Cultivating a Life of Disappointment

Disappointment is up!

Strange but true, many of us actively cultivate a life of disappointment, meaning we unconsciously look for ways to feel disenchanted, disheartened, and dissatisfied. Whoever would have thought that we humans, so sensible and smart according to conventional wisdom, would be harboring such a self-defeating proclivity?

Well, we’re full of mischief, for sure. But some of our antics, including our flirtations with disappointment, can leave us bruised and bloody. When we expose our misadventures in our unconscious mind, we won’t so easily succumb to emotional temptations that degrade the quality of our daily life.

There are so many little ways to feel disappointed. I had a client who always counted the money leftover in his wallet just after he had bought something. When I told him that behavior meant he was looking for the feeling of disappointment, he objected to the idea at first. But as he thought more about it in the weeks that followed, he said, “It’s true. I can sense it—it’s subtle, but I almost always have a sense that the money that’s left in my wallet will be less than I’m hoping.”

The same principle can apply when people check to see how their bank account is holding up or how their investment portfolio is performing. We do, of course, have to check up on our assets periodically in order to be responsible for our well-being. But we can do the right thing for the wrong reasons, meaning that, in behaviors that are otherwise innocent and reasonable, we can be tempted to experience unresolved negative emotions such as feeling deprived, denied, refused, and helpless. We can easily feel, in the case of money, that our limited resources somehow reflect on our alleged unworthiness or insignificance. This version of disappointment arises from self-doubt, that lingering uncertainty about our intrinsic value that resides in our psyche.

Often we cultivate the feeling of disappointment through our imagination. When I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I had a client who experienced disappointment every time he walked downtown to sit in the Plaza. The Plaza had a scruffy, neglected look when seen with a particular aesthetic eye. My client would sit on a bench and feel what a shame it was that city officials didn’t take steps to beautify it. Sitting there, he imagined all the different ways the Plaza could be made more attractive. Yet this use of his imagination produced more displeasure than pleasure. He couldn’t quell the disappointment that kept arising within him. He told himself he wasn’t going to visit the Plaza as often, and he harbored critical thoughts toward city officials for being indifferent to aesthetics. His musings were part of a psychological defense that went like this: “I’m not indulging in the feeling of being let down and disappointed. Isn’t it obvious that I want to see something beautiful that makes me happy! How could I be indulging in disappointment when I’m thinking about not coming back to this place? Besides, I’m not the problem. The problem is those people who don’t have any aesthetic sense.”

Disappointment can be cultivated in our feelings toward loved ones. Parents sometimes see their sons and daughters as disappointments, when often these parents are simply projecting on to their children the disappointment they have in themselves. Many of us can feel that our whole life has been a disappointment in the sense that we didn’t fulfill our expectations for success. Even people who have been successful can feel their success still falls short of expectations. They’re unable to appreciate their accomplishments or to commend themselves for a job well done because their unconscious determination to experience self-criticism and disappointment trumps the reality of their worthy effort.

After many years of marriage, men and women sometimes begin to see their partner as a major disappointment. Men and women who are absorbing inner accusations of having been a failure or at least a big letdown can attribute their sense of disappointment to the alleged shortcomings of their spouse. The defense reads, “I’m not looking to indulge in the feeling of not measuring up.  My feeling of disappointment is due to my wife who has let me down and not measured up.” This distortion of reality can lead to considerable suffering and unnecessary divorce.

It’s also common for people to be disappointed in political leaders. Sometimes these leaders are indeed weak and ineffective, yet our criticism of them will not be constructive when it emerges from our own unresolved issues. Even politicians who are doing a decent or excellent job can become targets of the negative projections of others. To be responsible citizens, we need some insight and discernment. We have to know when our disappointment in others covers up our emotional entanglement in self-disapproval or when we use others as targets for our determination to feel victimized.

In a sense, we’re all geared up for disappointment. We can live through desires and expectations instead of living in grace and gratitude. It’s helpful to see desires and expectations as camouflage that disguises our emotional entanglement in disappointment.

There are, as mentioned, many subtle ways we can cultivate disappointment. Many of us wander repeatedly into the kitchen throughout the day or evening and peer into a cupboard or the refrigerator at the food offerings inside. We stare at the foodstuff for awhile, finding nothing interesting. We go away, only to wander back an hour later to stare forlornly at the same provisions. During such moments we are, however subtly, cultivating feelings of disappointment. Consciously, we’re convinced that we’re looking for a tasty treat to snack on. We think we’re pursuing pleasure. However, we keep coming back to look for the tasty treat that’s not there. Even when we do choose something to eat, we can feel we settled for second-best.

We can, in particular, feel very disappointed in ourselves. Failure with food plans and dieting constitutes one such area of disappointment. Frequently, people get enthused and excited about their prospects of succeeding at a new attempt to self-regulate with food, only to be disappointed a week later by ensuing failure. That initial enthusiasm frequently is a set-up to repeat a painful pattern. The enthusiasm can serve as a defense that contends: “Look at how determined I am to succeed. I know I’ll do it this time.” The feeling can cover up one’s anticipated plunge back into familiar, unresolved issues concerning passivity and failure.

We can also be experiencing disappointment when we glance at our reflection in a mirror or shop window. We’re consciously thinking that we want to see how good we look, yet deeper down we often experience some disappointment, some feeling of being let down by what we see. The more compulsively we check up on how we look, and can’t pass up a chance to glance at our reflected image, the more we’re looking to get “hit up” with a twinge if not a jolt of disappointment.

Henry David Thoreau once wisely said, “If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.” In other words, we can find insight and wisdom from our encounters with disappointment when we look beneath the surface.