How to pick yourself up when you've been let down

A guide to acknowledging your feelings and readjusting expectations

You miss out on that plum position you wanted.  You lose the court case.  Your best mate announces a move to another state.  Life is rife with disappointments.  Many of them are out of our control, so if we want to be happy, the only option is to learn how to deal with them.  

What is disappointment, and is it good for us?

Let’s define disappointment as the gap between our expectations and the outcome which resulted:  the larger the gap, the stronger the disappointment.  When things don’t work out as we hoped, the unfulfilled desires fester, filling us with negative thoughts and emotions.  We may criticise ourselves, saying that we’re just not good enough, or that things never work out for us.  We can become stuck in all the “d” states:  doubt, discouragement, despondency, despair, and depression.  So what’s the best way to not only move on but actually turn things to our favour when disappointment deals us a lousy hand in the card game of life?  I have six simple steps. 

Step One:  Acknowledge your feelings

Disappointment is painful, but can you be more specific about what you’re feeling?  Maybe underneath the hurt of being dumped from the team, you feel resentment.  Behind the post-breakup weeping, are you angry at how you were treated?  Feeling vengeful toward the business partner who betrayed you?  Ask yourself if you are blaming yourself, others, or circumstances for what happened.  Are you caught up in making excuses, shifting blame, or not taking responsibility?  These reactions are normal after a disappointment, but they can hold you back.  Clarifying why you are disappointed (i.e., identifying the gap between what happened and what “should” have happened) can help you identify expectations you had, preparing you for the next step.

Step Two:  Bury unrealistic expectations

Here you evaluate the expectations you had of yourself and others.  Were they fair and realistic?  Flexible?  Or did you see the situation narrowly (i.e., like a donkey with blinders on)?  Were you thinking in a petty or selfish manner?  Ask yourself, “Do my expectations need to be adjusted for next time?”  If necessary, get a reality check from a trusted friend, because if you can’t acknowledge unrealistic hopes, the next step will not be do-able.

Step Three:  Connect to your purpose; re-commit to your vision

Disappointment knocks us about.  We realise that we lost the battle.  But we are far more capable of hanging in to win the war if we take a moment to re-connect with our overall purpose:  why were we pursuing the goal in the first place?  How does it fit in with our vision for our life?  Coming back into relationship with the “why” of whatever we were seeking gives us the patience and courage to stare down the disappointment and start again.  Do we need a new strategic vision – or just a new way of approaching what still seems to be the right thing for us?  What if Edison had given up on his vision for an electric light bulb before his 2000th (and finally successful) attempt?  Persevering in the face of apparent failure allows us to get to the next phase of the process.

Step Four:  Disidentify from the disappointment

Remember those drawings that looked like so many dots until you stood back – and then the “hidden” picture became apparent?  Disappointment functions similarly.  It is not until we stand back and disidentify from our painful feelings that we can see the big picture of the situation, including the possibilities and potentials that are embedded within the disappointment.  With a disidentified perspective, we can see what we are being asked to learn from the situation – and get a glimpse of what else we could do, or what could happen differently in future.  We suddenly realise that the job would not have suited our lifestyle, or the person who left us was often not there for us even when with us.  Separating illusion and imagination from clear-headed reality primes us for the fifth step.

Step Five:  Exploit opportunities by identifying strengths and supports

Up to this point you may have felt disempowered, but here you identify skills and strengths which help you to turn the situation to your advantage.  What knowledge do you now have which can drive successful future efforts?  What tools are at your disposal?  What support can you garner from others?  The lost court case gives valuable experience of how the justice system operates; the close friend shifting away gives the opportunity to utilise our own resources.  A poor interview sharpens our skills of self-presentation for a job which may be more suitable.

Step Six:  Flexibly re-set objectives and expectations 

Moving through disappointment requires a re-appraisal of expectations which life has not met.  To avoid future disappointment, we can ask ourselves how we may be able to pursue our objectives realistically, with less rigidity, and not lose hope.  Maybe we can still keep the bar set at the high level, but approach it with more, smaller steps.  What helps now is a genuine acceptance of what happened along with an equally solid commitment to moving forward.  Creative and wise people tend to see how what they have already experienced has given them the capacity to engage the next battle, where they often win the war.  

Thus disappointing outcomes become gifts; we just need to learn to unwrap them.

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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