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  • Dr. Patricia Gianotti

When I’m Disappointed...

Disappointments happen in life. If we’re smart, we can learn from them. With enough distance, disappointments that initially feel crushing often turn out to be life lessons. They help us make a necessary turn in the road, set more realistic goals, recognize blind spots, become more humble. Furthermore, reflecting on disappointments is actually one of the most important factors in developing resilience and strength of character.


But, some people treat the experience of disappointment as an affront, as if it should never happen. This expectation can set up a dangerous domino effect. For example, if I believe disappointments aren’t supposed to happen, then someone has to be blamed for causing my disappointment. This in turn gives me license to strike back or retaliate. So, it would then follow that if I didn’t get an A on a paper or receive praise for my every effort, I can call my teacher a jerk. If Suzie slighted me, I get to harass and humiliate her. If you challenge my thinking, I get to call you a loser. If I do something wrong, I’ll say it’s not really my fault or deny it ever happened.


The above examples are all defensive reactions, attempts to distance from the painful feeling of disappointment. Unfortunately, these responses are also regressive; some would say infantile, as they don’t encourage self-reflection or accountability for one’s own actions. In children, behaviors such as these are developmentally understandable. Part of being a good parent is to help teach our children how to shoulder disappointments and learn from them. However, when such defensive behaviors are tolerated, even encouraged or rewarded in adults, it is a far more serious matter. Gone unchecked, these behaviors eventually create an atmosphere that undermines basic trust, respect, and tolerance, which in turn creates less safety across the board.


Psychiatrist Martha Stark, author and Harvard professor states, “When a disappointment is experienced as painful, but tolerably so, it can ultimately be processed and mastered. But when it is experienced as too painful, as intolerably painful, then the disappointment cannot be grieved and must instead be defended against (2006).”


What are the conditions that prevent some individuals from mastering painful feelings and learning from them? When and how does disappointment become intolerably painful? As psychologists are prone to say, “It all starts in childhood.”


If parents are too indulgent or lenient and convey that their children can do no wrong, children may develop an inflated and often unrealistic image of themselves. Or if parents try to protect children from ever having to face disappointment, hovering at every turn, defending them regardless of their actions, children may come to believe that they are entitled to things being handed to them, or that they are special and don’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else.


Conversely, if parents are too harsh, setting exacting standards around being perfect, or berating children when they fall short, children will either try to over-compensate to prove their worth to the parent (and eventually the world), and/or they will secretly come to believe that they are inadequate and a failure. The shame associated with feelings of inadequacy is intolerably painful and therefore must be hidden. Hiding personal inadequacy is often best achieved by either pretending you’re something that you’re not, or “berating in kind” by knocking other people down or humiliating them in order to feel better.


Parenting styles, where children were not taught realistic expectations and reasonable effort, is what contributes to retaliatory or entitled behavior in adulthood. However, parents who teach their children that disappointments are a part of life also help teach children that painful feelings can be tolerated. Furthermore, when a parent provides comfort around disappointments and reassures the child that he or she is loved in spite of accomplishments or shortcomings, the child experiences a sense of self-worth that is not just based on what he or she can produce or prove.


Without unconditional love and acceptance, there is no buffer against the feeling of shame or inadequacy when disappointments arise. In addition, when parents attempt to prevent children from experiencing the grief associated with disappointment, they are less likely to develop a sense of resilience that comes from weathering the storms of life. 

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