On Coping with Disappointment

14 March 2024

During their time at St Andrew’s College, we support our students to accomplish their goals and experience success. However, inevitably, there is another side to the coin, where we also need to be there to support them to cope with disappointment and loss.

Disappointment is an emotion characterised by feelings of sadness, dissatisfaction, or disillusionment that arises when reality falls short of our expectations or hopes. The more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment.

In my experience at St Andrew's, I have witnessed students processing disappointment in their relationships, in sport, leadership opportunities, and their academic pursuits. These can range from mild discomfort to deep hurt. How a student copes with disappointment can have a significant impact on their overall well-being and experience of school. When supported well, our students show resilience and process disappointment much better than we expect.

coxswain contemplating

Understanding the relationship between expectation and disappointment

Expectations are helpful in life as they can motivate us to exert effort and strive towards goals. They give us a sense of control but can also lead to disappointment. Every day we set expectations, both consciously and unconsciously, for ourselves and people in our lives. Sometimes our expectations are realistic and clearly communicated, but often our expectations are unconscious and are based on outcomes that are completely outside of our control, such as what other people will think or how they react.

Our upbringing and experiences shape our differing attitudes toward expectation, and this impacts how we process disappointment.

Some people avoid disappointment by keeping their expectations low and not taking risks. This acts as a form of self-preservation. Sadly, these people often feel stuck and do not get the opportunity to build confidence, ironically feeling disappointed in themselves. As researcher, Brené Brown, cleverly described it, they decide to live disappointed rather than risk feeling disappointed.

There are other people who seek perfection to avoid disappointment. Perfectionists tend to set exceedingly high expectations for themselves, striving for flawless performance or outcomes in various areas of their lives. When these standards are not met, which is often the case given their unrealistic nature, perfectionists experience disappointment and frustration.

Others feel secure to take risks, play, explore and learn, and through time and experience they acquire the inner strength to cope when the inevitable setbacks and disappointments come. This is what we want for our young people at St Andrew’s.

tennis player serving

To best support our young people in processing disappointment, I have considered some key strategies:

How do we best support our young people to process disappointment?

1. Acknowledge emotions

The first important step when feeling disappointment or sadness is to acknowledge the emotion and validate that it is ok and normal to feel this way. Emotions provide us with important information. The feeling of disappointment gives insight into our desires, goals, and preferences, and tells us what matters most in our lives.

Young people should be supported to connect with their emotions and not avoid, ignore, or distract. Suppressing emotions can lead to increased stress, shame, and difficulty coping in the long term. Emotion scientist and researcher, Marc Brackett reminds us that, in regard to emotions, we need to ‘name it to tame it’.

mood board

2. Tolerate the discomfort

Although not easy, it is impossible for a parent to protect their children from experiencing discomfort in life. Part of healthy coping is supporting our young people to ‘ride the wave’ of disappointment, knowing it is normal and will pass. When we support our young people to tolerate discomfort, they develop their resilience and ability to regulate their emotional responses more effectively. Although unpleasant, discomfort can also be a catalyst for growth and discovery, leading to greater self-awareness, resilience and empathy in the long term. Michelle Obama, the former first lady of the United States, touched on this in her commencement speech at Tuskegee University when she said, “Disappointment is a stepping stone to resilience. It toughens you up and prepares you for the challenges that lie ahead.”

3. Practice self-compassion

Having self-compassion is key when experiencing disappointment. It’s a time to be gentle with ourselves rather than critical. Professor Kirsten Neff reminds us that self-compassion involves treating oneself with the same warmth, care, and empathy that one would offer to a close friend or loved one facing similar challenges.

When we support our young people to be compassionate with themselves, we remind them that suffering and setbacks are a natural and universal part of the human experience. We acknowledge that everyone encounters difficulties and failures at some point in their lives, so they don’t feel isolated or inadequate in their struggles.

Prioritising physical self-care in the form of sleep, exercise, rest, deep-breathing and healthy eating is an important step in recharging their emotional battery.

Girl at Te Waka, The Calling Ceremony

4. Be mindful

Mindfulness is a powerful coping tool when we feel disappointed or are experiencing other negative emotions. It’s about being in the present moment with non-judgmental acceptance. Practising mindfulness allows us to accept our thoughts, feelings, and experiences of disappointment without over-identifying with them or becoming overwhelmed by them. Mindfulness reduces rumination, the repetitive and unproductive dwelling on negative thoughts and emotions. During moments of disappointment, it's common to get caught up in self-blame or resentment. Mindfulness creates space between our thoughts and our reactions.

solo hiking in the mountains

5. Take perspective

I have always loved this quote by Nobel laureate, Professor Daniel Kahneman: ‘Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it’. The quote reminds us to maintain perspective and that although our current thoughts and concerns may feel all-consuming in the moment, they may not hold the same significance when viewed from a broader perspective. It encourages us to step back and consider the relative importance of our present thoughts and worries in the grand scheme of things.

During my time teaching at St Andrew's, I have witnessed and supported students grappling with profound disappointment and then seen the fruits of their increased resilience come to life months or even years later. Regrettably, foresight doesn't always afford us the luxury of connecting these dots in advance. When we encourage our young people to consider the long-term implications and align their actions with their core values, we foster a shift in perspective from the immediacy of the present to a broader, more nuanced understanding of their journey. It's a matter of directing our focus and attention toward the bigger picture.

6. Seek support

Lastly, seeking support from others can be an important aspect of processing disappointment. Whether it's confiding in a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional, sharing our feelings with others can provide validation, perspective, and emotional support, helping us feel less alone in our struggles.

hockey on field huddle

As we guide and nurture our students through their journey at St Andrew's, it's essential we recognise that success and disappointment are two sides of the same coin. While we strive to support our young people in achieving their goals and experiencing triumphs, it's equally crucial to equip them with the tools to navigate disappointment and loss effectively. By encouraging our students to embrace effective coping strategies, we empower them to navigate disappointment with strength, resilience, acceptance, and compassion, ultimately fostering their growth and development as individuals in the future.

How do you support your child to manage expectations and process disappointment?

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