How to Handle Disappointment and “Failure”.

The classical advice about dealing with disappointment and “failure” is to pick yourself up and get back on track. While this is good advice, it focuses on the behavioral aspect of disappointment and not on disappointment as an emotion or on “failure” as a construct.

The emotion of disappointment is defined by Your as “a feeling of sadness, dissatisfaction or displeasure when something isn’t as you planned”. So, in other words, when you are disappointed, you are sad about a situation that has not gone as you expected or wanted.

As I discuss in my book Emotions as Tools A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings, Sadness is a threat detector and one of the 6 primary emotions (mad, sad, glad, fear, disgust, and surprise). The message of sadness is that you have experienced a loss and the function of sadness is to both alert you to the loss you have experienced and prepare your body to deal with that loss.

The intensity of sadness can vary along a continuum from mild disappointment through the sublime sense of loss one experiences when someone close to us dies to depression, a condition which can be life-threatening.

The Emotions as Tools Model teaches that all emotions go through a similar cycle. For emotions that involve threat, the cycle starts with the unconscious scanning of one’s surroundings for threat, physically reacting to that threat, managing one’s reaction to the threat when appropriate and, in time, mastering the emotion by validating the threat and choosing how you want to respond to it.

When you experience disappointment, you want to acknowledge and label the emotion as disappointment and recognize the message of the emotion, manage the emotion by giving yourself some psychological space between the situation and your reaction to it and then master the emotion by assessing the validity of the loss and choosing your response to it. The point is that there may, indeed, be a loss or you may be misinterpreting what is happening as a loss and there is, in fact, no loss.

When you understand this approach to dealing with the emotion of disappointment, you now have a context from which you can interpret and evaluate all of the advice you can find about how to handle disappointment.

So that I can keep this post to a reasonable length, let me give you a link to a blog which will give you some good suggestions for dealing with disappointment including 5 key steps and what to do both in the moment of and after a disappointment but please don’t go there until after you have finished reading this post. Here is the link.

Let’s look at the concept of failure.

Many people view failure as a destination and split achieving a goal into two opposing positions. You are either a “success” when you have accomplished your goals or you are a failure because you have fallen short of whatever it is you were trying to do. In my view, and others, success is defined as getting back up and on track more times than you fall down (failing). “Failure” only means that you are off course. When you “get up” more times than you “fall down”, you are almost guaranteed to accomplish your goal.

I believe that a dichotomous view of success and failure is a psychological trap which can elicit a misleading feeling of disappointment, sadness, or even depression.

Let me give you an illustration.

There is a story about Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb. When he was asked by a reporter what it felt like to have failed 10,000 times to make a light bulb, Mr. Edison reportedly said that he did not fail 10,000 times but he did find 10,000 ways to make a light bulb that did not work. Obviously, he kept on going until he “successfully” found a way that did work. There are numerous such stories in the theater (Muppets), literature (Carrie), and so forth.

Mr. Edison did not give in to disappointment or a sense of failure and give up. Giving up is a major downside possibility with disappointment.

So, when you define failure as a destination or as an absolute, you experience a sense of disappointment or loss. This sense of loss is “misleading” because, in fact, you have really not lost anything. As most successful people will tell you, you need to reevaluate, adjust, and move forward.

A very good book on the subject is John Maxwell’s book Failing Forward which is available on Amazon.

So, when you experience disappointment, approach it from an Emotions as Tools perspective. Acknowledge the emotion, take a psychological step back from the situation (management), and move into mastery by assessing the threat and choosing a response. When you hear yourself talking about “failure”, remind yourself that accomplishing a task in a journey, not a destination.

I welcome your comments.


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