Thursday, November 12, 2015

When Disappointment Strikes ...

We must accept finite disappointment,
but never lose infinite hope.

Martin Luther King, Jr

Hi everyone,

When was the last time you felt disappointed? Disappointments are emotional experiences most of us could do without, even though they seem to be a persistent part of life. Several people I know have experienced significant disappointments in the past month, including myself.

A young friend, scheduled to have surgery for a painful gallbladder condition last Friday, developed a skin rash and the surgery had to be cancelled. Friends travelling in Borneo found that they had to quickly revise their plans when the smoke of the Indonesian fire season and an active volcano cancelled flights and, thus, their dreamed-of boat trip to Camp Leakey. Another friend, recovering from surgery for a heart valve problem, has not seen the improved exercise tolerance he'd hoped for. And, after all my talk about looking forward to being "fed by my senses" while on Vancouver Island for the Thanksgiving weekend, I spent the holiday at home in Burnaby with an aching back after being rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver.

Disappointment. The dictionary says it is the feeling of sadness or displeasure caused by the nonfulfillment of one's hopes or expectations. It disorients us, floods us with sorrow, triggers anger and frustration and uses up energy and focus that could be channelled in more productive ways. If we hold on to it, disappointment can also make us physically or emotionally ill through creating chronic levels of stress.

Some disappointments are predictable and preventable like those that occur when we hope that someone will do something for us but then neglect to tell them what it is that we want. Other disappointments, like my friends' cancelled trip to Camp Leakey, are totally unavoidable. It's important to be able to differentiate between the two so we can respond appropriately.

And how DO we best respond? 

If the disappointment is unavoidable, there are a few things we can do to help us arrive a place of greater peace and acceptance of the unexpected happening:

1.  Treat the disappointment as a small (or large) death - the death of an expectation or a dream. Give yourself permission to grieve that death and fully express your feelings, whether sorrow, anger, guilt, fear or envy. Express them to a trusted friend, write about them in your journal, pray or meditate about them, use expressive arts to release them,  consciously process them through physical activity or see a therapist to work them through. You may find that you feel a little worse to begin with but keeping your feelings buried can cause them to fester so it's usually good to give them room to surface. 
2.  Exercise self-compassion -  Allow yourself to recognize how hurt you feel and treat yourself with all the kindness and compassion you would a friend in similar circumstances. This means avoiding harsh self-criticism or taking responsibility for circumstances beyond your control. It also means asking for whatever support you need to process the experience  
3. Make positive meaning from the situation - I'm not one of those people who believes that "everything happens for a reason" but I do believe that we can take any unfortunate incident and, ultimately, make some positive meaning from it. We can do this through intentionally altering our perspective and through taking in the good. (It may be difficult to see any good at the time of the disappointment, but for many of us, time, intention and perspective allow a glimpse of something life-giving in most unexpected happenings.)
4.  Don't give up hope -  My husband and I struggled with chronic disappointment over the years his heart failure followed its inevitable course. Again and again, we made plans for activities or visits with loved ones, only to find that we had to cancel them at the last moment because he was too tired or had chest pain or was short of breath. (Or that our loved ones had colds or flu and were therefore "off-limits".)
Rather than teaching us to give up hope and avoid planning, these experiences helped us to continue planning while adjusting our expectations. We learned that we would probably have to cancel 80% of the plans we made, but that to enjoy the remaining 20%, we needed to continue making those plans. (We also recognized that we needed to educate our family and friends so they could expect cancellations and have contingency plans in place to mitigate their disappointment.)

If, on the other hand, disappointments are predictable and preventable, they can provide an invitation to reflect on our patterns of attraction and behaviour so we can see what part we play in our own disappointments. Do we enter into relationships with people who are unworthy of our trust? Are we expecting outcomes that cannot possibly occur? Are we wanting something from someone who does not have it to give? Are we expecting more from ourselves than we can reasonably accomplish at this time in our lives?

All disappointments, whether large or small, can be opportunities to learn and grow - if we can open ourselves to that learning. While I wouldn't wish a disappointment on anyone just so they could have a learning experience, I'm sure there are sufficient disappointments in our lives to offer repeated opportunities for reflection and growth. No one wants to be disappointed but there can often be a gift in the experience.