Let’s Talk About… Disappointment

By Jeremy Godwin

What is disappointment, and how do you deal with it in a healthy way? That’s what I’m talking about this week on… Let’s Talk About Mental Health — the weekly podcast about looking after your mental health, with simple ideas you can put into practice immediately.

So, get comfortable, and Let’s Talk About Mental Health…

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This podcast episode was originally released on 31 July, 2022.

Hello and welcome to Episode 142, and thanks so much for joining me as I talk about disappointment and mental health!

I’m Jeremy Godwin and I talk about looking after your mental health. I spent most of the 2010’s dealing with severe anxiety and depression, after a breakdown in late 2011, and that led me to want to learn more about my mental health… so I went back to school and studied psychology and sociology, and now I share simple tips for how to improve your mental wellbeing, from someone who actually understands what it’s like to go through mental health challenges. Each episode I look at how to improve one specific aspect of your wellbeing.

In this episode I’ll be talking about what disappointment is, why it can have a positive impact on our lives, and how to deal with disappointment in a healthy way. So, let’s talk!

Introduction

When I was a teenager, I wanted a Hypercolor t-shirt for ages and ages (so that definitely proves that I’m officially old, since that was in the early 90’s). Anyway, when I finally got one I was fairly underwhelmed because, quite frankly, they were a bit rubbish. OK, so they changed colour when they were exposed to heat but besides the initial excitement of making it go a different colour when you put your hand on it, on a practical level they weren’t great; I grew up in the outer suburbs of Sydney, where summers were usually brutally hot, and I can tell you from first-hand experience that walking around with a t-shirt that shows where you’re overheated is not a great look… talk about drawing unnecessary attention to your armpits! And a side note here; in 2020, some online retailers started selling colour-changing swimming trunks and I’m just going to gently suggest that maybe that isn’t a particularly smart idea — at least not to wear out in public — but perhaps that’s just me…

Anyway, the point of that random rant is that sometimes we have high expectations for something and then the reality turns out to be far less than what we might have hoped, which can lead us to feel disappointed, let down, frustrated and even disheartened… and those types of feelings can have a huge impact on your sense of positivity, hope and optimism. However, there are many ways that you can deal with disappointment which I’ll explore in a little bit. First, let’s go through some definitions and let’s talk about…

What is disappointment?

And it’s basically a feeling of sadness or displeasure caused by our hopes or expectations not being fulfilled (and that definition is adapted from the Oxford Dictionary). It’s a very specific form of sadness that can be tinged with grief and loss, especially where we’ve had our heart set on a particular outcome that doesn’t pan out as we might have hoped.

Life can throw many different challenges our way, from not achieving something we wanted to through to global pandemics happening and turning everything into a hot mess; I’d say that the majority of us have had more than our fair share of disappointments to contend with over these past couple of years. For those of us dealing with mental health challenges like anxiety or depression, feeling disappointed can lead us to experience more and more negative emotions which, in turn, can then lead us to feel like we’re being sucked down into a vortex of general crappiness. 

I remember when I first left my corporate job back in 2012, because my mental health had declined so badly that I could barely function, and I felt so incredibly disappointed in myself and I felt like everything I had done in my life up until that point had just been a waste… which then kicked off an entire chain of thoughts that basically led me to the conclusion that I was a useless human being. Of course now, with the benefit of 10 years-plus hindsight, I know that’s definitely not the case and I have said many times before that now I even consider my breakdown to be a favourable thing, because it has created so much positive change in my life (even if it felt like absolute hell when I went through it), and the thing is that our disappointments are often tied in to very specific ideas that we have about how things could or should be.

Disappointment comes when your expectations are out of alignment with reality, or when you try to control things you can never hope to control. It can also come from completely random events that might steer us off-course for no reason other than the fact that, in life, the one truth is that shit happens!

So, prepare to say ‘ouch’ because here are a bunch of truths that I think we need to get out of the way before we go any further: life is random, life does not owe you anything, life is what you make of it, you cannot control others, you are going to make mistakes, and there is no such thing as ‘happily ever after’. I know… even by my standards of being direct, that was pretty blunt wasn’t it?!

I said all of that because I’m a firm believer in realistic optimism (which was the subject of Episode 47) and by that I mean hoping for the best while remaining realistic and grounded in the fact that there are so many factors at play in life, and sometimes things are just not going to work out the way we want them to… which is frustrating, sure, but it’s not the end of the world. In fact, I think it’s not such a bad thing — and I’ll explain what I mean by that in a moment. 

