How To Effectively Handle Disappointment

Every inch of my being felt it that day. I had performed marvelously on stage. My hunch was confirmed by the thunderous clapping that followed from the audience after I finished my piece, some of whom even stood up to applaud me. I bowed proudly and walked off the stage with an adrenaline rush so fervent I could have touched the sky. There was no doubt in my mind that the performance would earn me the coveted “Best Actress” Award, as usual.

That was back in 1982 in the small town in Kenya. I grew up acting and was a locally-famed performer who regularly stepped on stage to recite short poems and act in Plays in front of thousands of people for school competitions known as Drama Festivals. Heck, I was so good I had once performed for the President of Kenya Mr. Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi himself so yeah I was carrying that kind of swag around.

So, imagine my disappointment when, on this particular day, after putting on what I felt was the best performance of my life, the judges called out my name and said I had been declared the 2nd Best Actress.

Say what?

I was so distraught I didn’t even want my certificate. But I finally accepted it then stared at it appallingly like it was infected with some kind of infectious disease. When I got home, the whole thing finally bothered me so much that I had to do something to relieve the pain it was causing me. A pin came to my rescue! I took a pin and oh-so-carefully etched out the engraved “2nd” that was in front of “Best Actress” until it was no longer visible. Once I blew the lose pieces of paper from the certificate, I was now the Best Actress. Aha! Immediate relief! Something I could live with, something that finally made my soul….smile. I slept like a baby that night, I tell ya.

I never told a single soul about what I had done to my certificate until recently when my friend Rachel visited and it happened to by laying on my coffee table. “Oh, you once won a Best Actress award?” She asked casually. “Actually, let me tell you the story,” I said. She laughed so hard she almost squirted her tea through her nostrils. To this day, Rachel regularly teases me about this CertificateGate scandal.

Looking back, I realize now that my reaction to the disappointment was due to the fact that I had not experienced a lot of it up until then. Normally if I worked hard, mastered my lines and did my best the results always matched my expectations and I was a happy camper. This experience broke my naivety and since then, I have fortunately or unfortunately come to the awful realization that sometimes your best is not good enough. You could do your best and still be disappointed.

Disappointment is one thing we’re guaranteed to experience in life. As long as you’re living, it’ll find you one way or another. You’ve probably experienced some of it yourself. Maybe you interviewed for your dream job and left with the feeling that you had aced it, you’d undoubtedly be hearing back with an offer from that company. You day dream about the amount of money you’ll be making, the impression you'll make on your new co-workers and what kind of statement this was going to make to your friends or family. But the offer never comes. This actually very recently happened to me. I had amazing chemistry with the interviewer over the phone and an even better one when I met him for the face-to-face interview. He gave me raving reviews and even felt that I would be a “very good fit” with the current employees. The interview went so well that he had me meet each and every one of the people that worked there. I even hung out with some of them in the break-room like we were already colleagues. As I drove home afterwards, I just knew I would be saying deuces to my current employer soon. It’s been months and I never heard back from that company, even after my follow-up with them. To say I was disappointed was an understatement.

Most of us have also experienced disappointment in the area of love. You hit it off with someone and the chemistry is so awesome you can’t help but start to build your dreams around them. You fantasize about what kind of a life you could build together, the memories you could make that last a life time and then, for whatever reason, the relationship never pans out. Big bummer.

At times it’s our own parents, siblings or friends who disappoint us. My friend, who is divorced and co-parenting with her ex-husband, told me how crushed her young daughter was one time when she sat outside all day expecting her dad to come pick her up for a Saturday of fun with him only for her dad to let her down and not show up. That’s a disappointment that hits both the child and the mother and sometimes carries over to children’s adult life.

So how do we deal with disappointment? I saw a Meme once that read “The best way to not be disappointed is to not expect anything from anyone.” But is that so? Should be live our lives in this kind of defense mode being careful to tame our expectations about a situation so that we don’t have to deal with the anguish of disappointment later? I don’t think so. To me, living that way is worse than dealing with disappointment itself because you’re not exerting yourself fully. You’re holding yourself back. You spend your life standing by the river bank shivering afraid to jump in with two feet. Perhaps the better option is to build a plan B for if A doesn’t work. Or maybe have an exit plan in advance to help minimize the toll disappointment may have on you. These are good strategies for only situations where they are applicable, of course. Starting a business is one of those situations that need exit plans & plan Bs, especially if you are likely to deal with financial ruin if things don't work out.

Nonetheless, disappointment can help you in numerous ways if you allow it. It may be that you needed to be humbled. Or even challenged to work harder or be more creative. Or you needed to be taught something about yourself that you otherwise would not have known. All of this potential for personal growth by way of disappointment would be lost if you didn’t experience it, right?

The first time you experience disappointment you might think "Goodness this is so painful I never want to feel this way again." Some people are so pained they retract to a dark hole and resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drugs, alcohol, spending sprees or complete withdrawal from normal society. Anything to numb the ache. But once you’ve been through it a few times you get wiser. Not getting the offer I was anticipating from that company hurt me, but it didn’t hurt nearly as much as being the 2nd Best Actress back in 1982. I’ve been around the disappointment block now so to speak, and what I do is rise up to its occasion and take it head on. If I need to cry, I cry. If I need to take time off from things to calm down, heal & regroup I do exactly that. Most importantly, I do not hide from the potential of disappointment. In love & life, I’m that girl who tell herself “I’m going in if it doesn’t work out it doesn’t!” After all, you either win or you learn.

So take your chances in whatever you’re pondering. If it doesn't turn out like you expected you may bruise your ego, deal with embarrassment or suffer from loss of momentum & drive. But, you'll also grow. And the next time you react to an unpleasant outcome with the maturity and wisdom of a Greek Philosopher, go ahead and thank disappointment for it!

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