Coping With Disappointment

Last summer I was taking a walk and saw four young people in the park, each wearing their graduation cap and gown. They were laughing and having a great time as they posed for pictures taken by each of them in turn.

I wasn’t sure what high school they had attended, but it didn’t matter because every school in the area had canceled graduation exercises because of the coronavirus. But these four kids were doing a great job of coping with what had to be a disappointing time for them. Good for them!

Hara Estroff Marano wrote about the high-school class of 2020 in Psychology Today (August 2020). Marano said these kids have been thrown a wicked curveball by life, a pitch that deprived them of a ceremony signaling achievement, and filled with accolades and pride. “Life needs such events,” said Marano. “Taking the time to acknowledge them…works as a kind of push-off to the challenges ahead. The future feels less certain, rockier, without the landmarks.”

I imagined myself spouting this stuff to the four students in their graduation garb and just began laughing. Their future will be rougher without experiencing a ceremony? Nonsense! You know what I think? Years down the road those kids will have kids of their own, and one day their kids will suffer a terrible disappointment, and the parent will take them aside and say, “You think you have it bad? Let me tell you what happened when I graduated from high school!” Kind of like when our grandparents tell us how they walked five miles to school each day, usually in a foot or two of snow, uphill both ways.

As I continued walking, I began to think about how we cope – or don’t – with disappointment. Life is full of disappointments, beginning when we discover that we may not get fed before those hunger pangs begin, or we may not get a clean diaper right away. Then we reach that age when we can walk, and we long to discover all the wondrous things surrounding us – only to learn that the most frequently-used word in the language is, “NO!”

In my 41 years of teaching and advising college students, I had numerous student office visits – not to talk about coursework, but to talk about some disappointment in their lives: broken romances; family finances that could preclude their return to college; alcohol/drug problems; acquaintance rape; sexual identity; roommate problems; parents trying to dictate their life, etc., etc.

My most memorable one was when a student came in at the end of a semester and said that her wedding scheduled in 10 days had to be canceled because the groom decided to back out. As you might expect she was pretty emotional about the whole thing, although angrier than anything else. One thing for sure, she wasn’t going to cancel the honeymoon that was booked. Turns out she and the bridesmaid took the trip and they had a ball. Everyone they met assumed they were a lesbian couple, and they just let that story ride.

No matter what the issue, when chatting with “disappointed” students, I tried – not always successfully – to follow this model: Let them monopolize the conversation; show understanding and empathy, not criticism; ask them to identify what options – realistic ones – they had to solve the issue. In a few cases, I referred them to the Counseling Center, or to an outside mental health service. Most of the time, however, I discovered that they wanted to hear someone say, “I understand,” and, “It’s not your fault”; then they began to handle their problem on their own.   

Parents don’t always do a good job of preparing their kids for disappointment because they believe that the road to healthy self-esteem for their kids is paved with success. Thus, they work hard to protect their kids from failure, and to help the kids enjoy success in all they do. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to teach children how to cope with the reality of failure and disappointment.

Kids need to be taught that success is never guaranteed, and comes from preparation and effort. Likewise, they must learn that failure does not mean they are worthless. In fact, they need to discover that failure provides learning opportunities by giving them information about where they need to improve so they can increase their chance of success in the future.

When parents structure their children’s environment to make success easy, the children don’t learn the importance of preparation and effort; they don’t learn to ask if their evaluations of their abilities are realistic; nor do they learn the danger in assuming that someone will always be there to bail them out.

These points apply to all of us, not just to kids. Your biggest coping enemy is trying to avoid failure, because then you will never learn to correct mistakes and improve. To cope well, you must accept challenges, face your failures, examine the information they provide, and correct your mistakes to increase your chances of success.

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