Most people have a fear of disappointing others, but the trickiest situation of all (in my opinion) is when we disappoint ourselves.
Disappointing yourself can make you question your ambitions, your self-worth, and your abilities. It can make you feel both queasy and uneasy, like being stuck at the top of a roller coaster or eating that leftover sushi you definitely should have thrown out days ago.
Maybe it’s because only we know our true potential—and not living up to it invites unpleasant emotions like shame and fear and guilt to the party. Or, maybe it’s because we know we’re the only ones who can free ourselves from the sinking feeling—and it’s a daunting task.
The good news: There’s a tool that can help us when we’re clinging to disappointment. It’s called self-compassion.
Research shows that “people who have higher levels of self-compassion tend to handle stress better—they have less of a physical stress response when they are stuck in traffic, have an argument with their spouse, or don’t get that job offer—and they spend less time reactivating stressful events by dwelling on them,” writes Carrie Dennett in The Washington Post.
Here’s how to pick up and move out of “I’ve let myself down” land after disappointing yourself.
1. Accept What Happened
It’s part of grief, a part of life, and yes, a part of disappointment. The first step to getting over your self-shame is to simply accept what went wrong. Avoiding or glossing over it won’t help you move on.
If you need a good long cry, go for it. (Been there.) If you want to wallow for a few hours, you’re entitled. (Been there, too.) But then it’s time to brush yourself off and declare exactly where things went off the rails.
Simply saying out loud to yourself, “I’m disappointed because I didn’t meet the goal I set for myself,” might make you see that this big issue actually isn’t the overwhelming monster you believe it to be—it’s actually a series of events that you can learn from.
2. Treat Yourself Like a Friend—Not a Frenemy
It’s easy to judge yourself in these situations, but let’s take one or two steps back and find a new perspective. If your friend came to you with the same issue—she was disappointed in herself for not having a stellar quarterly review, or bombing her open-mic night—what would you say to her?
Probably not, “I’m so disappointed in you. You can do better.”
Rather, you’d be supportive and kind and listen to exactly what went wrong. Treating yourself and your disappointment like a close friend can help ease the blame and help you exercise more self-compassion.
3. Recognize Your Big Expectations
Disappointment is directly tied to the expectations we place on ourselves. It’s a tale as old as time—you can even trace it back to your childhood.
I’m going to sell 1,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies today!
I’m going to win the Spelling Bee!
I’m going to take first place in the 400-meter dash!
It’s not that high expectations are a bad thing—by all means, reach for the stars! Sell the cookies! Ask for the definition to that noun! Run until your lungs burn!
But making sure you’re prepared is an important way to protect yourself from future disappointment. Consider whether your expectations were aligned with how ready you felt for that moment.
4. Distract Yourself (in a Healthy Way)
If you’re feeling disappointed, it’s only natural to want to reach for something to cheer you up. Hello, full weekends binge-watching Killing Eve. There’s nothing wrong with either of these tactics, but when you engage in them mindlessly to soothe your nerves or a troubled mind, it can often only lead to a negative feedback loop.
Instead, distract yourself by treating yourself to something different. Carve out an extra hour to crack open that book you’ve been dying to read, or call an old friend and catch up, or go for a walk to the nearby botanic garden.
Do something that stimulates your mind. Experiencing the world around you will make you remember that this, in fact, isn’t the end of the world.
5. Ask Yourself the Right Questions
There are so many lessons to learn from major and minor failures or little blips of disappointment. The first major lesson? You know what not to do next time. When you’ve passed the “acceptance” stage, start to figure out where things went wrong by asking yourself the following questions:
●︎ Did you give yourself enough time?
●︎ Did you do the necessary prep work?
●︎ Did you set clear boundaries?
●︎ Did you ask for help?
Digging in to these questions will expose any of the flaws in your plan. Instead of saying, “Oh well, I guess it didn’t work out the way I wanted to,” or beating yourself up, you’ll be armed with knowledge and be able to pivot.
6. Adjust for Next Time (and the Time After That)
This oft-quoted statement might give you some comfort: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” But see, now you’re not going to do the same thing over and over again! You’ve learned from this disappointing experience!
Asking the right questions and understanding where your plans went off the rails is crucial to plotting your next big endeavor.
Instead of vaguely saying, “I’ll do better next time,” find the next similar deadline or event on your calendar right now. (Go on, we’ll wait!) Then ask yourself, “Am I fully prepared for this?” Chances are, you can use what you learned to dig a little deeper, research a little more, or ask for help if you need it.
7. Realize This Is All Just Because You Care
Ah, yes, the most important lesson of all: The thing about being disappointed is that it reveals what you actually care about. You wouldn’t be feeling so upset if you weren’t invested in the outcome, and that in itself is a great thing. Disappointment can act like a radar system, pinpointing exactly where you are—and where you want to be.
While you might feel like shying away from it if things aren’t turning out your way, listen to your instincts. You’re disappointed because you care, and that passion is what will keep you moving forward.
When you take the time to learn from your disappointment, you’ll be more prepared than ever before the next time that presentation or conversation or dance battle comes up.
Disappointment, you’ve been warned.