The What If Experience

Explore a new "What If..." question about life each week with some thoughts, some answers and some action steps. Share my journey of personal growth and living in possibility.
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Mar 18, 2018

When I began researching the topic of expectations for this month’s episodes I ran a quote search. And most of what I found were quotes like this:

When you have expectations, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. -- Ryan Reynolds

My life motto is basically to lower your standards and expectations so you're never disappointed and never put any trust in anything, -- Tavi Gevinson

Expectation is the root of all heartbreak. -- William Shakespeare

Expectations are premeditated resentments. -- Alcoholics Anonymous

The secret to happiness is low expectations. -- Barry Schwartz

No expectations. No disappointments. -- Anonymous

Note to self: stop expecting. -- Anonymous

The best way to avoid disappointment is to not expect anything from anyone. --Anonymous

That felt incredibly sad and depressing to me. If you never set expectations, you’ll never be disappointed, of course, but you’ll also never feel the high of meeting or exceeding expectations. It’s like suggesting you never get into a relationship to avoid being hurt. Sure, you’ll not be hurt, but you’ll never experience the joys of love or friendship either.

Protecting yourself from all pain is no way to live.

There will be disappointments in life, all different kinds. Last week we talked about relationship expectations and when they aren’t met, the disappointment that follows. Most of what we talked about was romantic or friend relationships, but plenty of disappointments happen in work, volunteer, or social situations as well. Pretty much anywhere there are people, we’ll eventually be disappointed in someone.

We can be disappointed in ourselves, too. I was a competitive swimmer growing up. When I didn’t place, didn’t get a personal best, or I swam poorly, I was disappointed. Our own performance can disappoint us. Or, we can be disappointed in our own behavior. What if you plan to eat well, cook a healthy meal, eat the healthy meal. And then snarf down the whole box of Girl Scout cookies in the freezer. You’re likely to go to bed disappointed in yourself. Not that I have any experience with that. Nope. I have complete control over my cookie consumption at all times.

One of the quirks of imaginative idealists is that often they’ll anticipate upcoming events with the vividness of a strong imagination. Very often, this imagined scenario becomes an expectation that reality just can’t live up to. Their imagination is always better than real life. Consequently, they experience ongoing disappointment.

I’m sure you’ve experienced all of these types of disappointment at some point in your life and to some degree. And probably others that I haven’t mentioned as well. I had a counselor once tell me that I didn’t allow myself to experience disappointment and I needed to. I’ve never been able to figure out if he’s right or not. But, it’s bugged me ever since. I probably should dig into it a little further when I have some time because as I prepared for this episode, I started thinking about times I’ve felt disappointment in my life. I started writing them down in a list. And I felt something unlock in my heart. I got a distinct impression that there is some buried junk there that needs unearthing. Some things I need to deal with.

But, what are we supposed to do with disappointment? How do we process it? Well, I went on a hunt this week and here’s a summary of what I found, five stages of dealing with disappointment. Like the stages of grief, there is no one perfect way to deal with it and no typical length of time for each step, but here are some generalizations.

Turn toward the disappointment, not away from it.

Allow yourself to experience it with no agenda, not trying to fix it or get rid of it. Just feel it. As you do, acknowledge it, don’t try to pretend it doesn’t hurt. It does. Realize that everyone experiences it and It won’t last forever. Writing about how it feels can help, so grab a journal or notebook and use it as cheap therapy. One of the key things in this stage is to label it. Consciously say to yourself, “I’m really, really disappointed.” or “Oh, this is a disappointment and it feels awful.” It sounds silly, but labeling emotions switches processing locations in our brains and helps to give us a bit of distance or perspective, allowing us to get through it. Which is the next thing on the list.

After you’ve done your share of feeling--at the point it’s about to turn into wallowing--you can move into the next step.

Accept reality and let expectations go.

This is the stage where you gain some perspective and begin to deal with the reality of the situation. Ask yourself, “how bad is it really?” kind of questions. Others can help you put it into perspective as well (Often they’re overly eager to do so!). Positive activities can help; exercise is great for helping to process emotion. Begin to dismantle illusions and untruths. “I should have” or “this should have happened” can be flat out lies that keep us from dealing with reality.

