The holidays seem an apt time to write about disappointment. How many of us struggle during December and January to create meaningful experiences that end up falling short in comparison to some magic we remember as children? There is a “big D” of Disappointment. COVID is still here and we cannot see family and friends without feeling anxious and in danger and there is the “little d” of disappointment; the gift that was not quite right, the lack of attunement of a friend or family member. All disappointing. There is the FOMO and being excluded during holiday events and there is the overwhelm of too many activities and burn out. More disappointment.
However we have an odd coping mechanism to avoid disappointment. WE EXPECT IT!
What sense does that possibly make? Because expecting something is a setup for having it actually happen! Ways that we try to avoid disappointment include perfectionism, pessimism, vigilance and a kind of living on the edge of life.
I imagine this begins early in life when we expect to have everything go our way. The terrible 2’s are when we discover we do not always get what we want or need and we throw tantrums! This pain of disappointment is soul crushing to a little one. Below is a picture of our 3rd grandchild, Matthew when he was around 4. Have you seen a sadder face? At 7 our youngest grandchild Lucas wants to go fishing. He is obsessed with fishing. He does not wonder if anyone else wants to go. It is all about him. We are supposed to grow out of this self centeredness, but I have a secret— most of us don’t. And the way we cope with this drive to have it all our way takes various forms. One way is to expect disappointment.
Perhaps it is obvious, but when you seek perfectionism and are vigilant to have what you want, you are being unrealistic and this will inevitably lead to disappointment. When your goal is to not want or need and be withdrawn and pessimistic you live in disappointment.
For myself I notice an instant pairing. As soon as I imagine the good in something in the future: the new house we are building, the trip we are taking in the spring, I imagine what will go wrong with it. One pops up, the beautiful home with a view, and then the dread of a noisy neighbor or a storm the wrecks havoc. They feel linked in a marriage of sorts, first one, then the other — boom!
Disappointment is a feeling like many others. But it is a complex feeling, meaning it often contains sadness, grief, anger, hopelessness just to name a few. Notice what happens when you are disappointed or even when you expect disappointment. If you refuse to feel it, one option is to blame yourself; to think, “here I am again, a failure”, and then engage in self soothing but also self destructive behaviors like over eating or drinking or whatever your favorite self soothing vice happens to be. This becomes a cycle of disappointment, because now you are also disappointed in yourself. The other option is to blame others — the perceived object of your disappointment. When we do this without feeling it we usually do not engage with the person who let us down. We just ‘cut and run’. This also reinforces our point of view about life being disappointing. If we were to engage with the one that disappointed us, feeling our feelings and expressing them, there may be a chance for some sort of repair. But this would not reinforce our expectation of disappointment.
A really crazy thing happens when you actually feel your disappointment — the real disappointment of trying month after month to get pregnant with no results; the scan that shows a return of the tumor; the life threatening trip to the hospital without your husband…
At first you think the feeling will crush you, thus you engage in the strategies above. But if you stay with the feeling, what happens is that the disappointment opens up like a rainbow of many colors of feelings each needing our attention. As we attend to the loss, grief, sadness, anger — something miraculous happens. Hope appears. It often appears very faintly and from a distance but also absolutely there. Like a glimmer of light in a dark tunnel it is waiting for us on the other side of our disappointment, and with hope is also it’s companion — faith.
Hope and Faith are the antidotes to expecting disappointment. Living from a place of faith is living from an expectation of the good — even if we can’t see it manifest in the moment. Expecting disappointment is living from a place of expecting the bad.
Our Thanksgiving this year was big and chaotic. Lots of people, kids and dogs in a small space. I left feeling somewhat drained and disappointed. I began it build a case in my mind about how I would never do Thanksgiving like that again next year. Yesterday I went around the crowded room in my mind’s eye and remembered a kind connection that I had with almost everyone there, and really let it sink in. The experience turned good instead of bad. It was that simple. We have a choice in each moment to live in the good or expect the bad. What choice will you make today?
As I thought of writing this blog, I remembered of one of my all time favorite books, Expecting Adam by Martha Beck. The book is about a HUGE disappointment. I can tell you the basic plot line without spoiling the book: two Harvard Ph.D candidates marry and find out they are pregnant. They discover from early testing that the child has Down syndrome. As they struggle with their feelings about having a mentally disabled child, a mystic channels a message from Adam, their special child. He says,” You shouldn’t be so worried. You’ll never be hurt as much by being open as you have been hurt by remaining closed.”