“New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.” ~Lao Tzu
In the middle of a storm, it is difficult to see any way out. But on the other side, we usually can recognize a silver lining—something we gained from the experience that enhanced our lives in some way.
When my husband unexpectedly died and left me a single mother to three young children, I could not conceptualize anything good coming out of it.
Yet, years later, I am here to tell you that the gutting, heart-wrenching experience taught me invaluable lessons that have helped me to not just survive but actually thrive, finding more happiness when I never thought I would again. Although I wish that experience never happened, I also would never trade the person I am today. Life is funny in that way.
There have been many setbacks and impending feelings of disappointment. Losing loved ones, the end of relationships, professional rejections and mishaps, parenting flops, general life blunders. All of it.
Each time I survive a setback, I learn something new and I get better. I become wiser when I seek to understand the lesson and reflect on the experience. I realize that these moments of disappointment have a lot to offer me in personal growth.
However, in order to get to this place, you must take care of your disappointment. It helps to study human nature and the common responses during these emotions, so you can recognize the pitfalls and be proactive about responding to your disappointment in a nurturing, positive way.
Most recently, when a relationship ended, I knew immediately that I had to make sure my disappointment didn’t turn into something bigger and darker. I learned from previous experiences what not to do.
Disappointment—what happens when your expectations are not aligned with reality—can be emotionally and physically painful. But when it turns into devastation, it becomes destructive and crushing, potentially putting you in danger.
Disappointment is a little hole you can jump over or fill in with some effort. Devastation is a deep trench that is difficult to escape and will require monumental effort. The trick is to take care of it before it becomes insurmountable.
After my husband passed away, it felt like my wings had been clipped. In a second, I lost my best friend, partner, colleague, and source of unfaltering support. I suddenly found myself having to stand on my own two feet with nobody to root me on, and I felt unconfident and unworthy.
It took me a while to consider dating. When I did meet someone, I had high hopes for that first relationship. I wanted so badly to experience the security of a stable relationship with a committed partner, the kind I had with my husband. I overlooked the fact that not everyone shared those expectations.
Unfortunately, this person wasn’t the right one. It was disappointing to feel like I’d wasted my time on someone with whom the stars did not align. I was not prepared to deal with the letdown.
I felt wronged by the universe for being in a predicament that I thought shouldn’t have happened in the first place. If only my husband hadn’t passed away, I wouldn’t be in this ridiculous, embarrassing situation of trying to re-enter the dating field as a single mother in the early years of her middle age.
I spiraled into self-pity, wondering why me and why not other people. It was triggering to see others in relationships and wonder why they didn’t have to suffer the way I felt our family had. It can feel isolating and lonely when nobody in your social circles is in the same boat.
That’s the thing about disappointment. We take it so personally. In reality, everyone has their own share of it; we just aren’t privy to seeing all of the ways it manifests in other people’s lives. We have tunnel vision with the realities we spin in our minds.
That relationship riddled me with self-doubt, which felt embarrassing because I knew I had already experienced more serious loss than that. Still, I wanted to dissect all of the details and ruminate over what happened, what could have happened, and what might have happened.
I let it linger too long instead of severing ties when I should have. I let the experience reinforce negative thoughts, like the ones where I told myself that I would never find anyone, that I wasn’t good enough, or that I didn’t deserve another chapter.
This was a classic case of me not taking care of my disappointment. I let my expectations go wild and I took the disappointment as a crushing blow to my ego. I internalized the pain and let it grow, feeding it irrational thoughts and reactions to perpetuate the negative emotions.
There is a better approach.
Disappointment is inevitable and natural, but there are ways we can soften the blow to help ourselves heal and move through the feelings instead of getting stuck in them. When we learn to not hold on so tight and let go, seek joy, and imagine the road ahead, we help ourselves dilute the disappointment until it no longer hurts us.
First and foremost, learn to accept what you can control and what you can not. This is paramount to taking care of your disappointment. Holding on to a reality that does not exist only makes your wounds fester.