Before I do I want to talk about how some of us are able to handle disappointment well, while others might find that it throws us completely for a loop and it can send us into a spiral of negativity. There are lots of different determining factors, because we all have unique life experiences, however one school of thought is that it’s related to our childhood experiences. I’m going to share a few paragraphs from an article in the Harvard Business Review about the root of how we handle disappointment; this is a bit of a longer quote than I would normally use, but I think it’s worthwhile. The quote is:

“The way we handle disappointment is related to our developmental history — our relationship with our parents and other early, formative experiences.

Some people seek to avoid disappointment by turning into underachievers. They unconsciously set the bar low and avoid taking risks, to prevent themselves or others from being disappointed [as] a form of self-preservation. However, it also leads to a mediocre and unfulfilled life. […]

Others… seek to avoid disappointment by becoming overachievers. Although they tell themselves that their expectations of perfection are appropriate and realistic, [the] bar is set far too high to ever make whatever they want to achieve attainable. They forget that perfectionism rarely begets perfection, or satisfaction — instead, it too often leads to disappointment. […]

Of course, there are also people with a more balanced developmental history. […] While it’s helpful to know which way we lean, our developmental history is not our destiny. Whatever our developmental history may be — having a secure base or not — disappointment can provide us with valuable information about our beliefs about ourselves, other people, and what makes us happy.”

And you’ll find that article linked in the transcript at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes in English, Spanish and Italian (find it here: https://hbr.org/2018/08/dealing-with-disappointment). 

So there’s a lot to think about there, and as I said earlier I believe that disappointment can actually be a force for good in our lives sometimes; with that in mind, let’s talk about… 

Why disappointment can have a positive impact on our lives

And let me be clear and say that I don’t think all disappointments are cause for joyous celebrations, because they still suck, but the point I want to make is that most of them have something positive to offer us if we’re just willing to look for the lesson they can teach us. For example, being disappointed that something didn’t happen can help you to see how much you actually want something which can, in turn, help you to either become more driven or, potentially, to refocus your priorities. Being disappointed because of someone you care about can give you the strength you need to tackle a challenging conversation, or to make a difficult choice. It can be the fuel that you need to make changes that might be uncomfortable or even difficult to begin with, but with time could prove to be the best thing you’ve ever done.

So my point, in a nutshell, is that our disappointments can actually help us to grow if we let them. 

According to an article by BetterUp, and I quote: “…feeling disappointed tells you three important things: 1. It means you’re passionate about something… 2. It’s an opportunity for growth… [and] 3. It can make you stronger” (and you’ll find that article linked in the transcript https://www.betterup.com/blog/disappointment). 

I recently filmed a video for my YouTube channel called ‘Quitting drinking improved my mental health’ (it’s linked in the episode description if you haven’t seen it yet) and in it I talk about how I hit my rock bottom with my alcohol consumption before I finally became sober in 2018; the day I quit was a horrible day for me, because I really felt like I had hit rock bottom and I was so incredibly disappointed in myself for getting to that place… but that sense of disappointment actually became the fuel I needed to strive to do better, and it’s what saw me through the days, weeks and months that followed as I took steps to sort myself out once and for all. My piece here is that it’s up to you what you choose to do with your disappointments, whether they’re of your own making or due to external factors or events; you can either let them drag you down, or you can use them to propel you forward. Either way, the choice is yours.

In that Harvard Business Review article I mentioned earlier there’s a  story about how Winston Churchill, that great British leader who managed to steer the UK — and much of the world — through World War II, had suffered disastrous defeats in the First World War while serving as First Lord of the Admiralty; defeats that cost tens of thousands of lives and which saw Churchill demoted and sent into the political wilderness. Later in life, Churchill described the state of depression he experienced at this time (his ‘black dog’, as he called it) and yet, in spite of that, he also was able to recognise (and I quote) “that it was much more constructive to reframe his disappointments as learning experiences in order to be able to cope better in the future, and to use disappointment as a catalyst for personal growth” (and, again, that article is linked in the transcript).

Your disappointments, your setbacks, your mistakes… none of them are the entire story of who you are as a human being, and none of them are failures; the only true failure is the experience that you don’t learn from. 

