disappointed girl

Image by Amir Fathi

Disappointment isn’t often viewed positively in the self-help or self-development world. This is hardly surprising – it’s quite an unpleasant experience (at least for me).

An exception to this is Joanna Macy. Her take on disappointment is that disappointment is valuable because, “When you are disappointed you are not pretending” (my paraphrase). This is true (though it applies to any other experience or emotion that we don’t withdraw from).

[Joanna Macy is a Buddhist social activist whose work I recommend highly. She has written a book called World as Lover, World as Self that is very worth reading. She has also run Despair and Empowerment workshops – despair is little dealt with I think. To give a flavour of her approach. Her proposal for dealing with nuclear waste is not ‘out of sight, out of mind’ – bury it as we deep as we can and hope nothing happens for a quarter of a million years – but to store it above ground and have it cared for by a special force of guardians who would be honoured and rewarded for their work in guarding humanity from the peril that the waste is. I think Joanna Macy is an extraordinary individual and activist.]

Disappointment lets us know what is important to us. This is especially valuable when we are surprised by how disappointed we are. Being surprised by disappointment lets us know that there is more to us than our conscious thoughts and desires. So I think that disappointment is an experience worth embracing and learning from.

This is opposite to what I think of (a little unkindly) as the ‘spirituality is complacency’ line of argument. This argument is that if we aren’t attached to anything then we won’t be disturbed by anything. This is true – and has valuable aspects, which I’ll go in to a bit later. However, it too often is an excuse for callous indifference. It has no room for compassion. If we are appalled by the suffering of those dying of hunger, well, there is a way not to be bothered. This is indeed true, I can’t see it as admirable though. For me, a spirituality that doesn’t have a central place for compassion isn’t worthy of the name.

If we are disappointed it is certainly correct that we were attached to some outcome. But I’m not sure that not being attached is the desired response. Or, put perhaps better, the way to non-attachment is one of encounter not avoidance.

We could perhaps avoid all our emotions, hopes and dreams; we then would not be attached to anything. This would I think be the portrait of a psychopath.

If we embrace our experiences we find that we keep living and develop a resilience and sense of who we are. This gives us the sense that we are not any of our particular experiences – a sense of detachment from them. This path of encountering our experience also leads to non-attachment but does not have the psychopathic coldness that comes from avoiding part of our experience.

If we can welcome, or at least acknowledge, our disappointment we gain a softness, a sense of our vulnerability (which is a good antidote to any ideas that we are ‘above’ suffering), or any grandiose thoughts that we may have. By welcoming our disappointment we can expand our compassion.

The biggest problem I see with disappointment is getting stuck in it. Some people’s lives seem to be spoiled by a disappointment from which they have never recovered. And disappointment can certainly seem overwhelming, we can feel that everything is black and that tomorrow will be no better either.

Here are some ideas I have that may help in these times so that you can move to making disappointment a part of your experience and not something that overwhelms who you are – to gain some sense of detachment from it.

1. If you have supportive friends or family talk to them about your disappointment. If you don’t consider talking to a counsellor – there are usually free services available if you can’t afford to pay.

2. Find what it is that is so important. By this I don’t mean the event (the bastard left me) but what it means to you (eg. that I’m unlovable, that I was so naive to believe what they said – and naive is bad).

3. You will usually find that at the heart of your desire that was disappointed is something healthy – perhaps being too naive is a problem, but is it such a bad thing to want to be able to relax and trust others? From here it may be possible to move on and develop a trust that includes discernment.

4. Express your disappointment with all of you. You’re allowed to make up speeches or imagine telling people off or assaulting them – as long as it helps you do the disappointment with all of you. (Doing this stuff physically to them is probably not a good idea.) This may take more than once, if the disappointment is about something at the core of who you are. It is important enough to set aside time for doing it.

5. With a big disappointment, moving on means living differently. I have had a small disappointment with my blog stats this last week or so. This has meant a re-evaluation of what is important in terms of blogging (my thoughts about the importance of content vs marketing. My hope was that marketing doesn’t matter much at all, my experience is that it certainly does. This has meant me re-allocating my priorities and time somewhat – a slightly different way of living.) While this hardly rates in comparison with the disappointment of a major relationship break up I hope it is enough to show the point.

How have you dealt with disappointment in your life? Have you found ways of moving on from your disappointments? If so I would like to hear about them in the comments.

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12 Comments to “How to Respond to Disappointment”

  1. Barbara says:

    Hi Evan,

    I had such a strong reaction to this article, these ideas. I probably should be waiting to respond until I can get all my thoughts organized.

    Just a few days ago a friend was talking to me about meaning. Applying meaning to things. I think there is a direct correlation to what you are saying. She used her husband as an example, who she’s known since a young teenager and been married to for more than thirty years.

    She says if her husband yells at her and she applies no meaning to that, she is happier. I certainly can see her point. The yelling is his action, not hers. But. There is what you were talking about, the emotion.

    If someone that I loved and cared about for so many years would be yelling at me, I not only would have an emotional reaction (rather naturally) and be wondering what he really was trying to tell me, accomplish with a loud voice and the directedness at me, not just yelling to be yelling. So there would be meaning, actually meaning all over the place, I think.

    And it seems it would behoove me to attempt to find out what it was. Get beneath the outer action to the more core issue, as you indicated. More than likely, something is important to this person and it is being expressed indirectly in this situation. For only there can I know what this person is disappointed, angry, yelling about. The understanding probably then, ‘half the battle’.

