Were you disappointed that England lost the Euro 2020 final on penalties? Life is full of disappointments, large and small. We can be disappointed in ourselves, in other people, or by things that happen to us. But why are some people better at coping with disappointment than others?

You can recover, even from a major disappointment. In his 2020 book Anything Is Possible: Be Brave, Be Kind & Follow Your Dreams, England manager Gareth Southgate reflects on how missing the crucial penalty against Germany in the Euro 96 semi-final left him feeling like “I had let everyone down – myself, my team-mates and the nation.” It’s fair to say he’s bounced back from that experience and emerged stronger and more resilient.

While most of us don’t have to deal with feelings of letting an entire nation down, disappointment can be hard. And during the pandemic there’s been a lot of disappointment to deal with: delayed weddings, cancelled holidays, redundancies. But you can learn and grow from these experiences.

What is disappointment?

Disappointment sounds like such a small thing, doesn’t it? We all have to deal with small, daily disappointments. The coffee shop ran out of your favourite almond croissants. Drinks with friends were cancelled. You missed the train. Small disappointments can mount up.

But disappointment can also be a more profound reaction to major life events. You can be disappointed that your relationship ended, or that you lost your job. Disappointment can be crushing, affect our mental health and lead to depression. It’s a complex emotion that comes from our hopes and dreams being dashed by a different reality.

How do you think about disappointment?

Why do some people seem great at coping with life’s disappointments and bounce back quickly – while, for others, disappointment can spiral into depression? How we deal with disappointment has a lot to do with how we think about things. Different people can react differently to exactly the same events, just because of the way they think about them.

Being aware of – and challenging – our thoughts is central to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). And this is key to understanding how to deal with disappointment. Two things you can do to change your thinking about disappointment are:

  • Manage your expectations. When we experience disappointment, our expectations don’t match reality. Check whether your expectations are reasonable. Are you aiming too high? This doesn’t mean you should set the bar low and always expect the worst, just to avoid disappointment. But ask yourself if the disappointment you feel is a result of an unrealistic mismatch between hope and reality.
  • Avoid ‘thinking traps’. Negative thoughts can spiral when they become a pattern. Psychologists call these ‘thinking traps’, or  ‘unhelpful thinking styles’. Some of the most common are catastrophising (predicting the worst case scenario), black and white thinking (seeing things in extremes – good or bad) and emotional reasoning (when we base our view according to how we feel rather than the facts).

How to deal with disappointment in yourself

Disappointment with external events is one thing. But what if it’s yourself you’re disappointed in? What if you feel you’ve let yourself or other people down? Here are some tips for dealing with disappointment in yourself.

  • Don’t blame yourself. It’s easy to beat ourselves up if we feel we’ve let ourselves down, that we don’t measure up to our image of ourselves, or feel a failure. It can even lead to feelings of self-hatred. But we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. You know who’s never disappointed in themselves? Someone who never steps out of their comfort zone. You tried something new. Congratulations! You’re living life. OK, so it may not have gone as well as you’d hoped. That’s OK. You’re human.
  • Recognise that you can’t control everything. Sometimes disappointment may be predictable, other times it’s unavoidable. Understand the difference between situations that are within your control – and those that are beyond it. Don’t feel guilty for something you had no influence over.
  • Avoid perfectionism. Are you always striving for perfection? Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Accept that some things can be ‘good enough’. If you tend to be a perfectionist, remember the 80/20 Rule. This states that “80% of the results come from 20% of the effort”. In most cases 80% is good enough. Yes, you could strive for perfection – but it’ll take a huge extra effort, with diminishing returns – and probably no one will notice anyway.
  • Know that you won’t always feel this way. When we’re disappointed in ourselves, we can feel upset, embarrassed, frustrated or a failure. But these feelings won’t last. And you’re not a failure.
  • Avoid ruminating on disappointment. Understand what happened – and move on. Going over and over what happened in your head can lead to an unhealthy cycle of preoccupation and worry.
  • Learn and grow from it. There’s often something we can learn from disappointment. Ask yourself: “What can I learn from this experience? What could I do differently next time?” If you can reframe a disappointment as a learning experience, it can be a catalyst for growth.
  • Practice self-acceptance. Recognise that everyone makes mistakes. Above all, remember that you are not a disappointment, just because you were disappointed in yourself.

How to deal with crushing disappointment

Some disappointments are a big deal. Crushing disappointments can be defining moments in your life. They may include such life events as a relationship ending, a business failing or not getting the grades you need to go to university. What should you do in these circumstances?

  • Take your time. You don’t have to ‘bounce back’ from a crushing disappointment before you’ve had the chance to fully come to terms with what has happened and process your emotions. Don’t rush it.
  • Express it. Bottling up our emotions can have negative consequences for our personal growth. Disappointment hurts. Don’t mask it with a smile and carry on. Allow yourself to feel and express your emotions. They will pass.
  • Take a break. Focusing on your goals all the time can be stressful. Take a break to get over a major disappointment. It can help you process the experience, regroup, and gain perspective.
  • Seek inspiration. Who else do you know who has had a crushing disappointment or failure in their life – but has still been successful? Winston Churchill is often cited as someone who had major defeats and failures in his early career – but who emerged as a wartime hero in the end.
  • Find an outlet. Some people find a creative or physical outlet helpful. Try writing in your journal – or go for a run.
  • Meditate. Make some time for yourself to focus on your breath in the present moment. This can provide some relief from ruminating on a negative experience. Like the breath, remember that disappointments come – and they go.
  • Practice self-care. Try our Self-care courses, which can help you understand and recover from depression that can arise from a major disappointment.
  • Speak to someone. Speak to a sympathetic friend, or a therapist. A crushing disappointment can take a while to process. A therapist can help you work through your feelings, help you think about things differently, and provide some coping strategies.

Disappointment is an inevitable part of life. But you can recover, even from a crushing disappointment. If you can learn to deal with disappointment in a constructive way, it can be a learning experience that builds resilience and personal growth.

If you need to speak to someone to help you overcome disappointment, find out more about how you can get started with My Online Therapy.