Managing Disappointment during the Holidays and Beyond

One of the constants of the end of the year, especially during the holiday season, is the expectation that comes with all the possibilities for a life change or reward. Society sells the holiday season as a magical time in which wishes and miracles are granted in a Frank Capra-esque ending because everyone is looking out for everyone else. While propagating an image of harmony is helpful in bringing feelings of goodwill toward others, thereby bettering your own mood, seeking a wish fulfillment cure-all is likely to set you up with unhealthy expectations, only to be let down by even greater disappointment.

Disappointment is a natural part of life; if there are any who do not experience some form of disappointment, then they are part of a fortunate and rare few. Indeed, it takes either a tremendous sense of privilege or an exceptionally glass-half-full spirit to not feel disappointed from time to time. But the key is to manage disappointment so it doesn’t feel like a permanent state of being.

Managing expectations, however, is often easier said than done. Hope and expectation are nice feelings, and they can be useful as motivating factors toward working hard to achieving certain goals. But it is equally important to remember that not every goal can or will be met in a lifetime, and that even hard work will not automatically pay off with the hoped-for success. And setting tangible, attainable goals is very different from fantasizing about a wild or improbable success. Around the holidays, a season that can often be the unattainable “perfection” of alignment that coordinates everyone’s moods and personalities in a conflict-free, greeting-card version (or a print by Currier and Ives). And banking on that is a very risky gamble against disappointment.

Also key in the management of holiday disappointment is to understand that the world isn’t out to get you. You are not the center of everyone’s world; however, this does not mean that people do not care about you. Everyone has their own lives to live, and it’s hard to put yourself into someone else’s experience. You may expect a certain behavior from a person, but perhaps they are experiencing their own struggles or stress, and this will have nothing to do with you, so do not take their actions personally. Taking things personally actually limits your perspective and keeps you from seeing beyond your own experience. Sometimes, even if you can’t explain their actions, the best thing to do is to show patience and compassion, which can go a long way toward mitigating your own disappointment. Gaining perspective on what is really important in any situation is a tremendously important life skill.

Similarly, while showing compassion for others, avoid negative self-talk. Your disappointment is not something that you deserved, and experiencing disappointment does not make you a bad person. This is not some kind of cosmic backlash keeping you from being your best self. Ironically, this type of negative talk has a basis in self-absorption, as if everything in the world conspires to promote or thwart your progress. Bad things happen to all people, and they can happen anywhere and at any time.

If part of your holiday calls for a time of self-reflection, then do just that. Reflect on why some things are important to you (and maybe evaluate what are the most important things), and then focus on the personal growth more than an external stimulus. Control what you can control. Take personal responsibility for what’s yours to own. Be proactive.

None of this has to remove hope from the equation, but if you find yourself repeatedly disappointed by life, then perhaps it is time to shift that perspective away from being entitled to the universe’s bounty. And maybe sometimes the glass is half empty, and other times, you just need a refill of a different drink. Figure out what next steps need to be taken after experiencing a disappointment, or accept that what you hoped for didn’t transpire, but maybe something else will work out better next time. This may result either because you planned for it more effectively or because the timing was better—or because you decided that you wouldn’t get derailed by the occasional disappointed expectation.

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