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Understanding The Expectation-Disappointment Sequence

by Robert G. Waldvogel


Expectations, as has often been said, are the equivalents of investments in disappointments when they fail to be realized.

As an unexpected, unanticipated psychological and emotional response, a disappointment is a mismatch and an unsuccessful completion of what the idealized result should be and what it actually is. The greater the disparity, the greater will be the disappointment. It forces you to face the fact that whatever was expected will not be received, and leaves you powerless and frustrated if you have no way of changing the outcome.

A sequence of events serves to set you up for such a letdown.

The result or outcome is, first and foremost, dependent upon others and therefore not within your power or control, but your expectation does not necessarily take these factors into account.

Secondly, you achieve a degree of almost-certainty that you do and that the result will be positive.

Thirdly, you may feel particularly worthy or deserving of it, especially if you have worked hard toward something or have similarly delivered to others.

Finally, the failed delivery sparks spontaneous, but unexpected surprise that manifests itself as a wave of disappointment, sadness, and sometimes even hurt, particularly because you are emotionally unprepared for the outcome.

Disappointments can be caused by many factors.

The first of them are situations or circumstances. If, for example, you planned an outdoor event on the weekend, but were met with a heavy downpour when you woke up that morning, you will most likely be disappointed because you are forced to cancel it.

The second aspect entails people. If you rely on them to be there for you and come through in your time of need—especially if you have already done the same for them—you will most likely be disappointed in them when they do not.

The third aspect involves yourself. As you deal with the multitude of life situations, you may realize--as they occur or in retrospect--that you fell short in your own actions or responses, whether it was because you were late for an event, you could not provide the emotional support someone needed, you made a New Year’s resolution that you failed to keep, you overestimated or extended yourself., or you failed to do or say what you would have needed to.

Finally, you can be disappointed with a combination of any or all of these aspects.

With time, age, and distance, disappointments can shift form the micro to the macro view. Not receiving a deserved raise at 25 can be considered an example of the former. But reviewing and realizing that intervals or periods of your life were disappointing when you are 75 can be considered an example of the latter—and may evoke greater resignation, because it is unlikely that you have the time, opportunity, stamina, funding, or even health to regain the undelivered or unrealized results. If, for instance, you are disappointed because you never went through with your intention of climbing Mount Everest in your thirties, what is the likelihood that you will do so now in your seventies?

Although hardly pleasant, the disappointments that result from unmet expectations constitute a two-way street and some degree of understanding and relief can be attained by asking yourself some fundamental questions.

Have you, for example, always met everyone else’s expectations, thus avoiding their own disappointments? Did you even and always know what they were? Did you always have the ability, strength, and resources to do so? If you did, did other factors intervene and combine in a way that were not anticipated, resulting in less than successful effects? Did your own physical, emotional, and mental states vary your ability to do so at times?

In order to minimize your disappointments in others, you may wish to ask yourself the same questions about them. And, if your disappointments were the result of unforeseen circumstances, especially those that combined into the “falling dominoes” effect, you can only attribute them to life’s uncertainties and not any one person.

Like other unprocessed emotions, disappointments will fester and be fed by subsequent ones unless they are dealt with. They must be talked out and worked out, whether with a friend, a relative, a spouse, a colleague, a therapist, or God Himself. Nothing can be more clarifying and heating than confronting the person who caused your disappointment, as you come to a mutual understanding of the situation.

After the initial disappointment, it is important to regain proper perspective by asking yourself how important, crucial, or life-changing it was in the greater scheme of things. Be cognizant of black-and-white or all-or-nothing-at-all thinking, as in, “I didn’t get the raise, so my whole career went down the drain!” Did it really?

Most importantly, do not suppress or cover up your disappointments. Release them and relieve yourself of them.

And finally achieve some degree of comfort by realizing that you are not alone—that every single person alive has experienced disappointments, and most likely on countless occasions.

Although not pleasant, there is a progression to the expectation-disappointment sequence.

It begins, needless to say, with the expectation itself, but when the anticipated, deserved, and desired outcome is not achieved, you experience a subtle, almost-subconscious momentary disbelief, as the expected reality in your mind is intercepted and shattered by the one that actually occurs. Only then are you overtaken by the wave of disappointment.

Because it can have a drowning effect, many seek to reduce or deny it by erecting a defensive wall of anger between them and the emotion itself.

If you do not suppress or shelve it, and confront it instead, it requires processing and working through, but will ultimately lead to acceptance and transcendence.

Finally, you need to reassess the expectation-disappointment sequence by amending your own, realistically gauging your expectations in relation to circumstances or altogether eliminating them. Like other unpleasant or even painful life experiences, they are not particularly appreciated when they occur, but can provide the foundation for future personal growth and development after they have.

Expectations come first. Disappointments come second. But there is a great deal of understanding that needs to come between them. And when you gain it, you can minimize or eliminate the relation between the two.

Robert G. Waldvogel has earned the Interdisciplinary Certificate in Behavioral Health for Late Adolescence and the Emerging Adult and a Postgraduate Certificate in the Fundamentals of Cognitive Behavioral Treatment at Adelphi University’s School of Social Work. He has led Twelve-Step support groups on Long Island for the past decade, and created the Adult Child Recovery-through-Writing, and the Strengthening Our Spirituality Programs taught at the Thrive Recovery Community and Outreach Center in Westbury. He is a frequent contributor to Wisdom Magazine.


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