I keep a journal, and it serves as an outlet for me to dump my thoughts into. I can go back to previous entries, and it is usually then that I make connections and realize that the grass was not always greener. I did this recently with a breakup, and I read, in my own words, about the red flags that I didn’t heed, which helped give me perspective as I processed what happened.
When we feel disappointed, our levels of neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine) go down. We experience emotional and sometimes physical pain as a result. The first night after my most recent breakup, my chest felt heavy, making it difficult to breathe as I struggled to fall asleep that night.
Even though I knew on an intellectual level that it was absolutely for the best, I couldn’t get over the feeling that I had done something wrong and, even worse, that I had wasted my time again. I find myself defaulting to toxic habits: lashing out, looking for ways to hold on, giving the situation too much benefit of the doubt, and trying to rescue something that was not there anymore. In a disappointed state, we tend to fall into irrational thinking and unsavory reactions in an effort to make the pain stop.
We have to learn to wrap our minds around the impermanence of disappointment—it won’t hurt this bad forever—and let it go, instead of desperately digging in our heels. At this stage, there’s nothing more important than acknowledging how you feel, but then moving on and adjusting your expectations.
Find Varied Sources of Joy
The old adage “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” applies here. The person that got away, the job you lost, or whatever happened to cause your disappointment was not the only source of your joy. Or at least it shouldn’t have been. You are a person with many interests, and you are going to find your dopamine and serotonin elsewhere.
If you don’t have any hobbies, now is the time to explore and perhaps learn something new. This will help redirect your attention away from the disappointment and also make you feel good. It’s always a good idea to fill your happiness bucket, and now is the perfect time.
Some questions to consider:
- What did you used to do in the past that made you happy?
- What have you always wanted to do?
- What can you do now that you couldn’t do before?
For me, I decided I wanted to finish some projects I had kept on the backburner when I was busy in a relationship, and I decided to learn pickleball to meet new people and go back to pilates, which I had stopped pre-pandemic and never resumed.
Conceptualize the Road Ahead
Disappointment is not the end of your road. You are not stuck in a dead end. You simply encountered a bump in the road and there is a way out.
First, figure out what you want in your life in terms of priorities and values. I spend a lot of time doing this, but when I encounter disappointment, I still find myself swerving off the path and bombarding myself with negative thoughts. I have to consciously separate the disappointment from my identity, and keep reminding myself that I am not what I lost.
I remind myself of the goals I have, ones that still exist even in the face of loss. Sometimes we need to adjust these goals and find other plans or even go in new directions, but you are still a person with aspirations, hopes, and dreams that belong to you. Disappointment doesn’t get to take that away from you.
It helps me to create lists of the small action steps I need to take to achieve these goals. I call them “bite-size” actions. Teeny, tiny steps.
For example, I made a “glow” list after my most recent breakup, with all of the things I wanted to do to enhance and better my life. It included tasks as small as getting my nails done and as big as setting up an investment account. Check items off your list and build your grit and perseverance as you prove to yourself how strong you are.
Also, embrace an abundance mindset. There are more fish in the ocean. There will be job opportunities you can’t even conceptualize right now. Trust they are out there and be open to these possibilities. Seek them out.
When I get a writing rejection, I try to reframe it as a learning opportunity, trusting that there will be more opportunities to submit my work and I will get better with practice. You don’t get one shot and you’re done. There are an infinite amount of opportunities still waiting for you to explore.
Bottom line: Disappointment is an opportunity to grow your emotional resilience. It’s a chance to get stronger and intentional about your life, evolving into a better version of who you were yesterday.
One way to approach your disappointment is to remember seven-year-old you. How would you talk to that child? What advice would you tell seven-year-old you?
Treating yourself with compassion and patience, while firmly steering yourself back into a positive direction, will help you overcome the many forms of disappointment you will inevitably encounter.
I’m human, so disappointment still stings even with all of the work I have done. But utilizing these tools have helped me navigate through negative feelings, enabling me to heal more quickly and move on toward new sources of joy.
I like this quote by Peter Marshall. He said, “When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.”
Never forget that you are a diamond, nothing less.