meet my expectations.’
‘I should never get too attached to someone as attachments lead to expectations and expectations lead to disappointments.’

Such arguments can then lead you to adopt beliefs, attitudes and behaviour that will have an adverse effect on you and may be factors that are likely to exacerbate your stress level.

2.  If you focus on your disappointments and get them out of perspective it can lead to a slippery slope that leads toward frustration, regret and apathy (the internalisation of your disappointment) or to anger, resentment, rage and retribution (the externalisation of your disappointment).

The Slippery Slope of Disappointment

That can exacerbate your stress and make it harder to deal with other underlying issues.  Do you recognise yourself in this?  Take a step back.  Adjust your attitude.  Change your focus.  Learn to adopt new habits of thinking and assessing values.  Look forward rather than backwards.

3.  Do you find yourself pretending the disappointment is not so bad after all? Do you look back and persuade yourself you never had such great expectations after all?

‘I never really expected my team to win.’ 
‘I  did not really love him.’ 

This can help in the short term but it is living a lie.  You know in your heart of hearts it is not true so there is a risk you will suffer physically from stress that is not acknowledged and expressed emotionally. You may suffer from so called stress-related illnesses such has heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma and many more.  These illnesses can have physical causes but they also can be brought on or made worse by emotional factors.  If  this pretence happens repeatedly you can get into the habit of making  excuses.  That can distort your perception of life and may create difficulties with friends and family if you persist in your beliefs when they point out to you how distorted they are.

4.  When you have suffered a major disappointment you may go through a period of carelessness when you undervalue your assets – you may sell goods at less than a reasonable price, or if, for example, you have been let down by a friend you may unconsciously – maybe even consciously – engineer other friendships to fail too. It is as if you have adopted a failure mode.  Your self-esteem is reduced.  You may feel worthless, as if you do not deserve any good things to happen to you.  This could be an indication that you have significant unresolved issues as discussed in Moving Forward/Layering.

5.  You may have seen the disappointment coming and prayed desperately to God for help – but nothing happened. God ignored you. He knew how important it was to you – well, if he was a God worthy of the name he would have done, wouldn’t he?  You may have taken such an emotional let-down to be evidence that there cannot be a God.  Or you may have taken it to mean that God does not love you. He has his favourites and you are not one of them.  And yet that contradicts the evidence from the grandeur and beauty of creation. And what about the healing, restoration and salvation that occurs in the natural world when catastrophes occur?  And what about the outpouring of support, compassion and love that people show when tragedies happen whether in the neighbourhood, nation or even internationally?  It seems very likely that there is a Power behind all these. A Power that is bigger and better than anything we can imagine and yet is involved and cares.  That is the God the Bible talks about.  There is anecdotal evidence that some atheists and agnostics adopt their beliefs because of such disappointments that lead them to question their beliefs about a caring and interested deity. This seems to be  more common than a response to purely intellectual arguments. Interestingly, there is also anecdotal evidence that some people find that disappointments lead them to review their lives and take spiritual issues more seriously.

6.  At times you may have taken the disappointment formula:

Expectation     +      Under-fulfilment  =              Disappointment

to heart and decided that as you cannot control the fulfilment of your expectations you will lower your expectations – or even refuse to have any at all. You will see this view expressed in posters:

No expectations no disappointments.
Do not blame people for disappointing you – blame yourself for expecting too much.
The secret of happiness is low expectations.
If you expect nothing you will never be disappointed.
Do not expect things to happen – it is better to be surprised than disappointed.

Having expectations inevitably brings risk into the equation as there is never a guarantee that your expectations will be fulfilled.  But not to have expectations is not to have risks so you are then more likely to be under-appreciated and undervalued or even ignored.

Having expectations seems to be a core aspect of life.


Look for the Light at the End of the Tunnel

You live in hope that there is something better ahead.

You have aspirations, desires, ambitions that you may share with family and friends but sometimes may keep secret until circumstances change and you can now see a possibility of achieving them.

You have aims in life.  You plan and seek fulfilment of your dreams.

You are filled with longings and yearn for them to be realised.

These are core aspects of life. Without them life would not be life.  But nothing is guaranteed.  There is always the risk of disappointment.   Reflect on this and how it relates to your attitude to life.

If necessary do a risk-benefit analysis (see Getting Started/Techniques for Managing Stress and go to ‘Risk-Benefit Analysis’) of your expectations and then do some work on changing your attitude.  Take it slowly. Share this project with those who are close to you and get their support, guidance and interest.  Make changes in stages and gradually develop expectations and hopes that you can incorporate into your life.

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