So how do you do that? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of today’s episode and let’s talk about… 

How to deal with disappointment in a healthy way

And so since I just said ‘healthy’ let me start by saying to choose healthy coping mechanisms — which is my polite way of saying don’t drink, eat or snort your way through your disappointment! The problem with those sort of choices is that they seem like a quick fix, but they can actually make problems much, much worse (plus you’ll probably feel like crap the next day). One healthy way to cope is with my next point… 

Talk about it — because you can either keep your feelings in, where they tend to fester, or you can let it out… and it really is a case of better out than in! When you let it out, it’s like releasing a pressure valve; instead of letting the negative feelings build and build and build until you feel like you might explode, talking with someone you trust can help you feel calmer and more in control… which then allows you to look at things more rationally, rather than running on pure emotion. Talk with a trusted friend or relative or, better yet, talk with a professional (like a counsellor, therapist or coach) who you feel comfortable with. The old saying “a problem shared is a problem halved” definitely applies here! OK, next…

Look at the big picture — a lot of the time our setbacks and disappointments might feel huge, but in the big scheme of your life they’re probably just a blip on the radar. I had one of those a little while ago where something I was working on didn’t pan out as I had hoped, and so of course I was disappointed but after talking with my coach and my therapist I was able to look at things more objectively; it wasn’t the end of the world and it didn’t actually stop me from achieving other things I wanted to. Sometimes we have our heart so set on a specific outcome that if it doesn’t come we can find ourselves feeling all kinds of disappointed feelings, however there’s a lot more to your life than just that one thing. And speaking of, my next point is… 

Allow space for life to surprise you — because there is always something new just around the corner. I call this the “one door closes and another opens” approach to life and it really is a very positive and optimistic mindset that can help you to feel more satisfied (and I covered optimism in Episode 47 and mindset in Episode 31, plus satisfaction in Episode 110). I just had it happen the other week: a client has finished up her sessions with me for the time being and I told my partner about it in the car that morning and I said, “something else will come along” — and not an hour later I had an email from someone seeing if I was taking on new clients. There’s a saying in English that is “swings and roundabouts,” which basically means that things will usually balance out in the end, and so instead of being hung up on the specifics of what life needs to look like, instead choose to trust that things will balance out. OK, next…

Know who you are and what you’re worth — because when you know your self worth, and you treat yourself with kindness and respect, you’re better equipped to handle setbacks and disappointments in life because you know that they do not define who you are; they are simply events, not your identity. I talked about self worth in Episode 78 and self belief in Episode 125. Alright, next… 

Be honest about your feelings — because feeling disappointed in someone can lead to resentment if left unaddressed, since it has a habit of building and building over time. If you feel let down, say so. If you feel you aren’t being treated respectfully or thoughtfully, say so. There are constructive ways to do that (which I discussed in Episode 134, about communication) and the piece here is that healthy relationships require honest discussions. Oh, and this point also applies to yourself — be honest with yourself about how you feel. If you feel disappointed, OK, admit that to yourself so that you can process it, accept it and then move forward, because denial isn’t healthy. And speaking of that, my next point is…

Focus on acceptance — because you can either fight against the reality of whatever did or didn’t happen, or you can accept that what is is what is so that you can then move forward. Resistance can often lead to even more disappointment, because you can fight reality all you like but it won’t change anything. You see it every time there’s a big election anywhere in the world and people become outraged because their party didn’t win; hey, I’m still disappointed Susan Boyle didn’t win Britain’s Got Talent back in 2009, but you don’t see me out in the streets protesting… do you?!  Some things are always going to be out of your control (actually, a lot of things) and you can either resist that fact, and cause yourself torment, or accept that fact, and find peace of mind. I talked about control in Episode 48, acceptance in Episode 36 and resistance in Episode 65, so you might find those helpful if you’re struggling with this. Alright, so my next point is…

Manage your expectations — and this is part of that ‘realistic optimism’ thing I mentioned earlier, because I think it’s important to have hope in life (which I covered in Episode 17) however you also need to find a balance by considering what can realistically be achieved or delivered. Sometimes we might overestimate our chances of success and so being able to bring ourselves back to a headspace that is both hopeful and realistic is important so that we can focus on what is within our direct control, rather than all the stuff that is out of our control. I’ve said in past episodes that my approach to my work is very much like this; once I’ve released a podcast episode or a YouTube video out to the world, that’s it… it’s out of my control what happens next. I can certainly influence it (for example, by promoting it and sharing bits of it on social media) but I cannot force anyone to listen to it or watch it. Like Doris Day once sang, “Qué será será, whatever will be will be.” I covered expectations back in Episode 82 and finding balance in Episode 49, so check those out for more on the topic. OK, next…

Tackle self doubt head-on — because self-doubt can lead you to question your abilities, which isn’t a particularly healthy headspace to be in. Know who you are and what you’re capable of, and be proactive about confronting your doubts so that you can let go of them (and I talked about how to do that in Episode 104, about self doubt). Speaking of abilities, my next point is…

Turn disappointment into an opportunity to grow — and you do that by consciously treating it as a learning experience. Consider the situation objectively and look for what it has to teach you, and then apply those lessons by taking action or making changes where necessary. You might even find it helpful to consider what advice you would give to a close friend or family member if they were dealing with the same type of situation, and then take that thought process and turn it into advice for yourself. I’m a firm believer that you can learn something from almost anything in life, even if that lesson is just what not to do in the future. Speaking of learning, my next tip is…

