We all experience disappointment — but we don’t all deal with our disappointment. I’m grateful for my life and for the redemption and beauty it’s held. But in the midst of incredible joy and blessing, I’ve also experienced a great deal of pain. I’m no stranger to disappointment — and I suspect neither are you.
It’s not the occurrence of disappointment that kills us -- it’s the lack of process we’re willing to engage in when become disappointed. And don’t be mistaken: it will kill you, if you let it. It will destroy your life, end your relationships, and turn your heart to stone against the only person who has the answer to your pain — God.
Disappointment is not your friend, but it feels like it could be. All of us have experienced the pain, sadness, and anger associated with disappointment, and we’ve all experienced temptation to the comfort it offers.
For every sadness, humiliation, or anger that circumstances give us, disappointment offers relief: a different belief, a different God, a different relationship. Anything that will relieve us of owning our mistake, experiencing embarrassment, or letting anyone know how truly messed up we are. It makes bitterness, independence, shutting out people or engaging in reactionary behavior attractive.
Disappointment has taught me to shut down my heart, keep God at arm’s length, and find reprieve in being judgmental towards others. In the pas, it gave me partying and binging on TV shows late into the night. For every feeling or painful memory I wanted to run from, it offered me a belief or behavior that allowed me to ignore my pain and move on with my life. Or so I thought.
Because it’s impossible to downplay your disappointment. It’s impossible to experience trauma or pain and just “move on.” It doesn’t matter how many verses you memorize or how many shots you drink: until you actually deal with your disappointment, it will not resolve. I know, because I tried to shove mine down for years. No amount of whiskey, boyfriends, yoga classes, or juice cleanses ever gave me peace or healing from it.
I tried to keep moving, but my heart — it stopped. It wasn’t built to carry the weight. I wasn’t happy, had no peace. Anxious, unable to sleep. Untrusting of others because as far as I was concerned, the painful events of my past were only going to replay time and again in every seemingly similar situation.
Unprocessed disappointment can look like a lot of things, and maybe you’ve experienced some of the symptoms, too: fear of hoping, difficulty dreaming, insomnia, tense shoulders and clenched jaws, difficulty celebrating others, apathy, depression, escapism, sarcasm, cynicism. Does any of this sound familiar?
It’s a slippery slope, and if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves slipping quickly into dark territory. Even minor disappointments left unchecked can grow into something ugly in our hearts.
Disappointment operates in a few key ways — and being aware is the first part to processing through it.
First, it attacks identity. When we’re dealing with the pain of not having or grieving loss, we’re especially vulnerable to questioning everything about who we are. Disappointment about external things seems to sneakily turn quickly inward. It’s a quick road to questions about identity: If this happened, what does that say about me? If this happened, what does that say about God? Maybe I’m not strong, not capable, not enough. Maybe God isn’t good, not present, doesn’t care. It’s easier to lower our theology or perspective than cross the scary divide between our beliefs and our circumstances.
When we are at our lowest, angriest, or most heartbroken, that quiet voice will come and the comfort it offers is seductive. Your disappointment will try to convince you that you aren’t everything God made you to be. That God is not who he has said. And this will incapacitate you.
Second, it attacks connection. When we grapple with questions of “Why” and “How,” our ties to others and the Lord become vulnerable. We’re designed for connection and intimacy. Without them, we can’t thrive. After disappointment, shame is quick to follow. The last thing I want is to re-live pain by explaining it to someone else. I don’t want to confront my fear that I failed, heard God wrong, or did something foolish.
When my husband and I went through a challenging season with finances, it was easy to hide. It was easy to not go out or initiate plans in the name of financial prudence (we’re just being wise, right?). One small choice to hide after another became one giant choice to withdraw— giving our pain complete influence in our lives.
Disappointment makes us selfish and arrogant. It offers independence and “I can do it by myself” — and we’ll take it because we want to feel powerful and in control. But we aren’t in control. It’s not a job we were designed to execute well. We were not made to go it alone — but if disappointment can cut us off from God and each other, it can do whatever it wants with us.
When we shared with others about what was happening, our circumstances became just that: circumstances, not identity. The pain became something we were dealing with, not something that controlled us. And we found we weren’t alone. With love and support, we could come up for air from a situation that we were drowning in.
Ultimately, disappointment can do a lot of damage — but it can also do a lot of good.
I’ve seen many friends experience disappointment that never made their way back. It went unprocessed and that sometimes-small-seed of sadness grew into a poisonous weed that took over their lives.
After walking through this most recent season with my husband, I’ve come away with greater understanding for why people do this. There were times I’d wake up dreading having to endure another day. Everything in my life taunted me with lack. In the more challenging moments, I understood that these were the moments when people decide to start turning from God. Sometimes it really hard to believe that God is good and my life had purpose when so much around me screamed the opposite. I get the desperate desire to get away from the pain.
Yet I’ve wondered why it was different for us. When we were experiencing a life so opposite of what the bible said we would have, why didn’t our marriage fall apart? Why are we so sure of God’s love when literally nothing in our life looked like what he said?
I’m still in it, but I’m convinced that as damaging as disappointment can be, it can also lead to as much good. I’m more confident than ever in my marriage and in my faith. I know we are growing things in the middle of this barren season in our lives that will withstand anything else that comes at us.
It’s possible to experience disappointment and survive it, without cutting off parts of yourself or losing faith in God. It’s possible to come out on the other side stronger than before, with greater confidence in yourself and more fire for your own life than you could imagine.
I'm convinced it's possible, even as I'm writing from a place of process. We're not out of the woods yet, but there are choices we've made that have made a difference -- and I'll be sharing those in the next installment of this series.