Why disappointment is so devastating
As a society we seem to disregard the power of disappointment. It’s easy to tell others to “just get over it” or “move on, already”. But that is so hard to do, given what’s happening in the brain.
Consider Ramon, a 16-year-old who, in 2020, was looking forward to his last two years of secondary school. He had so many plans, so many expectations about the fun times, competing in sports, the girls, and parties with his friends. But then it was all completely stolen by a global pandemic and lock-downs. He was so disappointed, bereft, and down. His parents were at a loss about what to do and were even wondering if he was mentally stable.
Nevertheless, people around him tried to convince him it would be OK, he would get over it, it would all be over soon. He heard this, not just from his peers, but those in authority – his parents, teachers, and well-meaning relatives.
It won’t be OK!, he declared. And he was possibly right. We need to take this kind of disappointment more seriously – it truly does hurt. And that hurt can last a long time.
Disappointment and the brain
Disappointment is very tied up with expectations. When we positively anticipate certain events, the brain generates dopamine and we become excited and inspired as we focus on the future and our anticipated outcome(s). The anticipation itself gives us a dopamine high.
But when those expectations are not met, we feel let down, it can even feel like a serious betrayal. The research on negative prediction errors tells us that we lose all the dopamine generated by anticipation and we feel low. Because that’s what the brain is experiencing – a loss of a very important source of inspiration/excitement which then leaves us bereft of hope.
On top of that, pain centres in the brain fire up and we feel hurt. This isn’t pain associated with a physical location, but emotional pain (which can actually be lessened by painkillers – thus the potential major problem here!).
So, our dopamine and joyful feelings are gone and emotional pain begins. No wonder it’s so hard to deal with.
What to do?
While the pain of disappointment can be lessened by painkillers, it’s not a great idea to indulge in them. Instead, it would be healthier to learn how to deal with our emotional pain – which of course is easier said than done.
Understand that hurt and disappointment are real – whether it’s for you, your friends, colleagues or family members. Have compassion for yourself and others, but please don’t expect yourself or others to “just get over it”. Disappointment is likely to lessen with time, but you can’t exactly rush this.
Practise gratitude – A state of gratitude can release dopamine and serotonin which can reduce those bereft feelings.
Find healthy sources of dopamine – exercise and being around friends and family.
Don’t aim too high too often – pay attention to how much you let yourself dream and set expectations for the future. We all need hope – it can keep us alive and moving forward. But too many unrealistic dreams may only set you up for disappointment and pain down the line.
But also don’t just aim low – many of us do not ever want to experience the pain of disappointment again and to avoid it, we reduce our expectations and our ability to positively anticipate events in the future. That’s not fair to ourselves.
In summary, try these practices:
- Recognise the disappointment can feel devastating and have compassion.
- Learn to deal with life’s disappointments without giving up on hope.
- Practise gratitude regularly to maintain healthy levels of “happy brain chemicals” like serotonin and dopamine.
- Learn to set inspiring yet realistic expectations.
Disappointment creates life’s low points. If we are to be both realistic and content, we are going to have to learn how to deal with disappointment in a constructive way that allows us the gift of hope for a brighter future.