Embracing Disappointment

There is a strain in every relationship, whether it be in your vocation, with your spouse, or at your church. We all find ourselves living in the tension of desire and disappointment.  In a sense, to desire something is to welcome disappointment. This gets especially tricky when our disappointment stems from the failed promises of someone we depend on.

Typically, we respond with one of (at least) three things: resent, manipulation or acceptance.

A long-used adage in 12-step meetings is that ‘Expectations are resentments waiting to happen’, which works especially well when our expectations are unfounded. However, when our anger stems from someone not following through on their end, this emotional response may be completely accurate. Yet, even though this emotional response is accurate, it is often not very helpful or productive. Often, but not always, anger leads us to reactivity, and it typically shows up at the most inopportune times. My encouragement is this, speak to this anger but don’t act on it. Discuss it with a trusted group of friends, but don’t storm into your boss’s office.

Another favorite alternative to disappointment is manipulation. Some of us sulk to get our way, others blow-up, still others of us work sneakily behind the scenes trying to acquire what we desire. When we feel confrontation would be useless, or at least be hard work, we may often find that rather than openly approaching the person not meeting our desire, we try to gain our desire while they’re not looking. This is most likely going to end in some sort of further hurt and harm. When I slam doors and dishes to speak my anger about my unmet desire, my wife has little opportunity to hear more than disappointment and/or disgust. Manipulation tries to put off the hurt we feel on someone else, rather than engaging with the pain of unmet desire.

Personally, my least favorite means of dealing with disappointment is to practice acceptance. I do not mean repression of desire. I also do not mean cowardice or denial of pain. What I mean is what I believe Paul is getting at in Phillippians 4:10-14:

“I’m glad in God, far happier than you would ever guess—happy that you’re again showing such strong concern for me. Not that you ever quit praying and thinking about me. You just had no chance to show it. Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. I don’t mean that your help didn’t mean a lot to me—it did. It was a beautiful thing that you came alongside me in my troubles.”

Acceptance of a circumstance requires a deeply held belief that no matter what is going on, God did, will and is giving me exactly what I need. There is a mystery to this, particularly when what I am receiving is pain caused by someone else’s sin, and I do not have a simple or trite response for those circumstances.

I have found the following four steps to help me move towards a posture of acceptance, no matter the circumstance.

Investigate your disappointment, find out what expectation has been failed. What were you actually desiring before you felt the sting of disappointment? What need do you still feel is unmet?

Acknowledge and deal with your disappointment. Whenever we feel failed (by a spouse, job, family, circumstance, church, or faith) we will enter a season of grief. Grief is never a simple process, and will take an indefinite period of time to move through.

Identify what you are being given by looking outside of your expectations. If you can’t see it, trust that you will in time. Temporal beings were not created with the capacity to know the benefits of the present to their future. Pay attention to the small and insignificant, trying to notice what is being offered.

Accept the muddled and imperfect gifts another offers you. Make an effort to accept what you are being given with gratitude (even when it is not what you wanted). Gratitude is best understood as an action and a choice, most of the time we don’t feel grateful until we seek to be grateful.  

Start with this process. In time, if you need to confront someone it will become clear, and if it is coming from a place of contentment rather than further expectations you will find yourself capable of further acceptance, regardless of the outcome.

Note: You should never accept something that is abusive or harmful. If you believe this to be the case, speak to a trustworthy and reputable counselor about your situation. For more information about finding a good counselor, go here.