Navigating Disappointment

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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A mixed bag of adorableness and feisty conniptions epitomizes the persona of the typical toddler. Beset by the challenges of autonomy and exploring limits, it is during this stage of development that a profusion of developmental milestones and risk-taking occurs.

It is a time in which motor skills, language development and socialization flourishes. Yet, concomitant to the abundance of curiosity, wonderful discoveries, achievements and the testing of limits, is the inevitability of disappointment.

Not having the agency to gratify every impulse ignites a loss of control in the defiant toddler. The need for containment is often perceived as antithetical to the quest for freedom and power. To make matters worse, mommy and daddy are no longer perfect mythic beings. Suddenly they are the executioners of oppressive boundaries and confining discipline.

For the toddler, these unbearable conditions are tantamount to the pinnacle of life’s unfairness. Hence relentless tantrums ensue, substantiating the notorious moniker ‘the terrible twos’.

Undoubtedly, our early years of development are rife with disappointment. As young children, we come to know the malaise of feeling unfulfilled and let down. Sadness, anger and loss are aroused when desires and expectations clash with harsh reality. This brutal part of individuation is encountered again during adolescence. As presumed by the first go around, the frustrations of life ignite righteous rebellion and indignation.

The counter will instinct (O. Rank) kicks in. This autonomous force expresses one’s relationship to the world and others in the form of defiance and oppositional posturing that actively engages with and resists disappointment. Refusing to allow the disappointments of life to beat us down, we willfully and deliberately challenge various forms of oppression.

As with all things in life, this determined stance has its downside.

Although it is beneficial to refuse to be swayed by people or circumstances intent on derailing one’s ambitions, an overreliance on willful resistance can suggest difficulties with aligning assumptions and reality. After all, what one desires does not ensure that it will materialize, or even that it will offer satisfaction if attained. Disappointment is always a possibility, irrespective of how stubbornly we stand by our best intentions. Even the toughest and vigilant amongst us have a threshold for pain.

While many folks who have repetitive setbacks and misfortune are motivated by impassioned nonconformity and rebellion, alternatively there are those who become ensconced in a nihilistic stance.

The defeated rebel might cynically respond to incessant disappointment by diminishing aspirations. A ‘what’s the point’ protective attitude may ensue. Similarly, perseveration with self-blame may occur. Here one relentlessly mulls over the disappointing events that one failed to control.

Clearly, disappointments can either strengthen resolve or make us throw in the towel. Even brain studies confirm the prevalence of a ‘disappointment circuit’ linking depression with a negative bias rooted in chronic disappointment.

Ultimately, it is a balance of perseverance and humble acceptance that provides recovery from life’s defeats. The latter requires facing difficult truths.

Throughout childhood managing the vicissitudes of disappointment involves learning how to deftly ‘hold on’ and ‘let go’. Knowing what serves us and what doesn’t, what one can or cannot do is essential to emotional balance and relational dynamics.

Although differences and conflicts are unavoidable, disagreements can be resolved and disappointment can be allowed, without the feared reprisal of punishment or abandonment. This trajectory allows for healthy willpower characterized by discipline and tolerance, to develop. This is the ideal scenario.

However, it is inevitable that life’s disappointments will not be handled well for folks, who like myself were born into circumstances in which unstable, inconsistent parenting devoid of boundaries and discipline took place. Indeed, when one’s will is squelched, condemned, or unrestricted due to lack of appropriate discipline, one deals with disappointments by acting in or acting out.

In my case, I vacillated between feelings of impotent disempowerment and willfully soldiering through difficulties. Consequently, when I started therapy at 18 years old my therapist described me as someone who was besieged by disappointment. Indeed I felt constantly let down by people and life. I was pessimistic and discouraged, and I had good reason to be. I defiantly wore my contempt and victimization like a badge of superiority.

Nevertheless, if I was to heal I needed to expand my consciousness to consider alternate possibilities beyond what I knew. This meant tapping into faith and the hope that my disappointment could be ameliorated through enriching and fulfilling experiences and people. Paradoxically I also had to face the numerous betrayals that triggered my discontent.

Of course, exhuming innumerable formative memories of relational cruelty, neglect and deceit did not expunge me of disappointment. Rather, it challenged me to differentiate where I was truly a victim and where I was continuing to set myself up for disappointment by selecting others who replicated the very dynamics that originally threw me into disillusionment. This process crystallized how I was unwittingly betraying myself with unrealistic expectations and anemic standards, values and beliefs that invited in unethical behavior. It also revealed how I was lacking in essential life skills.

According to World Health Organization life skills are defined as, “a group of psychosocial competencies and interpersonal skills that help people make informed decisions, solve problems, think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, build healthy relationships, empathize with others, and cope with and manage their lives in a healthy and productive manner. Life skills may be directed toward personal actions or actions toward others, as well as toward actions to change the surrounding environment to make it conducive to health.”

Deprived of the early parental guidance necessary to knowing how to conscientiously assess my inner and outer worlds, I could not gauge what was tolerable from what was intolerable. Reclaiming the capacity to instinctually and intuitively determine what was safe and what was a threat was a critical step, as it offered the perspective needed to cultivate frustration tolerance.

Moreover, to effectively deal with life’s disappointments I had to nurture core life skill strategies such as defining and communicating my intentions and determining when to be flexible and tolerant of imperfection. It was also necessary to get very clear about when and how to draw hard lines.

Concomitant to overhauling self-defeating expectations and acquiring basic life skills was the mindful regulation of visceral activation (such as flooding and numbing) triggered by limit setting, conflicts and dashed hopes.

In a nutshell, if I was to ever capably contend with disappointment, then much of what was ideally achievable in toddlerhood, needed to be reclaimed in my adult years.

Over time, responsibly coping with disappointment rendered many lessons. I came to accept that there is tremendous variability in life. We can ruminate into perpetuity over an anticipated outcome and yet what unfolds may not even come close to what we imagined.

Accordingly, disappointment shows us that we really don’t have control over much that transpires. Hence, we are challenged to accommodate what things are, not what we wish them to be. This objective outlook and the capacity to accept disappointment are fundamental to tolerating one’s own and others' shortcomings.

Still, maintaining active resilience in the face of disappointment is imperative to exerting efforts towards what is desired. Exercising gratitude and the strength to lean into life’s challenges is fundamental to ensuring a satisfying quality of life.

Everything considered, successful resolution of frustrations and defeats necessitates humbly accepting disappointment for what it is; a necessary part of life. Paradoxically from this place, we can come to recognize the inherent freedom in giving up pointless control and instead direct our energy into actualizing uplifting possibilities that are firmly grounded in reality.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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