One of the quotes I ran across in that initial search was, “If you align expectations with reality, you will never be disappointed.” by Terrell Owens and that has some truth to it, though I’d say you’ll still experience disappointment initially. When you accept that reality is the way things are, you can then begin to deal with it productively and move past the disappointment. At some point, you need to choose to focus on what actually is and let go of your expectation in order to move forward.

Here are a few things that can help you make that choice:

  • Your desire for healthy relationships or to be healthy yourself. Disappointment, if not dealt with can lead to anger, resentment, and bitterness over time.
  • Your values. How could the personal values of open-heartedness, love, kindness, growth, or generosity affect your choice to move beyond disappointment?
  • Caring about people. None of us is perfect and we all disappoint others, intentionally and unintentionally. Deciding that a person and/or a relationship is more important than our disappointment, can help prompt you to choose to move away from disappointment.
  • Personal growth. There are opportunities to grow in all disappointments and desiring growth can help you choose to move on.

Reframe the issue.

Laurie Sue Brockway says,

Sports journalist Sam Weinman, author of Win at Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains, has interviewed many public figures and mental health professionals about disappointments."The psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr talks about 'framing' events in our lives in a constructive way," says Weinman. "His point is that our interpretation of what happens is in many ways more important than what actually happens. If that's the case, Loehr says, in any disappointment we need to find something useful that we can build on, or that at least lets us see even the smallest positive." The more we can learn to frame in a way that's constructive and positive while still being honest, the better we are able to process disappointment.

One way to do this is to look for the growth opportunity within the disappointment. Ask yourself what you could do differently, what you can learn from the situation, how can you improve, or what do you need to change. Growth can be difficult and painful at times, but it creates positive emotions and outcomes, momentum in a healthy direction, and of course, actual growth.

Another way to reframe your experience is to separate your expectation from your real desire. For example, you’re disappointed that a vacation isn’t turning out the way you expected because the concert you traveled to see got canceled. Can you believe it?! You're crushed! So, you might identify the real desire of the trip to be doing something out of the ordinary and relaxing. Usually, the true desire underneath the expectation can be fulfilled in many different ways. Which leads to the next step.

Make a plan and act on it.

If your desire can be filled in other ways, what else can you do? In our example, what if you googled “interesting things to do in (whatever your location)” and decided on another activity that would be doing something out of the ordinary and relaxing, like going on a sunset boat cruise. Of course, that may not work if you're landlocked, but you get my point. Making an alternative plan and acting on it puts you in control of the direction of your emotions and helps generate momentum toward the positive. It changes our focus from passive victims to active participants in our own future.

And finally, after a big disappointment that you’ve moved past, I’d suggest doing some self-reflection.


Self-reflection is ‘meditation or serious thought about one's character, actions, and motives” It helps build self-awareness, resiliency, growth, and wisdom. It instructs us, guides us and informs us. Review the expectation, where it came from, and what went wrong. Ask yourself questions like,

  • What could you do differently next time?
  • What did you learn about yourself? About others? About the situation?
  • What patterns of this might exist?
  • What do you need to change?
  • Did you deal with it in a healthy manner?

These kinds of questions can lead to better and better choices in the future.

One more comment that I’d make about the process of dealing with disappointment before I wrap up this episode. Choose to communicate in a healthy way, with others and with yourself as well. Speak positively with an intent to understand. Choose not to participate in blaming, tearing down, or insulting. Choose not to allow circumstances to label you or anyone else. There’s a big difference in thinking you made a mistake and thinking you are a mistake. It’s very easy in the process of disappointment to say things you’ll regret or make judgments about others or yourself. Instead, choose to commit to using your words for good.

Let's review! The steps we’ve talked about to deal with disappointment were to turn toward it and allow yourself to experience it, accept reality and let go of the disapoointment, reframe the situation, make a plan of action and follow it, and self-reflection. I hope this helps you next time you hit a road bump of disappointment, but I hope you don’t need this information anytime soon. Until next time, y’all have a fantastic week.

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