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How to Manage Disappointment Part 1

May 30, 2023

We all face disappointment at some point in our lives, and it can be challenging to manage those feelings. But fear not, because today we're going to dive deep into what disappointment is and explore strategies for effectively managing it. 

So let's get started!

I have some good news and some bad news. 

The bad news first. Disappointment is an inherent part of the human experience.

And disappointment can be a painful feeling.

Think of feelings as the warning lights on a car dashboard. They bring your attention to something potentially harmful.

What does the “disappointed “ warning light communicate?

You have desires and hopes and dreams. You have expectations about how others should behave or how opportunities should unfold.

Disappointment tells you that you have unmet expectations, unrealized dreams, or unexpected outcomes.

Disappointment is the tax you pay on the desire to want more and have more and be more. The only way that disappointment will disappear is to give up on the desire for a better future. 

While the car dashboard offers neutral information, feelings can hurt.

In fact, some people find disappointment so uncomfortable that they decide to just settle. This is the way the world is and I will just have to accept it. That’s a huge price to pay. 

Here is the good news. Disappointment does not need to lead to suffering. In fact, it can be your teacher that will help you move closer to the things you want.

Let’s kick off the conversation about disappointment with a real everyday story from my own life.

I love it when my house is clean. It gives me a sense of peace. However, cleaning is not one of my favorite activities.

Recently I decided to hire someone to come in and do a deep cleaning of my house. Mary the house cleaner and I made a plan. She would come in and clean during the two days I was out of town speaking. 

I imagined how wonderful it would be like to arrive home and walk into house that sparkled.

I arrived home from my business travels late in the evening. In the Uber ride, I imagined my sparkling house. I walked in the door, turned on the lights and looked around. The only surface that sparkled was the stovetop.

I felt that familiar sense of disappointment. For me, it feels like the air is leaving a balloon.I feel let down. I feel a heaviness.  It’s like a little teeny weeny part of me dies. The death of a dream.

Everyone experiences their feelings differently. I know people who will do ANYTHING to avoid experiencing nausea. 

Some people love the thrill of a roller coaster; others refuse to get on the ride. How spicy do you like your Thai or Indian food?

I personally find disappointment to be a very difficult feeling to navigate. 

When I was a child, and I did not meet my parents’ expectations, the very worst punishment my parents would deliver was to say to me, “I’m so disappointment in you!” These words hurt more than the most sever spanking I got—and spanking was acceptable when I was a child.

As you might imagine, I had a collection of ways I used to avoid the sting of disappointment.

I would try to talk myself out of disappointment using reason. So, for example, the conversation I could have with myself when I saw my house didn’t sparkle could go something like , “Come on. There are real problems in the world, and my house not sparkling is not at the top of the list.” 

When I try to talk myself out of disappointment, it usually doesn’t work very well. I was telling myself that what I wanted was not valid. Reasoning it away is like submerging a beach ball under water. When you let go of the pressure to submerge it, it keeps popping up with a force greater than if it were floating in the water.

Some people numb their feelings with food or alcohol or binge-watching Netflix or shopping. Once the ice cream is gone or the season series is over, the feeling returns.

Some people decide that they’re just going to settle with the way things are. If they don’t reach for something they may or may not achieve, they can avoid disappointment.

Some people tried to skip over the feeling of disappointment by reacting to the feeling. They spring into action. I could imagine  what I’ll say to that housecleaner. I’ll think about what I will demand. These knee-jerk reaction rarely help me get what I really want.

Maybe I skip to what the disappointing circumstances mean about me. “What’s wrong with me that I never get what I want?”

All of these tactics are ways to avoid feeling the disappointment. 

It’s completely understandable that you would want to avoid an unpleasant feeling. But resisting or denying or ignoring or reacting disappointment lead to their own problems.

Imagine someone knocks on your door, and you see it’s a neighbor you try to avoid. Maybe you ignore the doorbell. Maybe you open the door and say, “Sorry I don’t have time for you right now” Maybe you say, “Please leave and never come back.” You never give the neighbor a chance to tell you why they’re there.

Maybe the neighbor is there to tell you something that you would want to know. Your garage door is open. They know you want to adopt a dog and their friend is rehoming theirs. They’re giving you the heads up that they’re putting their house up for sale, because you had spoken with them about buying the house for their parents. 

Many people treat disappointment like that unwanted neighbor. They try to ignore it and hope it goes away. Essentially I am telling my disappointment, “I don’t want you here. There’s no reason for you to be here. Get out!”

