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How to overcome disappointment: Strategies for coping and moving forward

Have you ever heard someone say, "I don't set expectations anymore, that way I can’t be disappointed”? That used to be me. I reached a point in my life whereby things didn’t go according to plan so often that I gave up planning. I thought I was better off having low or no expectations of myself, others, and my life, so I would never feel the aching pain of disappointment again. 


Caucasian man wearing a suit yelling into an old fashioned phone
Disappointment can elicit feelings of anger, sadness and frustration, leading to stagnation, but it needn't be so.

The hidden cost of low expectations

Certainly, the idea of releasing expectations to avoid disappointment is common when attempting to manage emotions and life’s expectations. Sometimes the thought of not achieving or not succeeding is just too much, that it feels easier to just let go of expectations and let things be. However, while this approach may seem like a profound and spiritually-progressive mentality, it is actually a protective shield against the sting of disappointment, and with it, carries a hidden cost. 


By removing expectations entirely, we inadvertently limit our capacity for growth and achievement. Expectations, when set with realistic and thoughtful intention, can serve as a guide, motivating us to strive for excellence and reach our fullest potential. Without them, the journey loses its direction, and the possibility of meaning in life diminishes. 


Fear of disappointment is killing your success

The fear of disappointment is just a different face to setting low expectations. It can act as a silent saboteur, undermining your potential for success in life. This fear, rooted in the anticipation of failure or rejection, often manifests as hesitancy or reluctance to take risks or pursue ambitious goals. It breeds a sense of self-doubt and insecurity, holding you back from seizing opportunities and realising your full potential


When driven by the fear of disappointment, you may find yourself settling for mediocrity, choosing the safety of familiarity over the uncertainty of growth and exploration. This fear can create a self-perpetuating cycle of missed opportunities and unfulfilled aspirations, ultimately stifling your personal and professional development. 


Why does disappointment hurt so much?

The reason we may fear disappointment is because it can be painful. Disappointment can trigger a physiological response in the body, releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. When we experience disappointment, the brain perceives it as a stressor, activating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This leads to the secretion of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which then prompts the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary gland. ACTH travels to the adrenal glands, stimulating the production of cortisol and adrenaline​ (Dartmouth Sites)​​ (Mayo Clinic)​.


It also hurts so much because it pokes at the heart of our hopes, desires, vulnerabilities and the essence of who we are. When we invest in a particular outcome, only to have those hopes crushed, it can feel like a betrayal of trust – whether in others, ourselves, or the universe.


Additionally, disappointment often carries with it a sense of loss – not just of the desired outcome, but also of the time, effort, and emotional energy invested in pursuit of that outcome. We can feel like we let ourselves and others down, which can contribute to feelings of shame, embarrassment and low self-worth. Ultimately, disappointment hurts because it forces us to confront the gap between what we wanted and what we received or achieved (or didn’t receive or didn’t achieve), or between the world as we wish it to be, and the world as it is.


Disappointment, is a complex emotional response, that often stems from the disparity between our expectations and reality.

Unhealthy ways we deal with disappointment

In our quest to navigate the pain of disappointments, we may unwittingly adopt coping mechanisms that lead us to push disappointments down, burying them deep within the recesses of our subconscious.


Disappointments may present as feelings of sadness, frustration and anger. We may numb ourselves with distractions to avoid confronting the pain. Or we might rationalise our disappointments, convincing ourselves that they're inconsequential or unworthy of attention. In doing so, we create an illusion of resilience, masking our true emotions behind the face of stoicism. Yet, beneath the surface, these unresolved disappointments linger, silently gnawing at our sense of well-being and distorting our perceptions of reality.


What happens if disappointment is not expressed?

When unexpressed, disappointment can have a ripple effect across multiple dimensions of our well-being. 


Physically, it can accumulate and lead to chronic issues such as headaches, back pain, or digestive disturbances.


Emotionally, it can lead to feelings of resentment, bitterness, and apathy, eroding our capacity for joy and connection. 


Spiritually, it may create a sense of disconnection from oneself and others, hindering our ability to find meaning and purpose in our lives. 


Psychologically, it can contribute to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, undermining our sense of self-worth. 


Our brain’s response to disappointment 

Disappointment triggers complex reactions in the brain's reward system, initially, there's an expectation of reward, activating feel good neurotransmitters like dopamine. However, when reality falls short, this activation is depressed, leading to decreased dopamine levels and feelings of sadness or frustration. Over time, repeated experiences of disappointment may impact brain regions linked to emotion regulation, potentially altering mood and behaviour. Furthermore, disappointment often prompts rumination, where the brain fixates on the letdown, prolonging negative emotions.


