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As a response to my post last week on planning, I was asked to speak more specifically about managing disappointment, and I promised to write this post.  Ever since, I have been simultaneously rubbing my hands together in glee and shaking in my culottes at the prospect of talking about a topic I find so important and difficult.  Disappointment is something that needs to be talked about more – and at the same time, it’s often an uncomfortable place to go in a conversation.  So I’m hoping to open up this blog to talking about it in a nonthreatening way.

First, I have to acknowledge the first advice I’ve heard from many people about disappointment: manage your expectations and create concrete goals that depend on yourself to complete and are therefore more in your control.  So for example, you set a goal to attend ten auditions this season instead of a goal to be cast in a leading part.  This is good advice; if you can shut down disappointment before it even happens, you’ll be a happier person.  But it’s also advice that ignores the deeper emotional heart of the issue, which is that sometimes we’ve planned perfectly well and we’re still plunged into the depths.  Sometimes things go horribly wrong for no reason; sometimes things go horribly wrong for a perfectly good reason.  Sometimes we mess up, make huge mistakes, get our hearts set on something we simply can’t have right now.  It happens, and sweeping these experiences under the rug invalidates the very real suffering they cause.

It’s not just a problem for those following artistic pursuits either.  Relationships go south.  Family behaves in unaccountable ways.  Vacations get canceled.  People move away, or are too busy to see us.  We get passed over during the promotion cycle.  The last episode of Battlestar Galactica was a travesty.  And on and on and on.  More often than not, we pretend to the outside world that none of this is going on.  But it is, trust me.  Disappointment is a fact of life.

So what are some ideas of ways we can deal?

  1. Have a support system, or at least a support person. I tell my husband about almost all of my disappointments.  He quite possibly gets sick of hearing about them, but it makes me feel a whole lot better to know there’s someone on my side no matter what who will urge me to keep going.
  2. Get the disappointment physically out of your body. Scream, cry, take up kickboxing, run around the block, jump up and down, hit your pillow.  In my experience, this becomes more important the bigger the disappointment you are suffering.  If I receive a short story rejection, I just sigh.  That one breath is enough for me to let it go.  If, on the other hand, someone is unkind to me, I might need to rant about it for awhile to get it out of my body.
  3. Allow yourself to feel the disappointment, and then give yourself a treat to acknowledge that you took a risk and made an attempt. This can be sugar, my personal favorite, or something you buy for yourself, but it can also be something simpler that doesn’t cost money or calories: Give yourself an entire evening to read a good book.  Take an outing to the ocean/park/mountains/your favorite scenic destination.  Take a hot bath.  Spend quality time with your pet.  Paint your toenails.  Play your favorite video game.  Play the piano.  Whatever floats your boat.
  4. Embrace your stubbornness. I’m not kidding, and I love this one, having been termed stubborn since I was a small child.  “They” say that the opera singers who succeed are not the ones that are most promising in terms of ability as much as the ones who will persevere through anything.  So embrace this personality trait, and keep it in check by being careful to set realistic goals.
  5. Allow time to pass. I hate this one, because there’s nothing you can do to make it happen except wait.  But the passage of time does have the amazing effect of putting your disappointments into perspective.  In the meantime, you can be proactively working on something else.  Sometimes, as in the case with writing, you can start work on the next story or novel.  Sometimes, as in an ended relationship, you can focus on some other aspect of your life that’s been neglected (ex. start spending more time with your friends, give more time to your hobby of painting/discgolf/fill in the blank, etc.)  Give yourself the reassuring feeling of forward momentum while letting the passage of time work its magic.
  6. Learn from your experience, and use it to help yourself grow. This one is the most important for me personally.  After I’ve suffered a disappointment, I ask myself: How can I do better next time?  What can I practice next that will help me improve?  What could I change in my behavior that might make this go better next time?  Are there warning signs I can look out for that I didn’t recognize this time?  What are my priorities here?  Is there a system I can institute that would solve this kind of problem in the future? (This last one was particularly useful for running a business, let me tell you.)

The reason I think these questions and this period of self-reflection is so important is that it allows me to transform my disappointment into a learning experience I can regard positively.  Sometimes this works even if I didn’t learn a whole lot, just by going through the cause and effect chain.  So when I look back on it, instead of thinking only of how horrible it was, I also think, “But if it weren’t for this happening, I wouldn’t have been able to do _______.”  If I hadn’t written the musical which never got produced, I would never have had the courage to write my first novel.  If I hadn’t worked at a lot of office jobs I didn’t like, I wouldn’t have considered opening my own business.  If I hadn’t learned all those interpersonal relationship skills, I wouldn’t have as happy a marriage now.  If I didn’t get all my stories rejected so often, I wouldn’t be as good a writer.  When something bad happens, which is a marker for disappointment, I try to use its momentum to push myself forward instead of allowing it to hold me back.

All right, I’m going to open the floor.  I’m really interested to hear about disappointments you’ve had and how you’ve overcome them.  Or alternately, you can talk about disappointments you are currently facing and things you might try to deal with them.  Be kind, be courteous, and be real.  And thanks for joining me in talking about such a difficult topic.

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