Managing Disappointments

Everyone gets disappointed from time to time. We all have ideas of what will make us truly happy. We nurture a wistful longing for a particular skill, experience or acquisition. And as we age, we may suffer the loss of what was never achieved. Maybe you never married, or never had children as you hoped. Or, you had a failed marriage, or lost your dream job. Perhaps you never attained the goals that you worked so hard for. Every child is asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They are programmed to aspire to greatness. We can develop fixed ideas of what will make us happy, and only that will make us happy. We want to believe that if we find “the one,” or have a certain income, or live in a certain location, we’ll live happily ever after. And if our dreams don’t materialize, disappointment sets in.

Disappointment is a form of sadness. It is a loss and a painful gap between expectations and reality. The greater the disparity, the greater the disappointment. And it has physiological consequences. Dopamine, the pleasure chemical, decreases. The stress hormone cortisol seeps into your bloodstream. Your heart rate quickens, muscles tense, and the feeling of defeat can become overwhelming. Depression could set in.

Some people cope with disappointment better than others. Some may withdraw, blame themselves, blame others or turn to substances to numb the pain. Others may accept that life can be deeply satisfying even though they found themselves on a different path than they had intended.

My brother Steve, now deceased, was the apple of my parent’s eyes. He had all the markings of success. He was attractive, athletic, academically gifted, co-owned a business with his talented wife and had achieved financial security. Although children loved him, he and his wife never had their own. I asked Steve if he regretted never having kids. No, he was content with his life experiences. He taught me a lesson when he said “It would have been a different life. Not better or worse, just different.”

Emily Kingsley, a parent of a special needs child, best illustrates this in her 1987 essay “Welcome to Holland.” The following is a reprint of her poem.

“I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability – to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this……

When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”

“Holland?!?” you say. “What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.”

But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around…. and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills….and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy… and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.”

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away…because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss. But…if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things … about Holland.”

Don’t let your disappointments turn to resentment or despair. Enjoy the lovely things wherever you find yourself.

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