The theme of disappointment emerged last week in my sessions with clients. Some were disappointed by the reality that there’s no such thing as a perfect relationship. Others became aware of how scared they felt about the prospect of disappointing their partner. Others felt disappointed that their child was different in some way from their fantasy child. They covered the range and types of disappointment: the type disappointment that occurs present-day as a result of what’s happening right now – ie. My partner is half an hour late or Oh, shoot, I just dropped my ice cream cone – and the disappointment that results when our expectation of how things “should” be doesn’t match up to reality.
How you deal with disappointment is directly correlated to how your disappointment was handled when you were a child. If you learned that disappointment was a normal part of the human spectrum emotions and your parents or caregivers didn’t try to immediately distract you from or talk you out of your disappointment, you probably have a healthy relationship to this feeling. But if, like most kids, your parents’ discomfort with their and, thus, your big feelings – and disappointment can emerge in a huge way with kids – caused them to shut you down, you would have learned to sequester disappointment into the same corner of your psyche where all other uncomfortable feelings live. Kids are confronted with disappointment on a weekly basis (if not more), and I certainly understand the impulse to distract them out of it by directing their attention to some other shiny new object. But if we want our kids to develop a compassionate relationship to their big feelings, we have to make room for this one as well.
Making room for disappointment also means developing a capacity to tolerate others’ disappointment. Just as people will disappoint you, so you will inevitably disappoint others countless times throughout the course of your lifelong relationships. If you believe that you can’t tolerate others’ disappointment, you’ll sacrifice yourself, giving yourself away in order to appease them. So if your partner asks you to accompany him to his parents’ house this weekend and you say yes even though you really need to be alone because you’re scared of disappointing him or don’t believe that he can handle feeling disappointed, you’re laying the foundation for resentment to breed. The same is true with parents, kids, friends, and co-workers. In the most extreme case, if you aren’t willing to tolerate others’ disappointment you may end up lying or omitting information (which is, of course, lying). So in order for healthy and conscious relationships to grow, dealing with disappointment is an essential element.
When it comes to intimate relationships, the theme of disappointment takes on a heightened charge because, just like we don’t learn that it’s okay to feel annoyed with your partner, not to love everything about him or her, hate him at times, not miss her every second of the day, and experience ambivalence around feeling in love and attracted, so we don’t learn that it’s normal to disappoint each other. You may carry a story that says, “If we disappoint each other our relationship is flawed and doomed.” It’s a false story and needs to be uprooted and allowed to wither just like every other myth that you carry about relationships.
The truth is that life is full of disappointment. It’s partially a result of the unrealistic expectations we absorb from the get-go because of our fantasy-laden culture, but it’s also just a normal part of life even in the healthiest cultures. In any case, when we move toward this uncomfortable feeling and develop tolerance for others’ disappointment, we lay one more element of the foundation that will allow a healthy life to take root and flourish.