This post is a work in progress like many topics and themes I tackle using my evolving application of REBT and Stoic thought to life questions and quandaries.
Where our heart is set
Disappointment isn’t a clinical entity so it doesn’t enjoy diagnostic status in the DSM-5 manual of psychiatric disorders. But it remains a common and disturbing enough dysphoric experience to have been addressed two thousand years ago by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus who said: “where our heart is set, there our impediment lies.”
The glass is already broken
There is a story of a Thai meditation master, Achaan Chaa, who had a beautiful and prized, glass goblet. The Zen master would repeat to himself, “the glass is already broken.” He enjoyed the cup. It reflected the sun in beautiful patterns. When tapped just right it emitted a lovely ring. He showed it off to visitors. But in his mind, it was already broken. And so one day, when it actually did break, he simply said, “Of course.”
Latin for “a love of one’s fate.” Amor fati is a tough concept to wrap our minds around, but it is well worth the brain strain in the pursuit of equanimity. The notion of amor fati has been attributed to the Stoic philosophers Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius; however, its most explicit expression lies in the writings of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who proffered “not merely to bear what is necessary (loss, suffering) but to love it.”
Amor fati goes far beyond Tara Brach’s Buddhist-inspired Radical Acceptance. Amor fati is ultra-radical acceptance: accepting what happens, including adversity, as though we willed it! So for profound equanimity and emotional well-being in reaction to disappointment, try amor fati!
This Stoic morning exercise before entering the day is tantamount to loading your gun before battle. We visualize the difficult people we are likely to encounter along with challenging situations while remaining calm. We anticipate and accept disappointments and practice indifference and amor fati. We briefly take stock of our blessings, reminding ourselves of their impermanence and how our lives can change in a heartbeat.
But for today, we still have these precious people and things to enjoy, the awareness of which produces incredible gratitude in the moment and impetus to seize the day—carpe diem. This daily resilience booster shot, this emotional boot camp and fortification of our inner citadel to prepare for adversity, is why the Stoics referred to their philosophy, not as rhetoric, but as training.
Disappointment plus disturbance
Wanting and preferring to have our wishes and expectations satisfied is reasonable.
Needing and insisting on wish fulfillment is not.
The intensity of disappointment is roughly proportional to the intensity of the demands we make that our desires be delivered. If we erroneously tell ourselves that we must get what we want—and we don’t get it—needless disturbance is likely. Then if we sprinkle in some awfulizing, some “Ican’tstandititus” and a pinch of blaming, severe disturbance is guaranteed (see Resources Form #1 REBT Introduction, page 3, Four Evaluative Beliefs, and Form #7 Anger & Stress Killer).
Disappointment plus double disturbance
Experiencing disappointment is bad enough, but our human tendency is to get upset and then blame ourselves for getting so upset. We refer to this process of making ourselves upset about our upset as secondary disturbance.
REBT can help us manage all upset including secondary disturbance. Some of the secondary distorted thoughts are:
I shouldn’t let this bother me.
Other people aren’t like this.
I can’t stand feeling this way.
Disappointment without disturbance
Since getting results from REBT requires work (poor baby!), I invite you to again consult page 3 of Form #1, and Form #7 on the Resources page of this website, if you wish to consider how you would use REBT to counsel yourself if:
You just lost an ideal job prospect,
Your ideal trip just got cancelled,
Your ideal candidate lost an election.
In addition to REBT, which philosophy tools and concepts discussed so far do you like? Hopefully you will find an improved way of accommodating disappointment in the moment without much reaction or perturbance, so you can continue on your life course mostly unaffected by not getting what you want.
This post is disappointing!
Having pretty much addressed what I planned for in writing this post, that is, to summon the wisdom of modern psychology and ancient philosophy for taking the sting out of disappointment, I experienced my own sense of disappointment. Something important was missing. I had failed to address the role of neurobiology in first getting our hopes up before they are then dashed by disappointment.
What comes down must first have gone up
The neurochemistry of pleasure, described by Prof. Robert Sapolsky, involves the secretion of dopamine—the feel-good neurotransmitter—in anticipation of reward. It is the expectation of something good—not the actual reward—that stimulates the highest dopamine levels.
Apply this to the positive feeling experienced when we look forward to something desirable. It’s easy to get excited—even high—looking forward to something. Folk wisdom warns against counting our chickens… to prepare us for possible disappointment. And we can prepare ourselves as well by tempering our exuberance and reminding ourselves that the higher we hope, the harder we fall when disappointed. Of course!
Indifference to indifferents
Without the benefit of neurochemistry or the Serenity Prayer, the Stoics figured this out two thousand years ago. They advanced the practice of remaining indifferent to things where the gaining, keeping, and losing of which are not under our control. They referred to these things not under our control as indifferents.
Finding money, for example, was thought to be a preferred indifferent, whereas losing it would be a dis-preferred indifferent. Getting sick would be a dis-preferred indifferent, while getting cured a preferred indifferent.
Whether it be the stock market or elections, they remain either preferred or dis-preferred indifferents, but indifferents just the same. And being so, outside of our (total) control.
Not to expect disappointment, but to prepare to be indifferent to it. Of course!