My life has not gone according to my plans. By now, I should be studying for a Ph.D. and teaching creative writing and critical theory, living independently in my own home with a dog and a loving partner, and landing a deal with a literary agent for my debut novel.
Instead, I’m suffering from chronic, long-term physical and mental illness, living with my father who cares for me, and am unable to step out of my home without having a nervous breakdown. As you can imagine, the PhD, teaching and partner route is nowhere to be seen on account of these unwanted tangents.
I’m disappointed. Actually, I’m gutted that my life has taken this unfortunate turn, especially when I worked so hard in my teens and twenties to lay the foundations for my future goals. This is not what I signed up for.
How do you cope when things move counter to your plans? How do you manage the disappointment felt when you invest your whole self in a project, idea or plan, only to see it come to nothing? I confess that until recently, I haven’t been coping that well. Disappointment made me bitter and hopeless. But this has had its advantages in that it has taught me what disappointment is, what it feels like and what it looks like when my mind starts to fight back.
Practices such as humility and gratitude may be helpful when broaching your disappointment but I’m not going to discuss those abstract things here. I’m going to smash the proverbial mirror we’re all taught to hold up to ourselves. We don’t need it because this is how we really cope with disappointment.
Be disappointed. Six years ago, I was able to walk for hours. I could wander fields and rural pathways with a small pack of supplies all day, with few problems. Today, I am mostly trapped in my home. I don’t walk like I used to because the illness I have has taken its pound of flesh and left me with weakened mobility. Walking was one of my favourite pastimes and now, I can’t go out for all-day rambles and scrambles. That’s horrible.
Coping with disappointment requires you to accept how you feel. It’s no good denying it and telling yourself, ”Oh I didn’t want that career opportunity anyway...” Yes you did. And now that it has fallen through, you’re annoyed and upset. You blame yourself and call it ‘failure’. That’s okay. Be disappointed and move on.
Embrace fallibility. I have some amazing days—days where I can do more than usual because it’s as if my ailments have gone and I am healed. On those days, I unleash my drive, ambition and creativity and let them run wild. Nothing can touch me. I can write thousands of words, get my washing done, cook my own meals, go out for one of those elusive walks, promise the world to everyone. The following day, I’m in a heap of misery and pain. I curse myself for not being awesome as much as I curse myself for not knowing better and being careful. And then I observe myself and realise that I’ve not failed; I’m fallible. I can make mistakes and be okay.
So that moment where you blame yourself for failing? That’s okay, but not because you failed. It’s okay because you’re experiencing your own fallibility, your vulnerability. We’re not invincible; we’re human.
Get impatient. I’ve been trying to tie up some loose ends for near-on a fortnight and at every turn, I have met delays and resistance and most commonly, system errors. I’ve been waiting a lot and I am still waiting as I write this. Friends and family have told me to be patient, that the end I desire will come through and everything will be resolved one way or another. But two days ago, I got fed up with my ‘virtue’ and picked up the phone.
It turned out that another problem had arisen in my affairs and nobody had got round to fixing it yet. I spent the afternoon on the phone going through everything again and in the end, the problem was overcome. I’m still waiting for the final outcome of my efforts but the important thing is this: in being impatient, I cast off my disappointment of firstly having to wait and secondly, discovering I had to do yet more work, when all I want is resolution.
We spend too much time waiting. I like to think of waiting for others to get their self in order as wasting time and nothing beats disappointment than taking that ‘wasted time’ and turning your productive hand to it and getting somewhere rather than nowhere.
My three practical tips are not your typical self-help fare. A lot of you, reading this now, will wonder why I’m suggesting we focus on the seemingly negative, painful aspects of disappointment. I’ve chosen these things because they are at the heart of disappointment. They are its foundations and soul. I believe that you cannot carry out other methods of personal growth without facing the actual problem at hand and in this case, I am telling you – it’s alright to be disappointed and feel hurt; it’s good that you recognise your frustration and feel it; it’s important that you resist complacency.
Face it, feel it, free it.
How do you cope with disappointment when it comes knocking on your door? By all means, share your strategies. Everyone needs new ideas when it comes to picking themselves up from a blow of disappointment.
This was first published in the April 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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