    So your post very timely, as I found attaching ‘no meaning’ is not necessarily my best approach, as I found myself in such strong opposition to the position my friend took. In fact, more meaningful to know rather than not. Certainly not in every single case, but in a relationship such as my impression of my friend’s, it is hard for me to imagine the no meaning, the passivity then maybe excluding passion. Truthfully, it sounded to me like a coping mechanism, which is what she may need. Maybe what they both need.

    I’d have to ask then, still no meaning?

  2. Evan says:

    Hi Barbara,

    I think behaviour comes saturated with meaning. The important part of what your friends say is that we may have influence over the meaning we give (even ‘it’s meaningless’ has a meaning – relief of pain perhaps).

    It can provide relief to understand something differently eg they are just more intense than me; if I was shouting like that it would be a major trauma but this is the only way they have to process stuff. For instance: A friend I know survived awful physical and sexual assault. They tend to respond intensely to whatever happens to them – to have a moderate response isn’t something they do easily. It helps me to know this.

    If we feel understood it is (usually) much easier to find common ground and/or mutual respect with someone else.

    So I think the meaning is important for ourselves and our relationships.

    Thanks for another remarkably personal and insightful comment Barbara.

  3. Barbara says:


    The examples you gave me just now were excellent. It really helps me to have things put into context.

    So explaining your nature is easygoing – that an extreme of you yelling would tell me of your traumatized state.

    And the very logical correlation of your friend’s experiences of extremely intense experience translates into intense reaction as a norm.

    From there adding one and one to get two seems simple, unlike how most relationship building is perceived and generally carried out.

    Really good post. Really good advice. Something I won’t soon forget.

  4. Evan says:

    Thanks Barbara.

  5. Robin says:

    Hi there Evan – I like what you say about embracing experiences – I think too many people detach too soon, before they have let the experience transform them in some way.

  6. Mike says:

    These examples are great ideas, and definately got me thinking.

    “Find what it is that is so important”

    I think that’s an important one. Whenever I get disappointed I always look at the small picture at first. After struggling I find myself out of it and start to look at the big picture and sort things out.

  7. Evan says:

    Hi Robin,

    I entirely agree. We are often too keen to ‘move on’, ‘get over it’ instead of transforming.

    Thanks for your comment – it’s a very important one I think.

  8. Evan says:

    Thanks Mike,

    It certainly helps to get a sense of the big picture I think.

    Thanks for your comment.

  9. I found it interesting that I could not recall many times of late when I have been disappointed. I make tons of mistakes and things often don’t turn out as I would like but I guess I see disappointment as an unnecessary reaction to life. I do feel my feelings fully and then take a deep breath and move on. I’m please to have made this realization and I have your article to thank for it.

  10. Evan says:

    It sounds like a great realisation. I’m glad I played a part in it.

    And thanks for letting me know about it.

  11. spostareduro says:

    I haven’t found much peace lately I’m afraid.
    I have this strange intolerance of injustices. In the marketing world I revolve around, I see far too much of it and far less of those that support the underdog. They are callous and cruel, liars and cheats, selfish greedy mongers.
    I have been under their choke hold and I can tell you that if you don’t cooperate with their slavery programs of “do this do that”, they disregard you. If you debate with them, that’s a different story entirely. They do everything they can to talk as if they are good guys (e.g. “greenwashing”) and then rape rob and pillage their debaters’ front at all costs..so as to eliminate risks to their company. They’d rather harm the guy that takes a stand for justice, than simply decide to BE just.
    I’m fed up but mostly disappointed because I had once thought of them as friends until I began to see how greedy and horrible they are. They make people feel obligated to serve them and their needs because so many ‘little’ people want to get ahead and think they need them. (I say ‘little’ people, only as a means to express how the marketers in question, make them feel they are)

  12. Evan says:

    Hi Spostareduro,

    I think this is your first time here, so welcome.

    I agree with you about the practices of the IM crowd. I’m very glad you are processing your disappointment and voicing your (entirely justified in my opinion) anger.

    On Yaro Starak’s blog I once summarised one of those free videos so people wouldn’t have to watch it for themselves and give away their email address. This was fun and the guy involved (the Product Launch Formula guy) handled it pretty well.

    I really like that you are doing something about the whole IM thing with your own blog (if anyone reading this doesn’t know about it please go there by clicking on the name of the commenter).

    I have had a lot of difficulty thinking through my own approach to marketing – eg can I become an affiliate for a product that I can’t wholeheartedly endorse. My resolution so far is: I’m delighted to become wealthy by making friends and delivering excellent value. Of course in some ways this doesn’t solve anything specific but it does give me an orientation or place to start. Partly too its confronting my own preferences and how they fit or don’t with what I need to do – I’m fairly shy so marketing and promoting myself is the last thing that comes naturally to me.

    I do think that you can have a peace while fighting injustice. The path needs to nourish you or you just end up burnt out (I have seen this happen all too often to those who care; and it is those who care to whom burn out happens). We can feel at peace with developing our alternative and linking with those who also want to do things differently. We shouldn’t give the perpetrators of injustice the power to make us miserable while we are doing what we find worthwhile.

    Sorry if I’m raving or lecturing – this is something I’m quite passionate about.

    Thanks for your heartfelt comment. I very much appreciate it.

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