A recent loved one's disappointment and my own reaction to the presidential phenomena unfolding before our eyes has stimulated this exploration of disappointment and its relationship to aspirations and expectations, hopes and fears.
Hopefully, readers will NOT be disappointed with this attempt at bringing light into the darkness that befalls us when we are disappointed. The challenge is to learn from disappointment, to become increasingly aware, resilient and able to transform our negative experiences into the energy that fuels loving kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy for those we love and those we don't.
Disappointment and Expectations
Disappointment is an emotional response to unmet expectations. It is a felt sense of sadness, frustration and embarrassment that comes from not getting what you want. It may be short-lived or lingering.
Expectations are the underlying cause of disappointment. The more attachment to and unrealistic optimism about having expectations met, the greater a disappointment's impact. Though, even when expectations are healthy and realistic, disappointment is a natural experience when we don't get what we want.
Take for example the recent presidential election. While many people may be delighted with the result, a majority (if you are to believe the popular vote count) are disappointed. Many were disappointed with the choice of candidates well before the election. Personally, I was prepared for the results, having had a premonition that Trump would come out the winner. Though, I am still disappointed.
Premonition aside, my disappointment is multi-faceted. I am disappointed that a large proportion of the American people are willing to trade the health and welfare of future generations for some vague promise of economic gain and the pleasure of sticking it to the establishment in Washington.
I am disappointed in the Democratic party's inept handling of the election and its inability to make it clear to workers and the 99% that their best interests lie in a progressive program. I am disappointed in the regressive and potentially repressive program unfolding as we watch cabinet posts being filled with people who oppose environmental protection, public education, choice, criminal system reform and a response to global warming.
I find my disappointment turning into fear for the future and a deep recognition of how out of control things are.
On a personal level, there is the disappointment that comes when one is rejected as a school or job applicant or lover. Here the feelings morph into a questioning of self-worth, sadness at the loss and fear that there will be more losses going forward. There is the embarrassment that comes from the projection that others will be judgmental. Look to your own disappointments for the full list. If you haven't had any, consider yourself fortunate and watch out because one may be right around the corner.
The Optimism-Pessimism Continuum and Reality
It seems that optimism is a factor in the experience of disappointment. The optimist feels the impact of the loss more intensely because he or she was not prepared for a negative outcome. The disappointment shows the optimist's optimism to be an illusion; wishful thinking. The pessimist, on the other hand, is ready for disappointment.
There is a continuum between optimism and pessimism, with bind faith in a positive outcome on one extreme and total conviction that the outcome will be bad on the other. Wisdom comes into play to bring the individual to a realistic place on the continuum. Optimism and pessimism are moderated by the realization that the future is uncertain. We may be able to influence it, but there is a limit to our influence. The future is out of our control. Perhaps that is what underlies disappointment, facing the reality of being out of control.
Now, I am not saying that it is better to be pessimistic than it is to be optimistic. Seek realism with a degree of faith in a positive outcome and the acceptance that, no matter what, the outcome is unpredictable. Test any assumption that something will or won't happen to see whether it is accurate or not. Use your assumption as a starting point for planning what you can do to achieve your desired goals.
Working with Disappointment
It is the acceptance of uncertainty that cuts through disappointment. It may be possible to reach a level of enlightenment where there is no disappointment. When there is great wisdom, no hope, no fear, no attachment, then there is no disappointment.
Alas, for most of us there is still some degree of attachment to desired outcomes, there is hope and there is fear. That means we will be disappointed when we don't get what we want.
The mindfully aware person will experience the feeling, see it for what it is, learn from it and let it gently pass. He or she will avoid the tendency to let the disappointment flow into depression or anger and instead channel its energy into positive action.
To work with disappointment understand of the links a chain of events from aspiration to action:
- Aspiration - what you want to have happen. Our hope, intention and goal.
- Expectation - what you are convinced will happen. It may be more or less realistic
- Attachment - the degree to which you MUST have the outcome you want; to have your expectation met.
- Disappointment - the feeling that arises with not getting what you want
- Recovery - the passing of the disappointment, free from reaction to the emotion.
- Action - Reaction or Response
A realistic attitude will break the chain of events between aspiration, expectation and attachment. The more realistic the expectation, the less attachment to the outcome. The less attachment, the less disappointment. Disappointment is to be fully experienced, as any emotion. Recovery happens more quickly when the emotion is fully experienced. Running away from negative feelings leads to reactive behavior and an unconscious perpetuation of the emotion. Recovery enables responsiveness - consciously chosen behavior.
To skillfully work with disappointment, hone your mindfulness and come to grips with the reality that:
- there will be disappointments as long as there are desires
- there is uncertainty - everything is changing in a way you cannot control
- you can do something to influence the future - every action creates a ripple effect
- you are not your self-image, emotions, aspirations, and expectations.