“Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, never jam today!”—Alice, from Alice in Wonderland
Like Alice, most of us spend our lives looking back at yesterday or thinking ahead to tomorrow. It’s when we’re focused on tomorrow that we can really set ourselves up for disappointment, and that’s because there is often a big gap between what we expect will happen and what actually does happen. How we handle that gap can have a big impact on our day.
A few weeks ago, I had plans to have lunch with an old friend who I don’t get to see often. At the last minute, she had to cancel because her daughter got sick. When I got her text message saying she was canceling, I felt incredibly disappointed. She was too busy to look at her calendar so we could reschedule, so I just sat and stared at my phone. As I thought about it, I started to feel angry. I had really been looking forward to seeing her and we had so much catching up to do. Negative thoughts began popping into my mind. I knew I couldn’t keep them from showing up, but I recognized that this was an opportunity to find a way to manage my emotions.
The key to my feelings that day was unmet expectations. It’s common for us to face situations in which we’re let down, and often such disappointment can throw us for a loop. We may feel any number of emotions, including anger, hurt and frustration. We expect a situation to go one way, and when it doesn’t we may end up feeling distracted, rattled, or unable to complete our tasks. We may even feel victimized, as if the situation occurred to purposely cause us pain.
Is there another way to cope with disappointment? Yes, there is, and it has to do with our expectations. Naturally, we all want things to occur exactly as we planned them, but that isn’t always realistic. None of us has complete control over events in our lives or over other people’s actions. A helpful technique is to identify other possible outcomes ahead of time. That doesn’t mean you need to be pessimistic or focus on negative outcomes, but instead simply be aware of other possibilities. With my friend, I need to keep in mind that she is the mother of four children, so it’s likely that something may interfere with her plans. If I allow for the possibility that she may cancel, then it is much less likely I’ll end up feeling disappointed.
But what if I had considered the possibility that she might cancel but I still ended up feeling angry and disappointed when it happened? Here’s a second helpful strategy: don’t take it personally. See if you can look at the situation in a more objective way: after all, my friend’s daughter didn’t get sick on purpose. When I saw it this way, I was able to feel empathy for my friend: she was probably just as disappointed as I was. Being able to de-personalize and put yourself in the other person’s shoes is an effective way to decrease your anger and other strong emotions and move on with your day.
What happens when your life takes a u-turn and things don’t turn out as planned? Are you able to challenge the thoughts that pop into your head and move past disappointment?