Experiencing and overcoming disappointment can indeed foster neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to adapt and form new neural connections. Coping strategies and resilience allow the brain to learn from disappointments, enhancing emotional regulation and problem-solving skills. Research indicates that neuroplasticity enables the brain to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections in response to experiences and challenges, which is crucial for emotional and cognitive development​ (MindLAB Neuroscience)​​ (MDPI)​. This suggests that while disappointment initially triggers negative reactions in the brain, it also presents opportunities for growth and development, ultimately shaping how individuals navigate future challenges​ (British Council)​.


Why are successful people better at handling disappointment?

Individuals who have achieved success in their lives often demonstrate higher levels of resilience and adaptability when faced with setbacks or disappointments. Their life experience has enabled them to bounce back from failure and focus on solutions. Adaptability and problem-solving skills help them better navigate disappointment, finding alternative paths to their goals, rather than getting stuck on one path. Possessing a growth mindset, successful individuals tend to view disappointment as an opportunity for personal development rather than a reflection of their abilities. The upside of this is that resiliency, adaptability and problem-solving are learned skills, meaning that with practice anyone can improve.


How can grief work help to process disappointment

Grief work can serve as a powerful tool in processing disappointment, offering a structured framework for navigating the complex emotions that accompany it. By providing a safe space for expression and reflection, grief work encourages us to confront disappointment head-on, rather than suppressing or denying it. Through guided exercises and therapeutic techniques, such as journaling, visualisation, sound therapy or group discussions, we can explore the root causes of disappointment, identify underlying beliefs or expectations, and gain insight into how it has impacted our lives. By allowing ourselves to fully experience and express emotions within a supportive environment, we can gradually come to terms with disappointment, integrate it into our personal narrative, and ultimately find a sense of closure and resolution.


How to handle disappointment 

When faced with a sudden disappointment, it's crucial to acknowledge and validate your feelings without suppressing or denying them, know that this may take practice, but over time it will become easier. Take a moment to pause and breathe, allowing yourself to fully experience the emotions that arise, whether it's frustration, sadness, or anger. Once you've acknowledged your feelings, shift your focus towards problem-solving and if appropriate, seek support. 


If a friend cancels plans, you lose a sports game, or you didn't get the job you were hoping for ask yourself what is in your control at that moment. At some stage following allow yourself time to grieve the loss, process your disappointment and also take proactive steps towards moving forward. This could involve communicating your disappointment with your friend, reviewing your sports performance, seeking feedback on your job application, or exploring other opportunities to improve future outcomes of similar events. 


In any case, it's important to practice self-compassion and avoid harsh self-criticism. Most important is to sit in quiet contemplation, perhaps journal, and to reflect on why you feel disappointed.


Disappointment as a positive feedback loop

Evolutionarily, disappointment may have served as a mechanism to signal that one’s efforts or expectations did not lead to the desired outcome, prompting one to reevaluate their strategies or behaviours. In this sense, disappointment can be seen as a feedback mechanism that helps individuals adapt to changing circumstances and improve their chances of survival.


Although painful, disappointment can thus serve as a catalyst for personal growth, prompting reflection, adaptation, inspiring life changes and the development of coping strategies. Disappointment can also act as a valuable teacher, providing insights into our values, desires, and areas for improvement. Ultimately, embracing disappointment as a natural part of life's journey can lead to greater emotional maturity, self-awareness, and the ability to find meaning and fulfilment amidst life's challenges


Remember that setbacks and disappointments are a natural part of the human experience, and they do not define your worth or potential. By approaching disappointment with a sense of curiosity, resiliency, adaptability, and with self-compassion, you can effectively navigate through challenging moments and emerge stronger.

If you feel you are stuck and can’t let go of disappointments or the emotions associated with disappointment, why not send us an email and let’s talk about doing a Grief Work session together. If you are ready to book, you can do so here.


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This article was written by Nicole Sultana, she holds a Post Graduate Degree in Spiritual Care, a Bach. App. Science in Sports Science/Human Movement, is a Certified Therapeutic Sound Practitioner and a Death Doula. She is the founder of Sound Consciousness, a company who provides wellbeing strategies and therapeutic sound practices to help individuals reach peak levels of performance whether they wish to excel in their professional lives, be the best partner they can be, or wish to create the life of their dreams. 


If you enjoyed reading this article leave a comment below and share the article with others who may benefit. The more we share our collective experiences the more we help each other learn, grow and heal. Constructive discussion is always welcomed, as that contributes to our growth, but please remember to be respectful and kind to one another. 


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