Managing Disappointment
by Gregg Krech


Life is full of disappointment. How long will it take you to remember something which disappointed you today? It could be related to the weather or your health, or maybe something you heard in the news.  It takes courage to read the news these days, doesn’t it?  How often have you listened to the news and thought, “Wow, I’m really pleased with how things are going in the world.”

Another common source of disappointment is our relationships.  Your partner was supposed to call and he didn’t.  Or he called and said things that were upsetting.  A close friend was supposed to do something for you and didn’t.  She just forgot.  Or she didn’t have time.  Or she changed the plan.  It doesn’t really matter – it’s all disappointing.  We can be disappointed by our partners, our children, and our co-workers.  Even strangers can disappoint us, not meeting the standards we have in mind for them.   Some days we can experience one disappointment after another.  So let’s think together about how to cope with disappointment — how to manage disappointment.

Let’s see how Seth manages disappointment:

Seth is nearly three years old.  He gets disappointed a lot – just like you and me.  The other day, Seth was in the supermarket with his mother and they were waiting in the checkout line.  Seth saw something in the candy rack, some kind of treat with a colorful wrapper.  He wanted that treat and he told his mom and pointed to it.  She said “No,” but Seth wasn’t fazed. He just reached up and grabbed it.  Then his mom did something that really pushed his buttons – she took it from his hand, put it back in the rack and said, “Seth, I said no.  No candy.”

Seth is now in a full-blown state of disappointment.  He wanted something and he didn’t get it.  This is painful to him. So what does he do?  Well, either he can accept his disappointment or he can make a stronger effort to get what he wants.  Guess which path he chooses.

He begins with a display of behaviors that have yielded some success in the past – he cries, screams, flails his arms around, and yells things like, “I don’t like you.”  But his mom won’t budge.  So Seth decides he’ll try something different and he smiles and says, “Oh, well. I guess I’ll just get on with my day.”  No, I’m just kidding.  What he decides to do is what he was doing before, but this time he does it louder and with more intensity and drama.

In other words, the way Seth copes with disappointment is to devote his energy to getting what he wants so he won’t be disappointed.  Have you ever tried this strategy?  Sometimes it works.  If you’re at a department store and the customer service representative yawns and says, “Sorry, but we can’t help you,” and you start yelling and screaming you will either get a full refund or get arrested.  Most of us don’t use this tactic.  We’ve developed more refined strategies for getting the world to give us what we want.  But we’re still in the same club as Seth.  Our response to disappointment is to try harder not to be disappointed.  Too often this strategy doesn’t work and we don’t get our candy and now we must face the uncomfortable and unpleasant experience of disappointment—the surge of feelings, the angry string of thoughts, the tension in our back and neck muscles.  This is where we need some skills.  Management skills.

I’d like to offer five such skills, drawing on Morita therapy, Naikan, Zen and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) that can help you manage disappointment.


  1. Self-Acceptance and Validation of our Internal Experience

The first skill is to be able to notice that we are experiencing disappointment and to become aware of the experience itself.  We have to accept our disappointment and the experience we are having in our body and mind.  We don’t like feeling this way. It’s unpleasant and uncomfortable, bordering on painful.  But it’s the reality of the moment.  So we have to reach a point where we can accept what’s going on.  We can stop the resistance and even come to peace with what is.  Even if we really wish it was otherwise, we can stop struggling with it.

  1. Restraint

Once you are experiencing strong emotions, it’s not the very best time to “express yourself.”  You may feel like criticizing, yelling, threatening, blaming, or lashing out at someone.  Not only are these behaviors unlikely to get you what you want, but they are likely to hurt the relationship and/or escalate the problem.  You need to develop the skill of coexisting with a highly charged emotional experience without acting on it.  Wait 48 hours before expressing your concerns.  Monitor what you say and do during that window of time.  Don’t let your feelings boss you around and make you do something you’ll regret.

  1. Self-Soothing

You may be able to influence your feelings somewhat by engaging in certain behaviors, although there’s no guarantee and it’s not necessary to do so.  But if you want to directly try to reduce an emotionally charged state, you might try deep breathing.  In Yoga, pranayama is the practice of working with your breath.  As you breathe deeply, make your out-breath twice as long as your in-breath.  Yoga itself can be soothing.  And there may be certain styles of music that you find calming.  It’s best to stay away from alcohol and sugary foods – the cost is greater than the momentary satisfaction you may get.

  1. Distraction

When upset, we are more likely to be spinning in our minds, rather than connecting to the immediate world around us.  One way to be more present is to do something physical — play the guitar, jog, clean the kitchen, chop wood, take a walk . . .   These activities provide a more effective distraction than reading or knitting because your body is more active.  While you’re engaged in the activity, continue to shift your attention to what’s going on around you.  Morita Therapy suggests “you’re only anxious when you’re noticing your anxiety.”  Get moving and focus your attention on the world around you.

  1. Self-Reflection

As the emotional charge of disappointment begins to settle, you can take a few moments and reflect on your life. Take in the bigger picture.  Outside of this disappointing incident, what else is happening?  What else is true?  Naikan is a method of self-reflection rooted in three simple questions.  Start with the first question: At this moment, how am I being supported or cared for?  For example . . . I’m sitting on a comfortable sofa.  I have a hot cup of coffee.  My eyeglasses are helping me to see clearly.  I have fresh air to breathe.  The refrigerator is keeping my food from spoiling.  There’s electricity powering my laptop and the lights in the room.  Then move on to the second question: What am I giving to others?  If you’re just sitting in your living room, you may be giving little or nothing to others.  So you can expand your timeframe and think about the entire day.  Perhaps you walked the dog or washed someone’s dishes.  One final question: What troubles and difficulties have I caused others?  Perhaps you were late to a meeting, or didn’t respond to a request from your co-worker.  If there was conflict or tension with somebody, can you think of something you did or said to contribute to the problem?

These five management skills are designed to help you respond effectively to the experience of disappointment.  Hopefully, Seth will learn these skills as he matures since what he’s doing now isn’t working very well for him and those around him.  If his mom is smart, she’ll start teaching him the distraction skill right away.  In fact, young children are often better at implementing this strategy than adults.

Exactly one month ago, you were probably disappointed about something.  Can you remember what it was?  If you can’t, that’s fine.  The disappointments that can be so upsetting may fade or we may forget them altogether. What we do remember usually has much less of an emotional charge.

Here’s one final suggestion: Don’t take your disappointments personally.  If your flight was delayed and you missed your connection, if your basement flooded, if your car broke down, if the tickets were sold out – it’s not personal.  It’s just life.  If your novel was rejected by a publisher, it can feel very personal, but perhaps it’s not.  Maybe this particular publisher, at this particular point in time, just wasn’t interested in a novel about a group of renegade Zen monks who disguise themselves as nuclear physicists and take over an Iranian nuclear facility while threatening to release radioactive material unless everyone in the world agrees to meditate at the exact same moment.  Maybe they accepted a manuscript last week with a very similar plot line.  It may not be personal at all.

In between your disappointments, there’s lots of room for joy.  Thich Nhat Hanh often points out to us that at this very moment, we probably don’t have a toothache.  So you can appreciate any moment that you don’t have a toothache.  Right now, if there isn’t an emotionally charged disappointment in the forefront of your consciousness, you can simply appreciate this moment. And when disappointment arises, and it will, your management team will be ready.  Or they won’t (which would be disappointing).





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