Disappointed but not depressed

How to deal with Disappointment

I am half-way through singing ‘King of my Heart’ (Bethel Music) and well into the bridge with repeats ‘You're never gonna let, You're never gonna let me down.’ It is at that point I feel curiously self-conscious. “Am I OK with this?” I ask myself.

I had spent the last 9 months preparing for an interview for a job that I didn’t get. As a Christian, how am I supposed to understand my disappointment in the light of the deep sense of rightness and calling that I had felt towards this particular role? How can I deal with my disappointment in a Godly way? How can I stay emotionally healthy through this tough season?

Abraham Zaleznik in his important book “Management of Disappointment” argues that two things are crucial to dealing with disappointment healthily; “To become intimately acquainted with one’s own emotional reactions” and to, “Face the disappointment squarely.”

One of the gifts of disappointment is that, once shared, you get the privilege of knowing the love and care of those around you. At the same time, I was inundated by a classical Christian response along the lines of, “God has saved you for something better. God has closed one door but will open another. Praise God that he has stopped you from getting something that wasn’t right for you.” Whilst I am grateful for all of these encouragements, I wonder how they relate to Zaleznik’s recommendations: Am I in danger of escaping my feelings of disappointment too quickly?

Dealing with disappointment is something of a tight rope. If we skirt around our true feelings of grief, loss and confusion, we risk burying these unresolved emotions only to have them emerge later in unhealthy ways. Equally, if we sit in our disappointment for too long, we risk becoming cynical, passive and potentially depressed.

For Christians, this tension is further complicated by a felt need to reconcile our disappointments to the loving character of God. Unfortunately, the pressure that we feel to theologise away the mystery of un-realised dreams only makes us less likely to manage our disappointments well. Nobody has yet written a worship song that articulates both the mystery of suffering and the omnipotence of God, but they should try because frankly, that would be a bit more honest.

Hidden amongst many of the verses of consolation that we commonly hear is Psalm 34:18, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” In terms of Zaleznik’s encouragement to face disappointment squarely, owning our broken-heartedness is the first step to recovery. The Psalmist doesn’t diminish or deny the pain of disappointment and neither should we.

Timing is still important here, it’s all about genuinely experiencing the pain but not getting stuck in it. As the writer of Ecclesiastes makes clear, “There is a time for everything…a time to weep and a time to laugh.” These are more than binary emotions, they are part of a linked process; weeping gives way to laughter. If we fail to journey through our painful feelings we are unlikely to arrive authentically at new and hopeful ones.

Two of the classic bear traps in recovery are internalising blame or externalising it. If we internalise blame, we are more at risk of depression because we see the disappointment as a reflection of our own deep deficiency: It becomes a humiliation and a concrete sign that we are failing in life. Those who externalise and blame others (including God) are at risk or failing to learn anything from the situation and grow from it. They are left believing that everything is stacked against them and that there is little point trying in the future.

Disappointment is never simply about the one thing we think it is. If we simplify it, it becomes a boulder that blocks our path; too heavy for us to move. When we look at disappointment more curiously, more honestly, it is more like a wall. It is built from lots of bricks including, our own expectations, the event itself, our interpretations of what has happened, other’s reactions to the event, historic events that link to it, what we believe about God etc. When we look at disappointment in this way we find that the wall can be broken down brick by brick and suddenly the path ahead is clear again.

Can I sing ‘King of My Heart’ anymore? Yes absolutely, emphatically. I have realised that whilst offering the ‘silver linings’ too early leaves you frustrated and cold; they are there. Choosing to see them is also choosing to see the path through the pain. Here are a few things to hold onto if you are on this journey right now.

  • Try to accept and engage with the pain of disappointment without qualifying it or justifying it in any way
  • Accept the comfort and love of others and know the presence and compassion of Jesus
  • Avoid falling into blame or recrimination of self or others
  • Try to rinse every drop of learning that you can out of the situation, ask for feedback and explore your expectations
  • Explore the complex structure of the disappointment brick by brick
  • Be gentle to yourself and accept that sometimes things happen that just don’t make sense
  • Return to worship, trusting that whether or not this dream is realised, God loves you and still has a plan for your life
Will Van Der Hart, 18/02/2020
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