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Examining Your Expectations After the Worst Disappointment of Your Life

2011 May 30
tags: Development, Disappointment, Metacognition, Self-Care, Series, Setbacks
by Andrew   

This is Part 3 of a multi-part series on moving forward from a terrible disappointment.

Part 1:  The Great Benefits of the Worst Disappointment in Your Life

Part 2: Choosing Your Response to the Worst Disappointment in Your Life


If you’re disappointed, it’s because something you expected to happen didn’t happen.  If you’re extremely disappointed, it’s because something very important didn’t happen, or the consequences of something turned out to be much greater than you thought.  In Part 2 of this series, I suggested identifying and listing your unmet expectations.  You will need to know what those expectations were (are) in order to begin moving ahead, and not writing them down often results in a whirling mess of thoughts, ideas, and self-recriminations that never produces much of anything useful; it does, however, drain valuable mental energy and worsen the negative feelings associated with disappointment.

As I mentioned in the earlier article, this doesn’t mean discarding your expectations; on the contrary, it means examining them critically.  Be sure you undertake this examination with a clear understanding of what’s important to you, not what’s important to others.


Reviewing Your Expectations

Life is so constructed, that the event does not, cannot, will not, match the expectation.  ~Charlotte Bronte

You have by now, hopefully, made a list of the unmet expectations that resulted in your disappointment, and again hopefully, you won’t have discarded any.  Some of the items on the list may seem irrelevant, peevish, or even silly by now, but I sincerely hope you will have kept them on the list.  If they occurred to you as you were making the list, you have at least a slight emotional connection with them and, therefore, should retain them for the evaluation.


If you make emotionally-driven lists like I do (at least when I’m working on emotionally impactful metagcognition), you will have produced the list as a stream of consciousness rather than a rank-ordered list based on some defined criteria.  If it’s easier for you to work with the items in a sorted list, feel free to make  one as we go along; that will be more efficient than sorting them all and then evaluating them.  If you’re fine with an unsorted list, no problem.

The first step in evaluating your expectations is to create a flagging system to allow the easy attachment of significance to the expectations.  Consider at least the following flags.  Feel free to reorient the priority if these don’t match what’s important to you:

  1. Faith-based imperative.  Think of this as a “thou shalt” or a “thou shalt not” item.  Having this expectation unmet bears significant and lasting harm to your faith, or to your impression of someone who shares your faith.
  2. Spiritual significance.  Not as impactful as a faith-based imperative, but possessed of significant impact to your spiritual growth, personal integrity, or self-image, either because of the actual unmet expectation or a pervasive environment that enables it.
  3. Safety.  Anything that endangers you physically or psychologically.
  4. Job Security.  Items that impact the security of your employment, or your perception of your job security.
  5. Personal preference.  It won’t get you fired, demoted, injured, or imperil your soul.  Still, it probably makes (or made) it very unpleasant to be in the environment where it occurred.

Feel free to add or subtract from the list, but take the time to ensure your changes are relevant to you and will actually serve you in evaluating your expectations and the impact of them being unmet.


Make a copy of your list in case you want to start from scratch.  Begin flagging each item on the list in a manner similar to these steps:

  1. Flag.  Next to each item on your list, write the number from each of the items above that applies to that particular unmet expectation.
  2. Count.  Make a hashmark for each recurrence of the unmet expectation that you can recall.  Try to be realistic.  If you’ve documented occurrences either formally or in a diary/journal, refer to the documentation to support an accurate evaluation.
  3. Total.  This one’s optional, but it can be handy for us analytical types.  Add the numbers you’ve written for each expectation.  If you look at the list above, you’ll see that the numbers total 15.  If you do this step, hang on to the results for later.


Determine the Realism of Your Expectations

Not all expectations are realistic.  In fact, the sum of all of your expectations around a given event or circumstance is unachievable exactly as you have conceived it. However, the simple fact that not all expectations can or will be met does not invalidate the expectation or your feelings about it.  You must, though, determine whether your expectations are realistic before you take action based on them being unmet, or you risk making decisions with faulty information.  Such risky behavior tends to result in continually unmet expectations and a spiral of negativity as a consequence.

There are as many ways of determining the realism of your expectations as there are people multiplied by expectations.  What’s right for me is likely as not not entirely right for you.  There are some common overlaps that lend themselves to a reasoned interpretation of events, expectations, and their likely outcomes.

  1. Utility.  Is the given expectation serving you?  Does it help you in your thinking, your feelings, your accomplishment, or your sense of self?  If not, why not?  Can it be adjusted?  Do you really need it?  Where did it come from?  Why did you decide to apply it, either generally or to these circumstances?  {Thanks, SB}
  2. Reasonableness.  Is the expectation reasonable?  For example, it is unreasonable to expect you will be paid twice what your coworkers make for the same work, in the same environment, with the same level of education and skills.  It is not unreasonable to expect you will be paid at least as much as them, and even more if you have relevant special skills, education, or experience.
  3. Achievability.  Can the expectation actually be met?  Can your employer make you the lead on the big project given how long you’ve been there?  Can your family afford to send you to the exclusive school you desire?  Can the love of your life deliver on the lifetime of expectations you’ve built up regarding relationships?
  4. Repeatability.  There aren’t many expectations that we only want met once.  Is your expectation something that can, or should, be met repeatedly?


