Most of us recognize the sense of let down that comes with longing for something we cannot have, or hoping for something that doesn’t pan out. Relationship hopes that don’t work out, career dreams that get derailed by unexpected circumstances, and even simple disappointments like missing an appointment due to a traffic jam, are just some examples of disappointing realities that at times impinge on our desires, hopes, and wishes. When we expect something to go a certain way and take for granted that it will, and then it doesn’t, we can find ourselves jolted by awareness of just how little control we have over how things end up turning out. Some people even hold the superstitious belief that the hope itself makes things not work out, or that the act of worrying is what keeps us safe.
Sarah was a woman who became anxious any time she desired anything because she was always so afraid that the way things would turn out in reality would be different from the romanticized outcomes of her fantasies. She was willing to sacrifice getting anything “good” in real time to avoid the pain of the mismatch between an image in her imagination and its corresponding external reality. The mismatch felt to her like an actual assault on her right to have a fantasy, dream, or hope; as if she was supposed to be “realistic” in all moments and never get carried away by the daydreams in her head. Sarah would talk about clothing that she loved to think about owning, but that she could never bring herself to actually buy or wear. The thought of looking in the mirror and seeing something so different from how she had imagined things would look was unbearable. Sarah avoided committing to relationships because she didn’t want to mourn her idealized image of what a relationship was “supposed” to feel like. She preferred to hold onto ideals at the expense of true experience. Only when we were able to see how Sarah’s mother had constantly injected reality and cynicism into her hopes and dreams, could Sarah begin to understand why she needed to keep the way she pictured things so protected from the “I told you so” feeling associated with reality.
Tom was another client who struggled with a fear of disappointment. He had trouble making decisions about even the smallest things because he was always afraid of making the “wrong” choice and feeling disappointed later on or regretful of his choices. His decision making difficulties were paralyzing and kept him stuck. We discovered that his parents had taught him that it was better not to try, than to risk failure or disappointment. Whenever he had a decision to make, his parents would raise doubt, uncertainty, “Are you sure that’s the right choice?”, “Are you sure you want to do that??”
For those of us who can tolerate ordinary disappointments with a simple sense of grief or regret, it feels okay to take a chance on things. We can pursue our dreams, choices, and desires and we can hope and expect things to go well. Feeling excited is okay because if things don’t work out, we don’t take it that personally.
It’s more complicated when disappointments take on larger meanings. Feeling that the world is out to get us when things don’t go our way (i.e. thoughts like: “I have bad luck”; “things never work out the way I want them to”; or, “I can never get ahead no matter how hard I try”) serve as attacks on hope itself. Fear of trying; fear of being relaxed, happy, or hopeful; and wounded self esteem when we can’t make things happen the way we want them to all take feelings of disappointment to a whole new level.
But a fear-based avoidance of the risk of being let-down can stop us from trying to get our needs met, from finding that our wishes can be actualized at least some of the time or in imperfect but good enough ways. Learning to face our disappointments head-on does involve some grief but keeps us open to life’s rewards as well.