Career, relationships, friendships, family, finances, health…in any area of life you’re bound to experience disappointment at some time. So, what causes this seemingly universal phenomenon – is it something in the outside world or something within us? Why do some of us seem to bounce back quickly from disappointment while others descend into resentment, anger or depression for months or even years after the event? Most important, how can we use disappointment constructively to learn more about ourselves and life?
According to Heather Gridley, senior lecturer in psychology at Victoria University, Melbourne, and spokeswoman for the Australian Psychological Society, the chief cause of disappointment lies in having unrealistic expectations. “These days, we’re led to expect a lot out of life, perhaps more than previous generations,” she says. “On the whole that’s a good thing because it gives us the optimism to tackle life, but the flipside is our expectations may be heightened to a point that’s inconsistent with external reality.”
Swami Shankarananda (Swamiji), meditation master and director of Shiva Ashram, puts it another way. “As individuals we are very invested in what we want and don’t want,” he says, “but the wider universe has its own processes that go on without deference to our personal preferences, desires and aversions. Things just unfold the way they unfold. That’s why, if you’re totally invested in life producing a certain outcome, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to achieve the things you want in life. It’s simply a matter of keeping your desires consistent with external realities.
“As individuals we are very invested in what we want and don’t want, but the wider universe has its own processes that go on without deference to our personal preferences, desires and aversions.”
As Swamiji points out, “Everybody wants good health, good looks, a great relationship and ﬁnancial security, but very few people actually have all these things.”
A sense of entitlement can also lead to disappointment. Often, says Gridley, this stems from the stories we absorb from our families as children. “We learn quickly about what we can and can’t have, based on our gender and position in the family,” she says. We may also develop certain expectations based around characteristics that supposedly run in the family; for example, being academic achievers, sports-oriented and so on. “These stories,” says Gridley, “can instill a sense of entitlement that creates disappointment when reality doesn’t measure up.”
The forces at play
When a sense of expectation or entitlement leads to disappointment, our reactions tend to put us in one of two camps. Some people, says Gridley, tend to attribute the responsibility internally by blaming themselves. When this gets out of hand, it can turn the emotional pain inwards and increase the likelihood of depression. Other people attribute the responsibility externally. They’re more likely to look for someone or something on whom to take out their frustrations. They may become angry and “act out” through violence or substance abuse.
There is, however, a potentially more useful path that recognises events are shaped by the interplay of internal and external factors. Someone taking this path might think, “Well, this event has happened and I’m unhappy about it but, realistically, there’s nothing I can do and I need to move on.”
How can we avoid extremism in our response to disappointment and ﬁnd this seemingly elusive middle ground? The answer, Swamiji believes, lies in understanding the way our desires interact with reality. He refers to spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff (1877–1949), who believed three forces are at play when we try to get what we want.
First Force represents our desires and comes from within. Second Force represents external reality: the problem or resistance we may encounter when trying to exert First Force. “When you’re not getting what you want, or you’re getting what you don’t want,” says Swamiji, “you’re encountering a lot of Second Force. This can manifest as frustration, anger or disappointment. The potential solution is bringing in Third Force, which represents the harmonisation of the First and Second Forces.” Third Force may include technical skills, creativity, ﬁnancial resources, perseverance, realism or other tools that help us ﬁnd the way through a problem.
According to Swamiji, we can harness Third Force through the process of self- inquiry. He teaches a method based on the idea that disappointment, frustration and anger can manifest as tension held in the body. “By meditating on this tension and inquiring into the emotions that caused it you can ﬁnd a way to let the tension go and see the situation more clearly. Then you’re in a better mind- set to discover the Third Force method that will help set you on the right path, whatever it may be.”
Scott Bradford, 34, harnessed Third Force (albeit unknowingly) after many fruitless months of trying to change careers. “I’d had a number of customer service and administrative jobs that left me feeling frustrated and hemmed in,” he says. “I wanted to get into events management. It seemed like a ﬁeld where I could meet people, make contacts and experience a variety of work environments instead of being tied to a desk all day.”
Bradford thought his big break had come when he landed a contract role at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. “I assumed that after working for such a high-proﬁle event I’d be able to walk into a permanent job, just like that,” he says, snapping his ﬁngers. He soon found that wasn’t the case. He applied for a series of jobs without success, enduring periods of unemployment and ﬁnancial hardship. “Some days I didn’t even get out of bed,” he says. “That way I didn’t have to face the reality of my situation.”
Slowly, Third Force began to kick in. “I began to realise that if I was serious about changing careers, I had to go about it differently,” Bradford says. “I spoke to people in the events management ﬁeld, who advised me to study for a qualiﬁcation and do volunteer work to build up experience.”
He did just that and gradually things began to change. After a couple of roles that weren’t the right ﬁt, Bradford landed his current job as an events co-ordinator. The role not only suits his skills but also provides scope to learn and to progress.
“I’m getting valuable experience and I have plenty of variety in my work,” he says.
The repeated disappointments during Bradford’s two-year quest for career satisfaction gave him valuable insight: “I discovered that I’m quite resilient.
I just kept telling myself the situation couldn’t last forever. When one door closes, another one opens.”
Sometimes we can be disappointed by the actions of others, even when our expectations seem to be reasonable.
Diane* was delighted when her stepdaughter, Jenny,* said she had landed her ﬁrst job, as a receptionist. “She told me and my husband, David,* that she needed new clothes for the job,” Diane recalls. Money was tight in the household, but Diane and David were pleased for Jenny and wanted to help. “We had a wonderful day shopping together. I’d been her stepmother for only three years, so for me the day was an important bonding experience,” Diane says.
Shortly after, it emerged that Jenny didn’t have a job at all. “On one level she may have lied about the job because she wanted us to be proud of her, but I also think she made up the story so she could get money for clothes,” Diane says. “I felt very let down.” Diane and David asked Jenny to pay back the money, but she didn’t.
Compounding Diane’s feelings of disappointment was the fact that Jenny had been dishonest many times before. The repeated cycles of dishonesty and disappointment have left a mark on her relationship with Jenny. “It’s become hard to tell when she’s lying and when she’s telling the truth,” Diane says. “When I believe something she says and I ﬁnd out later that it was a lie, I’m angry with her, and angry with myself for being taken in again.”
Some time ago, Diane and David spoke with Jenny about getting self- esteem counseling, hoping it might also help with her habit of lying. Jenny evaded the suggestion and nothing eventuated. Jenny now has a real job and is ﬁnancially independent, but her dishonesty continues. How does Diane handle it? “Most of the time I laugh it off when she’s saying something that’s clearly an exaggeration or a lie,” Diane says, “but overall it really disrupts the bond between the two of us, because a level of mistrust is always there. I don’t like it, but she’s my stepdaughter and I have to ﬁnd a way to live with it.”
It seems the key to living with life’s disappointments is recognising and accepting the gap between internal expectations and external reality and then ﬁnding and using that all-important Third Force. Even if doing that doesn’t result in the ideal solution, it may help us to live more peacefully in a seemingly indifferent universe.
*Names have been changed.
- Review your expectations. Are they realistic?
- Review your disappointment. Was it caused by something that was beyond your control?
- Perform a meditation where you imagine letting go of the emotional or physical tension associated with the problem.
- Look at the problem when you feel relaxed. What tools can you use to help you move through the problem? Do you need external help? New skills? Perseverance?
- View setbacks as opportunities for learning.