Experience has taught me that the most effective way of managing disappointment is to invite disappointment in. You can say proverbially, “Oh, it’s you Disappointment. Come on in and let’s sit down have a chat. What are you here to tell me?”

Sometimes you get disappointed about little things. Trader Joe’s discontinued one of your favorite items. Your flight was delayed. Your team lost a game.

Sometimes it’s about big things. You didn’t get the expected promotion. A friend accidentally shared your secret. A plan was cancelled because of the weather.

Sometimes it’s about really big things. Your marriage ended. Your parents did not live forever as you always imaged they would. Someone you love faces a health challenge.

Here’s another way to think about disappointment.

Imagine the Grand Canyon—the wonder of nature carved by the the Colorado River.

Imagine that your hopes and dreams and expectations are on one side of the Colorado River and your current reality is on the on the other side. Disappointment spans the gap between your expectations and your reality.

The greater the gap, the more intense the disappointment.

You will uniquely respond to the circumstances that trigger the disappointment. Maybe it’s raining outside. You would have different thoughts and feelings about the rain if you live in a drought zone, you forgot your umbrella or you planned an outdoor wedding.

The bigger the gap, the more intense the disappointment.

By the way, disappointment and guilt are cousins. Quit is the feeling you get when there’s a gpa between the person you want to be and the person you are in any given moment.

Disappointment will not kill you, although sometimes it feels like it will. It’s the attempt to avoid feeling disappointment that lead to the biggest problems.

So here are some steps for managing disappointment:

  1. Recognize disappointment. Where do you feel it in your body. What are some clues you might be disappointed?
  2. Feel the disappointment. Just let in in and let it be. If you find yourself resisting disappointment, say, “h how human of me!”
  3. Set aside time for disappointment. You can literally set a timer for 3 or 4 minutes to just feel the disappointment. Be kind and curious. If you find yourself beating up on yourself, say, “How human of me!” And think a different thought. 
  4. Find out what the disappointment is communicating. How would you describe the gap between expectations and reality? Be kind to yourself and curious. Avoid judgments. Don’t beat up Ron yourself. 
  5. Explore what can you do differently next time to narrow the gap. 


Remember that which you resist persists.

You have two choices to close the disappointment gap: 

1. Change your dreams and expectations. This means changing your thoughts. 

Let’s say I have a dream of playing professional basketball. At my age and height, this is simply not going to happen. 

It may be that I need to mourn the loss of my dream. 

I could also look into ways of my reinventing my dreams. Can I find someone like me doing the things I want to do?  A brief Google search brought up an article about Eddy Birrer. This 70-year-old Gonzaga University accounting professor plays full court basketball at least three days a week with younger players. 

Birrer says, “I sometimes ask if anyone knows CPR before a game begins.”

It’s rare for many people to play regularly – and consistently – into their 50s, much less 60s and 70s. Birrer says, "I don't care. I love it. "

Think about what you can think, say or do next time to get what you want.

In the example I shared about my house, I want to hold onto the expectation that my house can sparkle. I’ve seen it sparkle before.

Then I need to ask the question: why didn’t my house sparkle after Mary’s cleaning?

Some things are out of my control. Mary told me on the day I was to arrive home that her daughter got sick, so she could not spend as much time as she wanted to cleaning. There’s nothing I can do about that; it’s outside of my control.

However, as I reviewed our interactions, I have to wonder how well I communicated my expectations. I never actually said, “Please take your time and do a thorough job even if it means that you cannot get to all of the house.”

Maybe Mary’s not the right person for me. I may need to go through a number of people before I find one who will reliably be there and do the job I want. 

The gift of disappointment is that it have me the chance to explore my expectations, and did some introspection about what I could learn.

All of this began with my willingness to feel my disappointment.

You will get better at managing disappointment. Begin with situations that do not have a high emotional charge for you. As you practice, you will become more skilled.  


That’s how to manage YOUR disappointment.

The gift of disappointment is that it have me the chance to explore my expectations, and did some introspection about what I could learn.

All of this began with my willingness to feel my disappointment.

You will get better at managing disappointment. 

Begin with situations that do not have a high emotional charge for you. As you practice, you will become more skilled.  The process is the same.

My son is a powerlifter. He can deadlift over 500 pounds. This means that he can reach down and pick up a bar loaded with 500 pounds. His goal is to deadlift 600 pounds. Think about picking up a 30 pound box of cat litter. My son has a protocol for getting stronger and putting more weight on the bar.

My house not sparkling might be a 30-pound disappointment.  I can up work up to bigger disappointments. 


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