Expectations: The origin of disappointment

None of us are ever going to get to the place in life where we have no more disappointments. We can’t expect to be sheltered from every little thing. Disappointment is a fact of life–one that must be dealt with.

Joyce Meyer

It is a common phenomenon that when we misjudge a situation, or when our hopes fail to manifest, we experience a sense of bewilderment which is almost too much to bear. We all feel this way from time to time. It is a source of psychological stress and in some situations, it can be detrimental to our physical and mental well-being. 

Unlike the feeling of regret where we focus primarily focus on the personal choices that contribute to poor outcome, disappointment is more to do with focusing on the outcome itself. When we primarily focus on the outcomes rather than our actions and choices, such an emotional state can be quite overwhelming. 

According to researchers, frequent feelings of being let down are linked to a brain chemical called dopamine. It links our actions, experiences, people and environment to pleasure and coaxes us to recreate those circumstances in pursuit of the same feeling. Because of which we raise expectations about the future to predict what’s rewarding and motivates us to seek it. 

Disappointment thus is a subjective response related to anticipated rewards. And in most situations, this is what sets us up for dissatisfaction. We tend to use our past experience to predict whether or not our present situation makes us feel best. And when the present doesn’t match our expectations we feel doubly disappointed. In a way, it is just the action of your brain readjusting itself to reality after discovering things are not the way you thought they were. 

Disappointment and expectations 

“Expectation is the only seed of disappointment.” – Mokokoma Mokhonoana

When we experience disappointment, our expectations fall out of line with reality. The level to which we feel disappointed is often depends on the nature of our desire. Our desire for something we hope for is what makes disappointment a more complex emotion to deal with. Expectations are more paradoxical when it comes to experiencing disappointment. This is because even when we do get what we want, we may still feel disappointed if the outcome doesn’t bring the expected bliss and happiness. Unhappiness from the failure of something hoped for or expected to happen is the most apt reason. Expectations or preferences when perceived as an ego threat also leads to more guilt and anxiety. 

The way we handle disappointment is related to our past conditioning and our early, formative experiences. Optimism might come to your aid in recovering from certain disappointments, but it may not always prepare you for emotional cushioning in case of unexpected consequences or situations. If you think setting your goals low and avoiding taking risks prevents disappointment, then you are only setting yourself up for more dissatisfied life. And same holds true for overachievers. They too give into their perfectionist attitude and invariably it too often leads to disappointment. The tendency to attribute negative life events to your personal feelings leads to lot of self-blame. Not measuring up to the image of your ideal self can further harm your confidence.

Not having expectations in the first place isn’t however realistically possible. Imagine trying to have no thoughts or ideas about how something should be or might go is obviously not possible. Also, disappointment is not meant to destroy us. If taken in our stride and handled well, it leads us to greater insight and wisdom. But to be able to do this is to follow the path of self-reflection. Only by reflecting on painful associations, you will be able to become free of them.

Validation through self-reflection

Reflecting on your experiences through naming a feeling can help you cope in a healthy way. Validating means accepting that you couldn’t achieve what you hoped for or that you are disappointed. Have you ever created an emotion or tried making an emotion go away. You might be pretty much aware that things won’t happen that way. Once we feel disappointed about something, it is there until it fades or passes. This happens regardless of how upsetting or uncomfortable they are at first. This may vary depending on the intensity of the situation. But however intense they may be they all fade with time. 

So, acknowledge instead of ignoring, minimising or distracting yourself from unpleasant feelings and remind yourself that it’s okay to have those feelings.Accepting disappointing circumstances, despite your emotional reaction can make things less uncomfortable. 

Self-compassion is the antidote of disappointment 

Disappointing situations or outcomes can make us question our choices, ambitions,  self-worth and our abilities. Not able to living up to our true potential invites unpleasant emotions like shame, fear and guilt. In such situations, being overly critical of ourselves can increase anxiety about it. Whereas self-compassion helps you to refocus and become more able. Research shows that people with higher levels of self-compassion tend to handle stress better. They spend less time reactivating stressful events by dwelling on them. 

The first step in becoming self-compassionate is to accept what went wrong. And instead of self-judging, treat yourself as you would treat a friend. Just like the way you’d be supportive and kind and listen to what exactly went wrong, treating yourself exactly same way can help ease the self blame. Give yourself enough time and space to realise where your plans went off the track. 

Respond to your unpleasant emotions and thoughts with understanding, patience, and acceptance rather than with harsh self-criticism. The ability to forgive ourselves for mistakes, large and small is important for psychological well-being. When you view your disappointment as proof of your inadequacy, it just leaves you feeling more isolated and disconnected. Instead, consider misjudgment or mistakes as part of the larger human condition. This way, you can reframe your connection to others and embrace your disappointment as an intrinsic part of simply being human. 

But you know that disappointment is just the action of your brain readjusting itself to reality after discovering things are not the way you thought they were.

Brad Warner

To-do:

Practising mindfulness let’s you observe what you are thinking and feeling rather than trying to avoid difficult emotions or to over-identify with them. Give yourself time to reflect on what went wrong or was the outcome predictable, or that you could have put in more effort or was it outside of your control. Being curious of the reason rather than focusing on the feeling of disappointment equips you to better cope. 

Check whether your expectations are unrealistically high or are you setting your goals too low. If your goals are too high, work constructively to modify your expectations and focus on how you want to feel in the moment, rather than how you believe you’ll feel once you get the thing you want so badly. Instead of pinning your hopes on unrealistic outcomes, break your larger goals into small manageable steps.

Indulging in social media comparisons makes you set unrealistic expectations from yourself and others. If you see others reach their goals quicker, you can become disappointed for not reaching yours. Reevaluate your perception and behaviours. Set your own milestones, be it your career, relationships or academics and stay focused on the process of reaching them no matter how long it takes to get there.

When something doesn’t go according to our plan, we may interpret it to mean that we can’t have what we want. It is important to keep an eye on what you truly want and at the same time stay open to various ways that the outcome can be realised. Particularly when you are going after something new that you really care about. Strive for improvement and not perfection. 

Some instances of disappointment are predictable and preventable. But there are others that are unavoidable and beyond our control. Try and differentiate between situations that fall within our control and factors that are beyond it. Being able to recognise the difference will help you to deal with your frustrations more appropriately. 

The more you dwell on the disappointment, the more it will hurt and disrupt your ability to focus, concentrate or be creative. Give yourself limited time to acknowledge the feelings and move on. There is always a next opportunity regardless of what disappointed you. View your disappointment as an opportunity for growth and to your actions to achieve your goals. 

Avoid for any mind altering things or engaging in impulsive behaviours. Explore the thought processes that led to your feelings of disappointment. Instead of blaming yourself, or circumstances, reframe your disappointments as learning experiences.

The thing about being unpleasant emotions like disappointment is that it reveals what you actually care about, where you are and where you want to be. They might mean you are passionate about something. Even though you feel like shying away from things that aren’t turning out your way, taking time to learn from your unpleasant experiences, you will be more prepared than ever before the next time you face such situations. 


By Srilatha

Hi, I am the author and creator of sscascades, certified in life coaching, NLP & CBT. I write on different dimensions of personal productivity based on emotional/psychological aspects and through mindfulness practices and self-reflection. My mission is to empower and facilitate people to see past their limitations and to seek better solutions in their goal-striving endeavours. It takes hard work, reflection and motivation when it comes to leading, managing or working with others. There are always certain areas in our life where we can improve. Set some new goals and strive for CAN (constant and never ending improvement)

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