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A common theme for me recently, for most of my life actually, has been disappointment. If I’ve not been disappointed with myself about one thing or another, I’ve found plenty of reasons to be disappointed in other people. Recent therapy sessions have dealt with these feelings of disappointment and I’ve made a lot of progress. One of my favorite quotes (in the past) about disappointment and one I’ve felt very personally for a good many years is by Jodi Picoult.

“Let me tell you this: if you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it’s not because they enjoy solitude. It’s because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.”

I’ve used that as justification for being isolated, alone, and disconnected from the world. I’ve always wanted to achieve lofty goals but at times it seemed, that no matter my effort, I always fell short.

One of the most common sarcastic memes about dealing with disappointment, and we’ve all heard it at one time or another, is

“The best way to deal with disappointment is to have no expectations!”

While this works sometimes, it is only human to have expectations. In fact if someone has no expectations in life, I’m not sure how they could function.

We have expectations for doing well in school. Some of us have expectations about doing well in athletics whether that is a team sport or an individual one like running. We have basic expectations that we will have a roof over our head and food on our table. We have expectations that our friends will treat us a certain way and that those we love will treat us even better than our friends. We have expectations that if we work hard we will be rewarded. We have expectations that if we treat people well and with caring and compassion that we might get the same in return. We have expectations that if we treat our family and children with love that it will be returned.

Most success literature takes it a step further and says that if we want to achieve things that are worthy, healthy, and rewarding, that we have to set goals for ourselves which in turn results in an expectation that we will meet that goal. So for anyone who has any desire to achieve something in their life, to connect with other people, to interact with the world in any meaningful way, it is almost impossible to not have expectations.

So you have this juxtaposition of expectation and disappointment and I’ve dealt with this for what seems my entire life. I’m sure everyone reading this does as well. Placed side by side it’s easy to see a cause and effect relationship. If I have disappointment, it was caused by my expectation. If I have an expectation, it could lead to disappointment. On one extreme, if a person could go through life with absolutely no expectations, he should never be disappointed. On the other extreme, if a person has high expectations, noble ones in fact, then chances are that person will be faced with disappointment at some point. In my opinion, the secret to solving this dilemma between expectation and disappointment is to find that balance between realistic expectation and lofty goals and have a healthier way of dealing with disappointment.

So it seems apparent to me that if one wishes to enjoy life and achieve the dreams that you have for your life that you must on the one hand set goals and realistic expectations for yourself and on the other hand learn to deal with and channel disappointment. So how does one do that?

1. Start off by setting realistic expectations. You must set some goals that are achievable. Think short term goals. I’m going to walk/run 3 times this week for 30 minutes. I’m going to have a family dinner one evening this week. I’m going to spend some time with my kids before bedtime talking a couple times this week. I’m going to shave a few seconds of my mile time this week. I’m going to tell my spouse or someone I care about how grateful I am that they are in my life today. By setting realistic short term goals you can gain a sense of achievement, not matter how small. If you do this consistently over days and then weeks and then months, you can achieve things you never thought possible.

2. Set some long-term bigger goals for yourself. Be realistic about these too. At first think about things you think are possible and can be achieved in a 10-12 week time frame. If you want to shave a minute off your mile time or be fit enough to run a 5K, set that as a goal for 10-12 weeks. If you want to learn a new skill for work or for a hobby, think about what you can really accomplish in a season. If you want to be having a shared meal with your family 5 times a week but have zero with them now, then set that as a 10-12 week goal, or even longer. If you want to achieve something really great in your life, something outside you comfort zone, then set that as a long-term goal.

3. Once you’ve done #2, set some realistic short term goals like you did in #1 that will get you to your long term goals. If you decided to run a 5K in 3 months and don’t run now, set daily and weekly goals to run a few times a week increasing your miles and time you run each week. If you want to share a family meal 5 times per week and don’t share any at this time, set a goal to eat together 1 time a week for the first 2 weeks. Then add a day every two weeks. Figure out the small steps you need to take on a daily and weekly basis to achieve something that seems insurmountable or impossible right now.