Try looking at things from a different angle — because it can be easy for our emotions to overwhelm us and narrow our focus, which can prevent you from seeing all of the different possibilities that might exist. For example, last year I was supposed to be doing some work for a corporate client which didn’t pan out as I had hoped in the end and I felt really disappointed… but, at the same time, I was exhausted because I was working ridiculous hours to try to accommodate it all while also managing my clients and my work creating content for my podcast and YouTube channel. So, in the end, it actually provided me with an opportunity to re-do my diary so that I could find better balance in my life and make more time to slow down throughout the week (which I just talked about recently in Episode 140). There are lots of different ways to look at a situation, and more often than not you’ll be able to see that a problem is simply an opportunity in disguise. OK, next…

Stop trying to be perfect — because perfect doesn’t exist, and you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. I mentioned that Harvard Business Review article before and there’s a line I shared earlier that I’ve been saying to people all week, because I absolutely love it; the line is, “perfectionism rarely [leads to] perfection, or satisfaction — instead, it too often leads to disappointment.” When you set the bar too high for yourself, you’re setting yourself up for failure. I talked about how to deal with perfectionism in Episode 98 if you’d like to explore the topic in more detail. OK, next…

Know what really matters to you — which feels like an extension of a few points I’ve made already, but what I want to say here is that when you know what your needs are (versus your wants) and you’re clear on what your priorities are, it helps you to put things into context and let go of the stuff that just doesn’t matter. I covered needs in Episode 137 and priorities all the way back in Episode 3, so you may find those helpful. Knowing what actually matters to you helps with my next point, which is…

Make thoughtful choices — and by this I mean taking the time to consider what you will or will not do next, so that you can apply what you’ve learned from the disappointment and also so you can factor in your needs and priorities (and I covered choices in Episode 135). Next… 

Focus on moving forward — because what has happened has happened, and no amount of going over it or beating yourself up is going to change things; you cannot go backwards, only forwards. If you find that you’re stuck in thinking about whatever did or didn’t happen, check out Episode 116 about ruminating for tips on how to get yourself unstuck from those thoughts in order to begin moving forward. OK, so my next point is…

Keep going — because all things take time, effort and perseverance, and yes you will quite likely face setbacks from time to time… but the more you persist, the more progress you make. Sometimes it might feel like you’re only taking tiny little steps, but even small steps add up over time to big results. Part of this is about learning to look for the opportunities in setbacks, and it’s also about having courage and persistence (and I talked about courage in Episode 130 and persistence in Episode 131).

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to disappointment and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: When the Rolling Stones sang, “you can’t always get what you want,” they also pointed out, “you just might find you get what you need.” Our disappointments are a sign that we care strongly about something, which is great, but just because it doesn’t work out exactly as we might have hoped, that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world… and it’s not always a bad thing. Disappointment can steer us down paths that we might never have taken, it can reveal things to us that we might never have discovered, and it can help us to find truths that we may never have known. Whether you choose to see disappointments as a failure or an opportunity is completely up to you, but only one of those choices will help you to move forward in a healthy way.

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by George Santayana, and it is:

“Wisdom comes by disillusionment.”

George Santayana

Alright… that’s nearly it for this week.

Next week I’ll be talking about intentions. Next time I want to discuss the benefit of taking time to truly understand what your intentions and motivations are, so that you can be kinder and more considerate towards others and towards yourself. I’ll be talking about what intentions are (and what they are not), why understanding your intentions matters, and how to manage your intentions for the sake of your mental health.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 7th of August, 2022. 

In the meantime, you’ll find more content about better mental health in my book, Let’s Talk About Mental Health (Volume One); you can buy it now in print or eBook from Amazon or buy the eBook from Apple Books and it’s linked in the episode description, or visit my website at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.

And watch my weekly videos on YouTube for more tips on better mental health, plus sign up to my mailing list for my free weekly newsletter, Thursday Thoughts, where I share a quick dose of inspiration (and those are all linked in the episode description).

And if you find my content helpful then I’d love it if you joined me on Patreon where I offer exclusive benefits for my supporters. Plus find me on Instagram @ltamentalhealth and say hi!

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time!

Jeremy 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health is proudly produced by Reconnaissance Media, helping you find gratitude and meaning. For more information visit reconnaissancemedia.com

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Find more content at www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2022 Jeremy Godwin.

The information provided in this episode is for general awareness on the topic and does not constitute advice. You should consult a doctor and/or a mental health professional if you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing. You’ll find additional information on the Resources page of this website.

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