“But there were worse things than disappointment, and I'd lived through several of them already.”
― R.J. Anderson, Ultraviolet
I've called this piece 'the art of disappointment' because disappointment is often something that lies in shadow. We rarely like to admit it as an experience, and often pretend it isn't there. Anderson’s words remind us of how bearable disappointment is. This is important. We can actually bear it.
But our habits are so strong, this may be difficult to absorb. Many of us hold out for decades before we allow ourselves to admit that we are disappointed. It is safer to be merely sad, or to keep our disappintment for rant.... Sadness doesn’t accuse anyone, and it is not so particular. Anger, disappointment, hurt: all are relational.
As adults, letting in disappointment seems to carry three core threats:
To our mood: will feeling this bring me down?
To our ego/self-image: we are more interested in preserving a self-image narcissistic supply – often for the sake of mood – than we are in uncovering the truth of our experience: being close to our actual selves. Who do we want an impressive manically defended false self or a battered true self.
To our relationships. Again, we seek refuge in a false mental image, rather than in the complexity of some love, some failure to love. Some imperfect dependence. I like this phrase: imperfect dependence…ambivalence. Holding and dropping.
What makes an experience that is so ordinary and so natural seem so threatening?
disappointment need not be a threat, yet we act as if it is.
We ‘naturally’ contract against disappointment, becoming in the process, estranged from ourselves. This takes place all the time: small, unacknowledged disappointments accumulate inside us. We resist them in the attempt to ward off pain. Yet each time we do, we express a lack of faith. We lack conviction that we can live through it fruitfully. We can, but we may not know this yet.
The inability to live through disappointment well lies behind much of our accumulated despair. For Freud, it was an element in the origin of melancholia: he suggested that in response to disappointment in a loved person, we retreated as children from the central relationship of our lives, instead managing our despair through a blend of repression, withdrawal and self-attack. This established a pattern inside us – in relation both to the experience of disappointment and to relationship itself: disappointment seems dangerous or intolerable, we cannot bear to acknowledge that we feel ‘failed’ by those who matter to us. And yet the subduing, despairing impact of this experience lives on in us.
This establishes two significant and damaging precedents: we neither communicate our disappointment to others, nor sense it directly within ourselves.
Both habits die hard. Mostly, we stay loyal to this early shaping, remaining, as adults, inclined to respond as if our hurt and disappointment are not there. Some of us get away with this; for others, burying disappointment depletes us; despair continues to gather, unexpressed, within us. We go on as if nothing has happened. But inside, behind the scenes, our hope falters, our bonds weaken, we begin, again to withdraw.
Our resistance to disappointment has its reasons. Disappointment hurts. It is blunt, immediate and stark. It does appear to threaten our relationships. It can make us feel bad about our lives. Acknowledging it recalls us to difficult things: a sense of failure, hurt. These seem a bad idea to take in. Yet denying disappointment also leaves us stranded: we go on as if nothing has happened, we don’t digest what we feel, or that we have been hurt. And in the long run, this costs us some of us more dearly.
If we sense that this is so for us, clearly, we need to learn a different response. We need to question our automatic responses to disappointment, exploring whether there might be more coherent, nourishing ways to live through it.
What if being disappointed is not necessarily a depletion, but a return? What if it can recall us to ourselves? Do we have the capacity to feel disappointed when we are; do we have the courage to acknowledge the ongoing elements of our lives in which we are disappointed? Are we warding either off? If so, where does that leave us?
To help us think through disappointment and to shed light on its structure within us. We are trying to spell something out that we habitually ignore; start to sense the shape of something that has always been invisible.