While I didn’t intend this to be a blog on goal setting, the three points above are the most basic steps for doing some realistic goal setting. I’ve always been pretty good at planning however so the items that I think will have the biggest impact for me and hopefully for you in dealing with disappointment and still achieve your expectations are below.

4. When you do fail to meet a personal expectation, don’t consider yourself a failure. Be disappointed in the outcome and not in yourself. Thomas Edison attempted 10,000 times to create a light bulb. If he had considered himself a failure after the first attempt, we’d still be using candles and kerosene lamps to see by at night. If you only walked 2 times this week when you planned to walk 3, forgive yourself and move on. There is always next week. If you ran your first 5K and you didn’t run it as fast as you thought you should, forgive yourself and move on.

5. When you feel like you haven’t progressed in a certain part of your life, compare where you are at now to say where you were 10 weeks ago or 1 year ago. Oftentimes, when you think you’ve not improved, not met your goals, this assessment will point out the fact that you are better than you were in the past and that you have improved. Also, don’t be afraid to assess other aspects of the situation. If you wanted to share 5 meals a week as a family and only have gotten to 3 for whatever reason, ask yourself honestly what do I like about the fact that we have been sharing 3 meals together each week. If you find that your communication with your spouse and/or your children has improved and that you seem closer because of it, accept that as a positive. Maybe that was the intention for your goal the whole time even though you hadn’t verbalized it.

6. Use your failures to fuel future successes. If you had a horrible race and missed your 5K goals by minutes, let that fuel your drive and determination to do better the next time. A failure does not define you. If you separate the failure from yourself and think of it as a failure of outcome and not a failing of yourself, then you can move on easier and redouble your efforts to achieve your goal.

7. When it comes to expectations of others, this is where things get more difficult. I’m sure everyone at times expects a friend to reply to a text right away, return a phone call, be present and engaged in a conversation as you’re spilling your guts about some very personal feelings, or be there for a group run. We also have expectations of our spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, and children to act toward us in a certain way. Unfortunately, we cannot control the actions of our friends, spouses, and our children. Personal relationships are one aspect of our lives that we can’t treat like a personal physical goal or work ambition.

a. We can change our expectations for that person. This is perfectly acceptable especially when we take into account that other people can’t always fulfill our needs and meet all of our expectations. They might be busy. They might be having their own personal problems they are dealing with. They may be stuck in meetings or just not have seen that text or phone call. Make sure your expectations of people are realistic. If they aren’t a close friend don’t expect them to be there for your crisis. If they are a very busy individual don’t expect them to reply to your text within a minute (or at all sometimes!) Be realistic with each individual and what they can offer you and assess what level of commitment they have to you.

b. We can separate our feelings for the person from our feelings for the outcome. It is okay to be disappointed in the outcome of a personal interaction, a text not responded to, a Facebook post not liked, etc. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be disappointed in the individual as a whole. You don’t know what they were dealing with at that time nor where their mind was at. They may have been going through their own personal situation and were just not capable of helping you and themselves at the same time. If you are dealing with a spouse or a child, it is vitally important that you be able to adopt this skill. Your spouse and your children are going to disappoint you at some point, some more than others. This shouldn’t diminish your love for them and if you can separate your disappointment in the outcome from your disappointment in them, then I believe you will find some peace and happiness.

If you don’t plan well, take the three points on goal setting above and practice them. If you are already a goal setter but struggle with disappointment, then I hope the remaining items above are helpful. While it might seem easy to not have expectations, I don’t think it is humanly possible for any individual to have no expectations whatsoever. So change the way you perceive and deal with disappointment, change your expectations of others, and separate disappointment in outcomes from disappointment in people (including yourself) and you may just find a formula for achieving a better and happier life.

I’ll end with these two quotes. May they also help you deal with disappointment.

“The size of your success is measured by the strength of your desire; the size of your dream; and how you handle disappointment along the way.” Robert Kiyosaki

“There’s always failure. And there’s always disappointment. And there’s always loss. But the secret is learning from the loss, and realizing that none of those holes are vacuums.” Michael J. Fox

I’m sure that the most thoughtful and creative of my small readership can think of other ways to handle expectations and disappointment. Feel free to share a comment about how you handle disappointment.