It’s one of the hardest things to deal with in life, yet it can feel like it is around every corner. Everyone wants to hope but this makes us afraid to. It can strike without warning, or smoulder away in the background no matter how hard you try to ignore it. No one is immune. It is, of course, disappointment.
So what do you do when life doesn’t go the way you planned, or hoped? Disappointment is part of life, but how you handle it can have a massive impact on your emotional well-being. And if you have struggled with your emotional health, disappointment, or facing up to set backs, can be an inescapable part of recovery. What do you do when you end up somewhere you never thought you’d be? What do you do when your dreams are dashed and it feels like hope is gone?
We can all learn to do disappointment better! So here are a few tips ...
(1) Beware of negative thinking!
One thing we know about the way the human brain works is that sometimes our thinking can be our worst enemy. It can warp our view of the world, make us feel that things are worse than they actually are and even trigger more painful or difficult emotions. Disappointment is a common trigger for some of the classic ‘unhelpful’ thinking styles. Watch out for things like overgeneralising ( ‘Everything I do always turns to disaster’), predicting future gloom (‘I’m never going to get this right!’ or ‘I’m never going to be happy’) or making assumptions about what people think of you (‘Everyone must think I’m a total muppet for failing’). Beware of giving your emotions too much power – if you feel something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is right. Watch out for thoughts like ‘I’m so stupid!’ – you may feel stupid but chances are you are not quite as daft as you feel. If you know your thinking is making you feel worse, try to ask some other people for their perspective. Don’t just assume that because you are thinking it, it has to be right!
(2) Give yourself space to grieve.
Disappointments are hard, and they invariably trigger a lot of emotion. Sometimes we can tie ourselves in knots trying desperately hard not to feel – but that doesn’t do any good! It is your emotions’ job to get your attention so they won’t go away. They are there for a purpose! Make sure you give yourself space to express them – whether that is a cup of coffee with a friend who will listen, time with a counsellor or therapist, a long hard run to pound out the frustration or even just a good old fashioned cry. You might find it helpful to place a limit on your expression of that emotion though – maybe setting aside an evening to allow yourself to react, but then planning the next day to focus on moving on and looking to the future. Don’t get caught up in wallowing and watch out for those thinking patterns in (1).
The thing with disappointment is that often it is tinged with other emotions. You might feel silly for ever having hoped, guilty of feeling so gutted or just struggle to explain how hard it has hit you. Sometimes life can feel like you are surrounded by people who have better reasons to be feeling low – and that can stop you admitting how hard things have been for you. One person told me “I feel so guilty – I mean I have so much to be grateful for. I should be so happy. But I can’t get over the disappointment of what I have lost.” Don’t let your disappointment push you away from those who care about you. Remember humans do not function best in isolation. You are designed to need to interact with other people. Talk to someone.
(4) Check your expectations
“This kind of thing always happens to me,” admitted one woman I was talking to. “I just need to learn to deal with it.” If you find that dealing with disappointment is a regular occurrence in your life, perhaps it is worth examining your expectations. Many of us are closet perfectionists, and push ourselves very hard. Expectations can be high – and alongside that often goes a black and white approach to life – if it doesn’t meet those expectations 100% then it has totally failed. Some people’s perfectionism is directed mainly at themselves, and they struggle with repeated disappointment about what they have not been able to achieve. Cross that you are not super(wo)man? Check out whether your expectations are realistic. Other people find that their perfectionism is often directed towards other people. Do you expect things of the people around you that just aren’t realistic? Watch out for unwittingly ‘testing’ people to see if they live up to your standards. And what about the world around you? Are you just one of those people who happens not to be very lucky? You know the kind – never wins at anything, good stuff just doesn’t tend to come your way? Studies have shown that actually ‘luck’ is a lot to do with how you see the world, and the things you remember and pay attention to. Your brain has a natural bias to remember negative things – these are often the most important lessons to learn – but don’t let it fool you into thinking nothing positive ever happens to you.
(5) Change perspective.
One thing that can really help with a disappointment is to take a moment to think about the bigger picture. Sometimes when we are in the midst of things, they seem like all that matters, but with a bit of perspective we realise that actually there is more to life than them. When I was a medical student, in the middle of exam times I often used to go and sit in a particular spot and just watch people go by. Seeing them going about their everyday normal lives reminded me that life would go on after my exams – no matter what I got in them! Or take a tip from the psalms – some people find that focusing on nature around them and God’s bigger picture really helps them. Psalm 8 expresses this perfectly “when I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?” Here’s another great description of this – the famous poem from Wendall Berry called ‘the peace of wild things’
When despair grows in me
And I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lies might be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the presence of still water.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting for their light.
For a time, I rest in the grace of the world
Remember that God’s perspective might be different too. In the story of Joseph we get to know a young man with big dreams for the future. And yet, at several points in his story he finds himself in situations which seem to totally clash with that dream – in a ditch, sold as a slave, then stuck in jail. We don’t know how long he was in jail – though we do know it was more than two years, because at one point someone he helped promised to mention him to the king, but then forgot(Genesis 40:23; 41:1). Joseph must have had to deal with a whole heap of disappointment, and we can only imagine the days he sat there with nothing to do but think. And yet – this was just one chapter in his story. It did end well and he did get to see his dreams fulfilled, though I think its fair to say he learned a lot along the way.
What if you are disappointed with God?
Maybe the hardest thing to admit where disappointment is concerned is when you are disappointed with God. We’ve probably all been there but not many of us talk about it!! The bible teaches us that faith is ‘being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.’ (Hebrews 11:1, NIV). What do you do when you hoped and prayed desperately for something and it didn’t happen? Or when you felt God had promised you something and it didn’t come true?
There are no easy answers to this one. Phillip Yancey has written a whole book on it which I’d recommend if you are interested . But God is big enough to hold our disappointments. And often He is disappointed or sad too with what is going on in the world. Remember Jesus looking out over Jerusalem with tears in his eyes? His words then sound a lot like those we might utter in our disappointment and regret (see Luke 19:42). Remember God looks ahead to a day when death, and mourning, and crying and pain will have ceased to exist (Rev 21:4) – where never again will infants or adults die young (Isaiah 65:20). There’s an old saying, “If you feel far away from God – guess who moved?!” If you are trying to hide from him how you really feel you are likely to end up feeling even more isolated and upset. Don’t feel you can’t be honest with God – take your disappointments to Him. After all, you’re in good company – look at the psalms, full of cries from the heart of disappointment and frustration. You might want to read Job – a book about a man facing the utmost disappointment with God.
Most of all though, remember that it may seem dark today – but perhaps the story is not over. In Luke 24 we read the story of two men wrestling with great disappointment. They had put their faith in Jesus, but he had been killed. ‘We had hoped he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,’ they said. How often have you said that to yourself – I had hoped ...? What happened for those two guys is that Jesus gently explained to them the bigger picture – and how in the end things were going to turn out ok. When you’re facing disappointment, ask God to do the same for you.
 Wendall Berry. The Peace of Wild things. In The Selected Poems of Wendall Berry.(page 30)Counterpoint 1996.
 Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God: Three questions no one asks aloud. Zondervan, 2003.