If you are faced with a major disappointment, then you’re in good company. Most if us will, at some point in our lives have to deal with our complex responses to an adverse event.
A disappointment might include:
- Rejection by a trusted friend or lover.
- A business or professional failure.
- A severe financial setback.
- A humiliating job loss.
I you've had the bad luck to lose your job I've written a guide to coping with a job loss. You can download it for free here.
The psychology of bereavement and loss provides an intellectual backcloth to help understand your reactions. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has written extensively on this topic and the diagram below is based on her work. She suggests you’ll move through shock, frustration and anger to denial and despondency. Only later will you find acceptance and resolution. That’s when you integrate what’s happened to the rest of your life.
Everyone’s experience, however, is personal to them. Such frameworks are useful intellectual underpinnings, but ultimately each of us has to get through on our own terms.
Here is my advice which is based on my own experience as well as the thoughtful contributions from readers of this blog. 1
1. Face The Facts
It’s horrible when you realise that something bad is happening. Your reaction is to whatever it is, is likely to be highly emotional — and that is only to be expected.
Jim Collins, in his book Good To Great, tells the story of Admiral Stockdale who was captured and held a prisoner in terrible conditions.
Many of his fellow prisoners did not survive, but James Stockdale emerged apparently unmarked by his experience and resumed his life once more. When he was asked how he’d done this he replied that under captivity he held onto two apparently contradictory thoughts simultaneously and with equal fierceness.
The first was that he had to confront the fact that his current situation was bleak — in fact, it was hard to imagine how it could possibly be worse. The second thought was that if he survived, he believed that one day his life would be better than ever. This is what Collins called The Stockdale Paradox.
"I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment".
This ability of the human mind to find meaning and fulfilment even in the worst possible situations should give you courage. It is by facing up to your situation and accepting it for what it is that you take the first step toward recovery.
When adversity strikes, it is understandable that you will respond emotionally. It is worth remembering what Frankl and Stockdale teach us through their experiences.
Facing up to what has happened is important. Looking past it — even at the beginning — will prepare you for turning the page to the next day.
2. Take A Breath
When you’re living with disappointment, life can be miserable. It’s all too easy to feel that the walls are closing in and everything is failing.
This is no place to be on a full-time basis.
It is possible however to step outside of your situation, even if briefly, through learning to be mindful.
If you are able to be mindful, perhaps by learning how to follow your breath, you will notice as you observe your thoughts, emotions and sensations that they appear and disappear continually. They are like clouds passing across the sky, or if you prefer trains which move through the station you are standing on. You can choose to follow them if you like, or you can stay focused on your breath.
When you train yourself to remain focused on your breath, you give your poor, overwhelmed mind a rest from the relentless pain you’re feeling. It’s hard to do, and giving your full attention to ten or even five continuous breaths without your busy thinking mind interrupting can be challenging. But with practice, you will get better at it and as a consequence, the periods of 'quiet' or moments of non-suffering can increase.
Some people enhance their practice by using visualisation techniques, for instance imaging themselves on a beautiful beach with their troubles contained in bubbles which they push out to sea, where they can no longer hurt them.
It’s surprising how even a little mindfulness can have a really large effect.
There are plenty of useful aids to your mindful practice available. Here’s some recommended reading.
- 10% Happier by Dan Harris
- Why Buddhism Is True by Robin Wright (don't be put off by the title!).
- Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Here are some recommended apps which will support your developing practice.
As soon as possible you should begin to take positive action. A disappointment is potentially harmful when it inhibits you from taking action to improve your situation. Unfortunately, this can lead to a cycle of despair, where your initial feelings loop round and impact on your normal tendency to do good and positive things. When this happens you tell yourself you can’t because you’re (choose the negative thought) and so you don’t. When you do this you’re putting the brakes on your recovery and only prolonging the misery you feel.
One way to overcome this tendency is to plan a series of checkpoints. Make a note to spend some time at the end of each week thinking about this. Here are some questions you could ask yourself:
- Is there anything I could do even in a small way that would make me feel better?
- Could I take action and start to change my situation? — e.g. If you've lost your job, could you make finding your new job, your new job.
- How am I coping? Carry out a quick health check — how’s your physical health and are you in danger of becoming depressed? If you feel things are slipping, go and talk to the family doctor. There are organisations such as the Samaritans you can get in touch with too.
- Is there something you’ve been putting off? This could be finishing some decorating, mending that broken chair, planting some new things in the garden? If you’re between jobs now, this could be the perfect time to get these done.
- Am I spending enough time in the fresh air? If you lock yourself indoors, you’re asking for trouble. There’s nothing like the breeze on your face, the power of the ocean, or the perspective from the top of a big hill to take you outside of your self.
- Am I sharing my feelings with those close to me? You might not want to acknowledge how you’re feeling to others, but by hiding your true state of mind you’re denying yourself access to the comfort that friends and family can and will provide.
- Have I had a big cry? If not, why not — it’s a natural response and there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
You can set other checkpoints as well. The end of a day before bed. The start of a weekend. Fix times when you will ask these questions, check in and prompt yourself into taking action.
3. Control The Narrative
You’ve experienced this major disappointment. You know how you feel — but no-one else does unless you tell them. I’m not suggesting you keep what you’re feeling a secret from your closest family and friends. In fact, I think you should do the opposite — see above.
That doesn’t mean though that you should then lead with your chin when it comes to other people who are not in a position to comfort you. If you’ve lost your job in circumstances you regret, you can tell people that you’re having a career break. That would create quite a different impression.
Think about how you could reframe what has happened. If you can construct a new narrative, it can boost your self-esteem.
4. Rinse and Repeat
Getting over a major disappointment won’t happen quickly. There’s a life cycle to the process. Expect that you’ll feel a bit better on one day, only to feel much worse the next. It’s a normal part of recovery that you should do so.
Try to remember that you’re only finished when you stop moving forward.
Treat each day as a fresh start, an opportunity to take another step forward. Accept it when your emotions rise up and use the breathing and mindfulness to help you through the worst.
Take action when you’re able to and check in on yourself regularly. Know that even the worst thing will eventually pass.
When things go wrong as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all up hill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.
Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow–
You may succeed with another blow,
Success is failure turned inside out–
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far;
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit–
It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.
~ Edgar A. Guest
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