Monday, May 18, 2009

Dealing with Disappointment

Today I thought I'd take a moment to consider the ways we deal with disappointment. It's something that we all deal with throughout life: beginning with our first running races, the birthday gifts we didn't receive and those frustrating claw machines that never give you the stuffed toy you wanted. I'm hoping that thinking about it can help us to be more understanding of our own emotions and the way we support others (including staff members and students) who feel disappointment. It might also help us with being the bearers of bad news.

Many things disappoint us including:
  • missing out
  • failing to achieve
  • making a mistake
  • losing
  • bad news
  • when things don't go the way you expected
Disappointment is a hard emotion to deal with. We tend to think of it as a bad emotion that we need to hide. We don't want to let it effect us and we try to console ourselves so we won't be embarrassed in front of others. Sometimes, we won't tell people that we're hoping for something, because we don't want to have to tell them that we failed. Disappointment can be embarrassing and humiliating.

When disappointment first hits, it may catch you by surprise. Often I haven't realised how much I've wanted something until I've been told I can't have it! In the moment before the bad news is given, there is still a chance that it will be good news. The moment the bad news is received, the good news is no longer a possibility. In that moment, one possibility dies and the other becomes reality. Your mind and your emotions have to deal with this grief and accept the new reality, preferably without any sign of emotion to those who are around you. None of us wants to be seen to be a poor loser.

Unfortunately, this isn't easy. I've decided that I have a limited time span during which I can hold back tears (hopefully long enough to remove myself to somewhere private!). Other people display their initial disappointment through anger. In some circumstances, people try to fight for the reality that has been taken from them.

So, where to next? After the initial confrontation with reality, we have some time to let things soak in. I always find that I am bombarded by mixed messages over the next few hours. If it's something I worked really hard toward, I feel lousy about my own ability. I try to find some consolation, you know the old "It wasn't meant to be...Something better must be just around the corner...Maybe next time". These phrases are great when trying to convince other people that you're not feeling hurt at the outcome!

Other ideas start floating through my mind too - some to do with giving up (!) and others to do with how to improve chances for the next time. Obviously the second set are much more productive. After I've had some time to deal with the initial emotional upheaval, I'm ready to talk to others. I usually find comfort in talking through my thoughts with people I trust. Alternatively I might write down my thoughts and feelings to help me sort through them. (Okay, okay, so I faced some disappointment today - can you tell?!) I let my husband know straight away and he is very good at helping me think through things. We usually have a nice dinner (or I might buy myself a tasty cheer-up treat).

Possibly the biggest part of dealing with disappointment is being brave enough to risk disappointment again. For some people the thought of possible failure or disappointment stops them from stepping out and trying anything new. Yes, they avoid disappointment in that area, but doesn't it limit their potential as well? If we only try the things for which we are guaranteed success, then won't we miss out on developing our capacity?

What are your thoughts? How do you deal with disappointment?


  1. expect disappointment. it is a part of life. expect it to come just when u don't want it, expect it frequently, expect it to effect u more that u think it would. when u really feel it is a normal part of life it does not seem to effect u as much as it is part of the normal process of things.

    however remember u r part of a team in schools (a committed sardine in a large school). rely on that other 15-20% to all cause friction, innovate and get the rest of the school to follow. sharing the resposibility of when the school does not turn with u will not make it so bad.

  2. Hi Penny,
    I completely related to your post and thank you for sharing your thoughts - it takes courage and you put it all so perfectly!
    How do I deal with disappointment? LOL...a good cry and then straight back in there with a smile - even if you're feeling awful inside!
    Lucy :)

  3. That was a wonderful and well thought out post. You have really peeled back the layers of the onion there. I feel hurt for a longer time than is healthy. I take it out on others without their being aware of the reason. I hide myself from the scrutiny of others because the loss has undermined my own sense of self. After a while, the lesson has sunk in and I am back in the game. As for my students, I try to set up an environment where the competition is with themselves. "Are you doing your best effort?" "Are you satisfied? If not, why?" It is too hard on everyone to have an icon of greatness sitting next to you. When the competition between students is removed, everyone is free to comment on the work of others in a constructive way. "Hey Ryan, you did a good job coloring that." "Thanks, I'm trying to stay inside the lines."


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