Choosing a Course of Action

What do you want to do?  You’ve been confronted by a major disappointment, you aren’t satisfied with the state of affairs that produced it, and you need to choose a way forward.  You can’t wallow in self-recrimination, self-pity, or self-absorption and continue to be productive…or even healthy.  You must take the proverbial bull by the horns and choose a course, whether it be the same course through rough waters or another one.

You have several options available to you, all for free, to do this.  You could also pay people a lot of money to help you work through these things, but that isn’t nearly always necessary.

At a minimum, I suggest taking the following steps to get you moving in a positive direction:

  1. Identify the deal-breakers.  I suggest that at least everything flagged with a (1) or a (2) from the flagging system is a deal breaker.  If you have any instances of (1)’s or (2)’s that are repeats, I’d suggest they’re definitely deal breakers.  Do you have to quit without another job prospect?  Do you have to find another job now?  No, not necessarily.  But you do need to determine whether those are the appropriate course of action for you, or whether it may be productive enough based on your tenure, experience, and reputation to discuss the egregious matter of the unmet expectation with the person (or people) who caused it.  They might actually be unaware.
  2. Identify the big freaking deals.  Highlight/underline/star/whatever the ones that, if they continue, will cause you to scream in frustration and walk out “because this place is just _____.”  Follow the same line of though with the questions above.
  3. Identify the gimmes.  Note which of your expectations are “gimmes.”  Which ones stem from an entitlement mentality, even if you don’t know you have one.  Does this sound familiar?  “They owe me _____ because I’ve given them _____.”  It doesn’t matter if we’re discussing your office environment, a factory floor, volunteerism, your dating relationship, or your 50-year marriage.  Although, if you’ve been married 50 years, you likely already know how to evaluate and rank-order expectations.  The point it, identify which ones are pissing you off simply because having them would make you happy (you think), and make a determination of whether they’re important to you remaining in the environment that caused your overall unmet expectations.
  4. Find the 5-point shots.  Take the list of flagged expectations and assign values to the numbers in reverse order: 1=5 points, 2=4 points, 3=3 points, 4=2 points, and 5=1 point.  Calculate how many points each unmet expectation is worth.  I suggest 5-point shots are potential-deal breakers, even if you didn’t put them on your deal-breakers list.  Ultimately, it’s up to you based on what you think is important.  But, if you make the list right, and then you assign the values to each expectation right, you’ll end up with about as objective way of looking at a deeply emotional issue as you can get.  Even if you choose not to consider 5-point shots deal breakers, look at everything that totals five or more.  Consider the impact on your happiness at work or in the relationship, your fulfillment as a person, and the contributions you want to make.


Plan the Way Ahead

So, you’ve had the worst disappointment of your life.  What are you going to do about it?  You could give up, throw in the towel, quit, bail, pull the ripcord…whatever.  Or, you could take your apparent willingness to explore the benefits of disappointment and evaluate your expectations (you have read this far), to plan the next day’s, week’s, or month’s next actions to move onward.

There are some fairly obvious steps that need to be taken, and some that may not be so obvious.  Each, though, will help (re)build the necessary foundation for future success:

  1. Determine the keepers.  Using your previous work on identifying, flagging, and reviewing your expectations, identify which ones are the ones you want to keep.  Which ones serve you and your most important values?  Which define the way you want to think about yourself and your contributions?  Which, if met, contribute to your sense of fulfillment, safety, security, and integrity?
  2. Determine your motivation.  Identify what motivates you with respect to the situation in which you find yourself.  Be wary of the lure of seizing transient motivations based on emotionality.  Take a hard, discerning look at your motivation.  If it’s a work situation, why are you there?  Money?  Prestige?  Authority?  Contribution to something?  A combination?  If it’s a relationship, why are you in it?  Companionship?  Because it’s easier than leaving?  Sex?  Love?  Regardless of where you find yourself experiencing the worst disappointment of your life, it is essential to determine why you are there before you can make a positive decision about moving past the disappointment, and consequently addressing the expectations that led you there.
  3. Stay or go?  Do you stay at the job or in the relationship?  Do you leave?  Do you stay while looking for something else?  Only you can decide what you want to do, and it’s important to do it based on a careful evaluation of your priorities and expectations.  There are myriad factors involved in deciding to stay in a job, or in a career field, or in a relationship.  They are far too many to adequately address here; what I will say about it is the grass is rarely greener elsewhere, although it sometimes inevitably must be.  Consider well the pros and cons of leaving vs. staying, and make the decision in light of your personal values, motivations, and realistic expectations.
  4. Remember the keepers.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  You must periodically evaluate your expectations for utility, reasonableness, achievability, and repeatability.  If you have expectations that don’t serve you, that are unreasonable, that can’t be met by your employer or relationships, or that can’t be sustained, then you’re guaranteed to be continually disappointed.  Continual disappointment will sap your energy, vitality, creativity, patience, and health.  It doesn’t matter if you have a personal values statement, written core beliefs, a personal mission statement, or simply a list of what you expect out of your personal and professional life.  You must periodically reevaluate the contents in order to ensure they’re compatible with who you want to be and with what will best serve you.


Lastly, I will suggest you use a sounding board.  Your spouse, a trusted friend whose counsel is always good, or a mentor.  I’ve said in prior articles, and I will repeat it:  A good life or professional coach is indispensable unless you’re possessed of remarkable clarity of thought and detachment.  There is always wisdom in multiple counselors, but I recommend quality over quantity.


Take care, and enjoy life,


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