Self-awareness is a grand thing that cannot be over-emphasized as we interact with the world around us. However, some people, including myself, who make this a priority, tend to skew the viewpoint a little toward whatever story they want the world to know about them. Inevitably, with all of us, we end up with blind spots that trip us up and end up impacting others. That blind spot is usually obvious once we recognize it for what it is: a struggle within to reconcile and identify the source emotion.
So let’s just attack my blind spot emotion: Disappointment. Disappointment is a close friend with regret. However, regret is the disappointment that we apply to our own actions and disappointment is what we apply to others’ actions. Disappointment doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s often the result of creating and sustaining expectations that another will act the way that we thought they should or would. In order to identify a feeling as disappointment you have to:
a) recognize that you had expectations;
b) believe you deserved or had good reason to have those expectations;
c) placed trust in someone else to meet those expectations;
d) relied on that person’s implied, express or assumed promise to fulfill those expectations; and
e) experienced a failure of someone to meet those expectations.
Disappointment can be general (“I’m disappointed I didn’t get any email today”) or specific (“I’m disappointed that my husband forgot our anniversary”). Disappointment carries a deeper attachment to the result or even the process than ordinary breaches of social protocol. It is personal and yet sometimes we judge ourselves for reacting to something so seemingly simple.
Disappointment is a blind spot for me because I rarely believe (b), that I deserve or have good reasons to expect anything. I feel that undeservinginess so deeply that I have adjusted my whole life around that basic concept so I never have to feel disappointment in another human being. And like most things it was influenced by some distinct event at an impressionable time.
Yet, I remember making a distinct choice to stop any public celebration of my birthday on my 16th birthday. This was the birthday where my boyfriend ditched me to have a drugged-out one night stand with a co-worker. I swallowed the disappointment, the heartbreak because I felt so unworthy of the expectation of fidelity or honesty or to be special on my 16th birthday. And I made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to be hurt like that again so i prohibited any celebration by family and friends from that time forward.
What is the old saying? If you don’t expect anything, you won’t be disappointed. Right?
(SIDE NOTE: I made an exception for my 21st birthday which ended up in that boyfriend dumping me just minutes after I turned 21 and was waiting for him to show up so we could go to the bar for my first legal drink.)
So here I am almost twenty years later. I can say with some certainty that I was completely reasonable to expect my boyfriend to spend my birthday with me as he promised instead of cheating on me. But that realization doesn’t change the new traditions I have created around this day for me. Disappointment was the fuel to that fire; but denial and avoidance of disappointment has ensured that there are no birthday parties, no presents, no cards, no celebratory drinks or revelry of any kind. Avoid disappointment,? Check. Avoid any chance to feel special and included? Fail.
Expectations are a bitch, because it’s entirely out of your control whether people meet them. And people give you excuses that seem reasonable at the time. But instead of owning up to the fact that I feel hurt or let down, I swallow it down where I plot my next attempt to circumvent any future disappointment
So how to fix it? Here are a few suggestions:
- Admit to yourself that the icky mix of anger and sadness you feel is disappointment. Write it down and burn it if you’re afraid of letting anyone know you feel this. But say or write the words at least.
- Practice telling the other person when you feel disappointed for small things. Like when they text to tell you that they won’t be able to make it to dinner tonight because they’re sick, text back “aww…I’m disappointed I won’t see you tonight. Take good care of yourself”
- Recognize and relate to their own humanity. Trust me, as a human being you’ve done something, big or small, to disappoint another human being. Remember what caused that person’s disappointment and apply it to your own now. Was it a miscommunication? An assumption? A crooked sense of priorities? Stress? Excuses or not, these play into all of our interactions.
- Express your disappointment. It doesn’t have to be a drag out fight. But instead find an opportunity soon after the event in question to tell the person you were disappointed by something they did or didn’t do and how things can be better in the future. Make it an honest exchange of information. Yes, you will hear excuses or rationale, some of which are totally understandable, but just as importantly they will hear it from you directly how you feel and what you’d like them to do differently in the future.
- Check but don’t eliminate all of your own expectations. There are times that our expectations can be pretty unweildy and can set everyone on edge (think Miranda Priestly from the Devil Wears Prada). If you’re noticing an increase in agitation or stress with the people you rely on, you may want to double check that you’re not asking the impossible and scale it back just a little bit.
- Arrange regular time to check in about promises, rules, expectations in a relationship. Having a regular check-in with a partner, loved one or even co-worker about what expectations are on the table, what’s working and what’s not can be enormously helpful. Don’t wait until there is a history of consistent fuck-ups, instead check in early and often (like every 2-3 months) to make sure each party knows what is expected of them.
- Trust again. Maybe not the same people as before, but trust that your needs and desires are worthy. It is amazing how less disappointment haunts me and hurts me now that I’ve started trusting that the world isn’t out to get me. .
And the biggest show of that trust in my life? After twenty years of solitary suffering, I am actually going to celebrate my birthday! Bring it on!