Categorized | Coping & Resilience

Coping With Disappointment and Restoring Happiness Once Again

If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment. 

~Henry David Thoreau 

Disappointment is just part and parcel of life. Barely a day or two goes by without some person or thing disappointing us. Some disappointments disrupt our daily routine, just a little, like the grocery store runs out of our favorite cereal or we spill coffee on a new shirt. While others can change the landscape of our whole life, like a romantic partner’s infidelity, life threatening illness in ourselves, or failing an exam that determines our work and livelihood.

expectationsNo matter how big or small, disappointments all have one thing in common. They come out of our expectations for how something should be or turn out.

Disappointments are our response to a predefined outlook or take on things. When something fails to meet our set ideas, we can feel let down, disenchanted, and even betrayed. Dick Rauscher, life coach and pastoral psychotherapist, describes expectations as “ideas or thoughts that are created by our mind that have not yet happened, a thinly disguised hope that something good will happen in the future” (Rauscher, On Expectations). But, as life often has it, reality doesn’t always play itself out to fit with our expectations.

Emotional Investment and Expectations

We project our expectations onto the things that happen to us, like a film projector throws images onto a screen. Hence, it is easy to feel disappointed by situations that fall short of our expectations, as they are tied to our identities and self-esteem.

Take for example spilling a cup a coffee on our new shirt on the way to work. This situation seems harmless enough, right? But, imagine if we saw that shirt in a store window every week and imagined ourselves in it. We look pretty sexy in it in our minds and imagine all of the nice things that come along with looking good. Then, we finally save up enough money to buy the shirt. We finally get to put it on and fulfill the sexy image of ourselves that we’ve been imagining for weeks, only to spill a cup a coffee on it—and on all of the fantasies we have attached to this shirt.

The level of emotions we have invested in certain outcomes determines the extent of the disappointment we feel when things don’t go as planned. Even spilling a cup of coffee can take on a life and death meaning. Now imagine the depth of disappointment that can come from failing an important exam, finding out we are very ill, or our romantic partner has been unfaithful. We have a lot of ourselves emotionally attached to these outcomes. Disappointments in love, health, and welfare can really challenge our sense of self.

There’s no doubt that the way we think about the things that happen to us plays a significant role in how we emotionally feel. But, they also physically affect us. Research shows that there are chemical changes that go on inside of us when we experience disappointment. Disappointment is a form of stress that disrupts the normal levels of serotonin circulating in the brain. Serotonin is sometimes thought of as the happiness molecule, as it is one of the brain chemicals responsible for positive feelings. When serotonin levels become disrupted in reaction to stress, we can begin to feel sad, depressed and anxious. Chronic stress can lead to gastrointestinal problems, sleep, and other bodily functions (Effects of Serotonin on the Body).

Thank goodness, we have the power to change our thinking that deepens disappointment and the stress response. We can challenge the expectations that keep us upset. We can rewire our brains, by changing the way we think about circumstances (Rewire your brain: Think your way to a better life).

Change Your Expectations, Lessen Disappointment

The steps that follow challenge the ideas and feelings that keep you stuck in disappointment.

1. Take a moment to reflect upon a situation that has disappointed you. What does this situation mean to you. Identify expectations you have (in ideas and feelings) for how this situation or person should be. How does this person or circumstance affect your identity or self-esteem?

2. Now, let’s challenge those expectations. Take for example, Joe. People continually disappoint Joe, because he expects them to live up to certain rules of behavior, like being punctual, emotionally supportive, and helpful. When they fall below the behaviors he expects of them, he is emotionally hurt. He then manages his disappointment and bolsters his self esteem by devaluing the friendship. . Joe may seem unreasonable to you, but all of us have expectations of friends and family that can lead to our disappointment.

We have to check to see if our expectations of people are so high that no one can fulfill them. Be realistic and flexible with regard to what you expect of people, to lessen disappointment. This does not mean that you don’t have a right to have expectations. You just have to be careful that your expectations are reasonable and do not set you up for unnecessary upset.

There’s always something to be learned in situations that disappoint us. Some of the most disappointing events in my life have forced me to step back and evaluate my expectations and the meanings that I’m giving to those experiences. I’ve learned that most of my disappointments stem from unrealistic expectations. Who ever said that we will never be deceived in love, fail an exam, or not gain entrance into the job or school of our choice?

Behind every big reaction to a disappointment is usually an unrealistic expectation. Hence, if you are suffering from some disappointment, step back and think about what you expected, and how this may be playing into the stress and upset you are now feeling. Instead of making yourself more upset by thinking about the way the situation should have turned out, look for the ways in which the circumstance is helping you to evaluate expectations against reality. This will help you to cope better in the future and to developmentally keep growing.

