Disappointed woman
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By Tamarin Epstein, Educational Psychologist, PsychMatters

We all suffer disappointment, at various times in our lives. How we cope with these experiences depends not only on the nature of the event, but also on our psychology.

Psychological factors include our previous experiences, temperament, and value systems. These factors combine, in deciding how we perceive and interpret (understand and make sense of) the ‘disappointing’ event.

Temperament refers to inborn aspects of our personalities. Our temperament influences our perceptions and coping styles. More adaptable people tend to cope with, and bounce back from, disappointment better. Strong-willed, highly sensitive, and introspective people often find it difficult to deal with disappointment. Temperamentally, we all tend either toward a more positive, or a more negative, emotional state. Emotional state affects how we perceive and interpret events in life. People who tend toward a more positive emotional state are more likely to make sense of events in positive, adaptive, realistic ways. Negative emotional states cause us to perceive our reality accordingly – as darker and less hopeful. Prolonged negative states (e.g. depression) lead to deeper feelings of disappointment, anxiety, unhappiness and hopelessness. The more disappointing our lives feel, the more miserable we become. So continues the negative cycle.

Our emotional state is also influenced by our value systems (how we define happiness and success). Although we cannot exert much control over our temperamental tendencies, we CAN control our emotional state, by changing our thoughts.

According to famous American psychologist, Albert Ellis, if we value something highly, we are more likely to expect ourselves to have or achieve it. For example, we may believe that we MUST be married to be happy and worthy, and that we MUST achieve a particular career goal by a certain age to be successful. As a result, we will feel disappointed if we are single/divorced and have not achieved our career goal by the appointed age. We thus experience feelings of disappointment, a sense of failure and feelings of poor self-worth, as we have failed to meet the expectations we have created for ourselves. As a result, we may choose to enter into, or remain in, an unhappy marriage or an unfulfilling job – simply because we can’t bear to disappoint ourselves. A divorce or career shift feels unbearably disappointing, simply because we believe it is. We feel badly about ourselves, because we expect to live up to our own values – even if they are senseless, unrealistic, useless, unhealthy, and cause us pain and distress.

Ellis labels these self-created value systems “musturbations” (e.g. I must be married, I must be an accountant, I must live in an expensive home…to be happy and successful). According to Ellis, our musturbations are the result of irrational thinking patterns. We cause ourselves most of our own psychological distress, with our musturbations.

According to Ellis, we upset and “disturb ourselves”, by irrational musturbations. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. We disturb our children, raising them to have our musturbations too.

In dealing with disappointment, we can choose to change the way we think about the event. We can CHANGE our thinking, by challenging our musturbations. Disappointment may signal an opportunity to re-think dysfunctional parts of our lives. Perhaps, we need to shift gear, change direction, or give up on something that isn’t working for us. We can reframe a musturbation, as follows: E.g. Instead of thinking: “I MUST be married, to be happy and worthy”, we can choose to think: “I would like to be married, but not at the cost of my happiness and wellbeing. I am a worthy and valuable person, regardless of my marital status”.

In this way, our disappointment could be replaced by relief, happiness, and renewed motivation …if we let go of the musturbations that don’t fit with our reality, and – frankly – make us stuck and miserable.

After all, “the greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another” (William James).

Just imagine the possibilities!

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