An 8-Step Process For Transforming Disappointment Into Gratitude
It can be crushing when an event, experience, conversation, or relationship doesn't live up to your expectations. Yet it's important to keep showing up to life with an open mind and heart because another situation might turn out to be much more nourishing. The next time something really doesn't live up to your expectations, try the following exercise to help you process the situation:
Step 1: Acknowledge that something fell way short of your expectations.
Instead of pretending you're not disappointed or trying to talk yourself out of the feeling, accept the challenging emotions you are having. Disappointment can leave you feeling deflated and down. It's easier to sit with these sensations and move past them when you simply allow them. Work with thoughts like, "I wish that had gone better or differently. While I know I'll be OK and bounce back, right now I'm a little sad." Remind yourself that disappointment is a normal part of life and something everyone deals with in big and small ways all the time. That might make you feel less alone in the experience.
Step 2: Talk about it with a safe and supportive person.
Unpack the experience with a neutral third party. If you had high hopes for the performance review meeting with your manager but instead learned that bonuses, raises, and promotions are on a temporary freeze right now, venting to your roommate or a friend or a therapist can provide emotional release and perspective. As someone who doesn't work at your company the neutral person may share an interesting angle on the situation you never considered. Sharing your emotional experience with someone who is typically a soft landing place—or not overly critical, reactionary, or judgmental—can often cool intense emotions.
Step 3: Consider how you might approach a similar situation differently next time.
If two family members had a blowup at your holiday gathering after you introduced a conversation at dinner about a political issue you assumed everyone agreed on, you might make a rule with yourself and others that these hot-button issues are not discussed at family gatherings going forward. Even when you think everyone has the same basic political views or societal beliefs, it's very hard to know how each individual will react when you start talking about big headlines in the news. While it's natural to want to talk about current events, think of topics you could discuss ahead of time that will be less explosive, like the great fantasy novel you are reading or the pottery class you've been taking.
Step 4: Meet yourself with soft, loving energy, and treat yourself to a positive experience.
Disappointment means you thought something would be more joyful, fulfilling, or nourishing than it was. So balance your energy by giving yourself some positive experiences, like treating yourself to a massage, making yourself your favorite meal, curling up with your favorite feel-good comedy, or making a date with a friend to do a favorite activity. Disappointment can feel so harsh, so play soft music, be soft and gentle with yourself in your internal dialogue, or read soft-energy daily affirmations (like those in my 2023 self-love calendar, A Year of Self-Love).
Step 5: Focus on what went well.
Often there were things that went well that we miss because we're so focused on what went poorly. If you went on a date for the first time in years and ultimately it was a disappointment because this is not someone you'd want to have another date with, sit with your journal and ponder the positives. You might have felt really proud of yourself for putting yourself out there as you walked into the restaurant to meet your date. Or you might have caught a glimpse of yourself in the mirror when you went to the bathroom and thought you looked glowing. It could have felt healthy to be out mingling and in the mix after such a long hiatus. And the laugh you had with a dear friend later about how incompatible you and your date turned out to be could have been a lovely bonding moment in your friendship.
Step 6: Identify invitations for growth.
It's usually only when things go "wrong" that we change and evolve. If you were disappointed by the response to your big video presentation at work, be like a professional athlete and watch the replay. This isn't to punish or reprimand yourself but to see how you can improve and create a better experience for yourself next time—a huge act of self-love! Should you invest in a better microphone? Could you play with the lighting in your office? Maybe a book or course on public speaking would help. We can't evolve without making mistakes, so when you try to be perfect, you cut yourself off from healthy evolution. Expect yourself to be, forever, a work-in-progress!
Step 7: Practice having more relaxed expectations.
It's very healthy to be positive and hopeful about a situation walking into it, and it's normal to spend a lot of time looking forward to big events on the calendar. Yet try to be more curious about how things will play out, as opposed to imagining specific scenarios. If you're going on vacation with a large group of old friends and imagine the group hanging out and bonding every second, it could be disappointing if some of the people in the group want to spend time alone, meet up solo with people they know outside your group who live in the area you are visiting, or want to break into smaller subgroups on different days. If you can be open and flexible about how things will go, you are more likely to embrace and enjoy the moments as they organically arise.
Step 8: Celebrate small wins.
In the days and weeks after your disappointment, lean into your gratitude practice by celebrating small wins—a productive conversation with a co-worker, a cozy evening in with your partner, a refreshing walk around the neighborhood, a day of ideal weather. This might help replenish your levels of feel-good hormones. Remembering that not all experiences are disappointments can help you want to meet life on its messy terms each day.