Always remember, I can find perspective in disappointment. You have the knowledge and the tools to create the person you want to be.

If you like my post today, please let me know by selecting the Like icon that follows. You can also Tweet or Google+1 today’s post to let your family and friends know about it. Best of luck in your future changes! Dr. Ash


About Dr. Ashwini Lal

Dr. Ashwini Lal is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in the state of California. He obtained his undergraduate degree in Psychology and Social Behavior from the University of California, Irvine. He obtained his Doctorate in Psychology (Psy.D.) from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology in Chicago with a concentration in Health Psychology. He completed his APA accredited pre-doctoral internship at the Northport Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center. He has trained and worked in different hospitals (County, State, Veterans affairs) and in the university health setting. He was most recently working as a Staff Psychologist in the university health center at Stanford University and left to relocate back to Southern California to work at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Dr. Lal has experience working with a variety of clinical presentations and is most passionate about working with adolescents and adults struggling with mood and anxiety disorders, those who have experienced loss, those struggling with adjusting to various life events/transitions, and those dealing with issues of coming out and identity development. Dr. Lal uses an integrative approach to psychotherapy that involves increasing an individual’s awareness into factors contributing to their current struggles and working collaboratively with individuals to increase his/her/their ability to manage current symptoms. Increasing symptom management will provide the individual with immediate symptom relief while allowing for the therapist and the patient to work collaboratively to gain an in-depth understanding of the patient’s struggles. This increased awareness will lead to long term improvement and increased life satisfaction.

7 Responses to “Coping With Disappointment and Restoring Happiness Once Again”

  1. This is a fine article. Yes, it’s important to be able to change the way we think about a situation, when what happens disappoints us. I argue that, in order to do this, you need the HardiAttitudes of commitment, control, and challenge. These attitudes, together, give you the existential courage to reconsider and change one’s reactions to disappointing occurrences.

    • avatar Dr. Ashwini Lal says:

      Thank you for your comment. I agree that being able to use the HardiAttitudes (control, commitment, and challenge) are needed to turn potentially stressful circumstances into opportunities for personal growth. This is what I feel is so great about any life experience, good and bad. If we are hardy we can learn from these challenges and integrate them into who we are today.

  2. I misplaced my comment that was just published with Deborah Khoshaba’s name on it. Sorry.

  3. avatar Manju says:

    Dear Dr. Ash,

    This was a great read. I know I have had situations where I have had emotional ties to a certain result and have been disappointed when that particular result is not achieved.

    I can also relate this article you have written to friendships I have had where I have held people to a certain standard (what I would do or how I would be is what I expect others to do or be for me). In these situations, I have learned that some people are not meant to be my friends because they have very different core values than I do about what friendships mean. The process of introspection was sometimes difficult because it resulted in dissolving friendships. But the end result has been very positive in that I now have a really amazing circle of people around me that are true friends that I love and enjoy knowing.

    Thanks for a great read.



    • avatar Dr. Ashwini Lal says:

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, in some situations you may find that the core values of others may differ from yours. Just as you have done, this means to look at yourself and assess whether you feel your expectations are realistic and flexible. Some times it may result in ending relationships and other times it may result in you making changes to your expectations. You may have noticed that your disappointment was tied to your expectation of the person/situation. The great part of this is that you can take a step back and look inward instead of focusing on what “should have happened.” By taking a step back and looking inward you can learn how to cope better in the future.

      -Dr. Ash

  4. avatar Qasim Ahmad ilyas says:

    Dear Dr. Lal,
    A nice and helpful article. I exactly felt the same as you mentioned when I found that i did not meet the certain expectations of uncertain life event. Though I had been warned by friends and at the same time had realistic idea of what I was doing, yet I expected for what that i shan’t. It is true that if we picture the reality and expectations by using rational arguments and counter-arguments, we can naturally grow through the hardening and stressful situations and it is what life makes us grow, gain and grasp……..

    • avatar Dr. Ashwini Lal says:

      Hello Qasim,

      I’m so glad that you found the article to be helpful. Just as you said it’s important that you check your expectations so that you can approach others and situations realistically. Though look at your expectations of situations and others involves some extra work, you will be happier in the end. You are absolutely right that stressful situations make us grow. We can all learn from our stressful experiences in life and use what we learn in similar situations we can come across in the future. Best of luck to you! –Dr. Ash


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