Facing Disappointment & Accepting the Journey

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By UB therapist Bob Ryan, LCPC, ATR

As a practitioner with offices near two private universities, both of which attract high-achieving students, I see a number of young adults struggling to face disappointment. In general, our society does a poor job of preparing young people for the inevitable disappointments in life – even more so for those born with “bright futures.” Expectations for these individuals have always been high, whether self-imposed or inflicted by peer pressure or parents. Their lives have focused mainly on achievement and accomplishment. In many cases, self-worth is tied to accomplishment and less on shared values and connections to family and friends. These individuals come to college unprepared for the steep wall of competition. Added to that stress is the newness of experiencing the world of adult relationships for the first time and all the discouragement that may encompass.

High achievers in general are vulnerable to disappointment. Yet they are young, intelligent and often open to solutions and can accept change with relative ease. Not all young adults are as susceptible to the highs and lows of facing life’s vagaries. The average student, who needs to work harder for good grades, knows firsthand that life can hand them lemons and it is only through their own efforts that lemonade is made.

The need to deal with disappointment in a healthy and effective manner is not a skill only for the young. There are many individuals, living a life of slow but steady disappointment – with themselves, their family, careers, or health, to name a few causes – who cannot see anything positive in their lives.

How does one deal with life’s obstacles and unfulfilled expectations? Fortunately, everyone has the same options open to them: desire for change, acceptance, open mindedness, and a belief that life is a journey and not a destination.

A destination implies a goal. Goals in and of themselves are not bad, but they suggest a win/lose scenario, whereas a journey is comprised of a thousand steps, any one of which can be forward, backward or sideways. Every step is one small success along the journey. In this way, a success is implied for every step we take.

There are those who set goals early. If they learn and accept that their journey to that goal is one of constant improvement and self-betterment, not just the goal of financial or public success, they have a better chance at success. It can take a lifetime to become self-aware enough to see that one’s true blessing is having a talent to nurture. Like a performing artist, ask yourself, are you tied up in achieving a goal or are you on a journey of constant discovery and improvement? Are you using your talents as a means to an end or are you nurturing and growing your essence?

For those living with a seemingly never-ending list of disappointments, it can be quite hard to free yourself and discover your journey. The task is to look inside, to discover what nourishes you. For far too many, the drama of dysfunctional family life keeps them from focusing on themselves, feeding a feeling of being trapped. Certain research shows that the human brain has a natural tendency to wallow in regret and disappointment and that the brain’s pleasure centers are stimulated by regular depressive thought, a “comfortable familiarity” I call it. This is why we need to cultivate a desire for change.

It is okay to be sad about disappointing aspects of our lives; wallowing in those disappointments, however, is not. It’s a trap. Our brains reflexively respond to feelings of sorrow which then becomes our go-to emotion.

If you are experiencing something similar, in order to break this cycle, sit down with yourself, or take a walk and assess your desires. Would you like things to be different? If so, tell yourself so. Desire is the first stepping stone of change, of the journey of your life.

With desire, comes acceptance. What’s in the past is past. That sounds harsh, but it is true. How you live your life going forward, whether full of regret or attempting to make the most of what time you have, is a conscious choice. Acceptance of disappointment is akin to forgiveness, neither condoning nor forgetting that which is wrong. It is committing to not being defined or ruled by what has gone before. Committing to bettering yourself is life affirming. It is how we grow personal power, how we feel in control. By upholding our values and beliefs.

Not everyone can do all of these all at once. Sometimes even starting to change seems an impossible task. At that time, a trained therapist can help clear the path so you can begin your journey.