When Things Don’t Go Your Way: Handling Disappointment
If only things worked out exactly as we wanted them to all the time, then no one would need therapy! Therapy jokes aside, people often seek out therapy to work through disappointments big and small.
In my last blog post I wrote about the challenges of waiting, and, as promised, here is the follow up on how to handle things not going your way. There’s no getting around it, disappointments sting. And hurt. You can feel kicked in the teeth, punched in the gut, completely bereft. The reactions can be bodily experiences. You might find that you go offline completely, unable to concentrate or function at your usual level. It is important to know that this does not mean that you are crazy or weak or incapable of handling bad things, it means you are having a human reaction to a disappointment. The reaction you have and the way it makes you feel is going to depend on a number of factors:
1. What type of disappointment are you experiencing? Is it a breakup? Did you not get the job you so badly hoped for? Did you not get the part you auditioned for, or the promotion you were pushing so hard to get? Each of these scenarios is going to elicit a specific response in you, and your response is going to be different than the response of someone else experiencing the same bad news. Why the variability? That gets to point number 2;
2. What is your history, and what might this disappointment be evoking? The way you handle a breakup is likely to be influenced by your relationship to your early attachment figures, namely your parents or caretakers. If you’ve been in therapy you will find that your therapist is reviewing this old history with you, and your relationship to these early figures needs to be unpacked to figure out how the way they interacted with you then affects the way you relate to others now. If you had very close, nurturing attachment figures, you are likely to feel loved and secure in the world. A breakup will still be painful, but it might not feel like you are invalidated as a person and that no one will ever love you again. Someone whose attachment figures were not so secure, whose caregivers were not emotionally available and tuned in is more likely to feel the latter. If you were praised and made to feel like you are capable of accomplishing things, then not getting the job or promotion you wanted will sting badly, but it is not likely to make you feel like you are terrible and have no hope of working ever again. Someone who was not validated and mirrored, meaning taught how to self regulate in times of distress by an attuned caregiver, might feel like they have fallen apart. These disappointments in present day life can elicit, or trigger these old feelings. This happens unconsciously, without us knowing. The clue that it is happening is that we feel off, that our emotions feel outsized compared to the disappointment.
So what can you do to get through this? For starters, you have to let yourself feel bad. I had a disappointment recently that spiked my anxiety and threw off my ability to concentrate. I had plans to be very productive, but I had to put those plans aside as I processed my feelings. The anxiety gave way to sadness and anger, and I eventually accepted the outcome and began to make alternate plans. None of this happened immediately, I had to feel bad for a little while. There is no shortcut, but here are some strategies for coping:
· Do whatever you can to feel grounded and in your body. Plant your feet solidly on the floor. Move your body, go for a walk, dance, exercise, do yoga.
· Get a change of scenery. You might have been putting all of your energy into this one possible good job or promotion, but it is important to get away from that scene and realize that there are other aspects to life, other possibilities, and other things you can focus on.
· Socialize with friends. Make plans. Find healthy distractions. This is different than avoidance, which means pushing the feelings aside. Distractions are temporary and important. Avoidance is not dealing with it at all, which you don’t want to do.
· Talk to a therapist, who can help you gain perspective on your reactions based on your family history, and who can help you identify and talk about your feelings.
· Pay attention to your emotions. You might feel sad, so it’s ok to cry. You might feel anxious, or angry, and these are all normal emotions related to disappointment. Acknowledge them and know that you are simply having reaction.
· When you are ready, think about other options. Down the line you might want to date again. Perhaps there is a job that will be just as good a fit. Maybe even a better fit. Life doesn’t have to stop because you did not get what you want. It will be a journey to realize this, but a necessary journey to take to see new possibilities.