Pulling Back the Curtain

In listening to Zoe’s conversation with Jerry I was struck by the fear of disappointment. When someone puts their trust in you, or looks to you for leadership, how can you possibly fail them? When someone invests and believes in you, how can you not let them down?

Disappointment is one of my emotional greatest hits. It’s been with me since I was a wee-little one, dependant on my caregivers to meet my needs. My therapist recently said to me, “It was like you were asking for a thousand dollars from someone who could only give you five bucks.” Due to the circumstances I had in those impressionable years, my neurology wired a strong pathway on the disappointed channel from the get go.

Compound that over the formative years of childhood development, and I got a recipe for lots of let down. And, oh my, what that did to my sense of self worth! I felt like I was asking too much, that what I wanted and needed was unreasonable, that I was selfish for even asking, that I’d never get what I wanted. So much so that I stopped asking for what I really wanted. It was part of a defense strategy, protecting myself from the not-so-pleasant feelings of regret and disillusionment that came from being disappointed by people. It sounded a bit like this: “I’m fine. I don’t need anything from anyone. I’m a-OK. I’ve got this.”

Despite that hard candy coating, my mushy inside still gets bummed when my expectations aren’t met. When the intern fails to deliver what I asked for. When my partner can’t meet my request for time, presence, and affection. When something I’d been looking forward to is suddenly canceled. When that person I thought to be so amazing turns out to be so very…human. Gah. “Had I only known,” I tell myself, “I could have avoided this feeling again.”

The flipside of experiencing disappointment is that I don’t want to disappoint others. It’s an odd brand of people pleasing. Instead of letting folks down, I aim to delight and anticipate the needs or preferences they didn’t even necessarily voice that I think would make some part of their day more easeful and pleasant. In my old role at a previous company, I jokingly called myself the “Make-A-Wish Foundation.” If someone asked for something, I’d try to make it happen.

When I let someone down, I can feel pretty awful about myself. I ultimately fear I’ve lost their trust. (Namely, because I project how I feel when that happens to me onto the other, as if that is the truth of their experience too.)

There are a few faces of disappointment. There’s the kind where we feel our let down by unmet expectations in others. And there’s the kind where we feel worse about ourselves when our equations for happiness don’t happen as we’d hoped, planned, or blindly believed. These experiences can grate at our innate sense of worth. Brene Brown reminds us that expectations are resentments – and sometimes shame – under construction. “When we develop expectations and base our opinions of ourselves on meeting them, we can invite feelings of shame. When we allow our happiness to be contingent upon others, we set ourselves up for resentment.”

Therapist David Richo asserts in a book of the same title that there are five things we cannot change. These are certain facts he calls “unavoidable ‘givens’ of human existence.” They are: everything changes and ends; things do not always go according to plan; life is not always fair; pain is a part of life; and people are not loving and loyal all the time. I have some resistance to these givens, more often than I’d like to admit, which really dampens my capacity to receive the richness of life. Yet, when I open to my own fear of the pain of disappointment, and own the ways in which I can and do disappoint others, I discover my superpower-like gifts as a human.

I was reading Richo’s other book, How to Be Adult in Relationship, in the bathtub Sunday morning, and the page my bookmark was on happened to be about disappointment. I was delighted by his explanation. He noted how disappointed Dorothy was to learn that the Wizard of Oz was just a bungling, well-intended, old man when Toto pulled back the curtain. Yet, it took that moment for Dorothy to realize “that the only dependable wizardry would be her own, not someone else’s.” She was the only one with the power to click her ruby heels and get herself home. Disappointment’s lesson is just that: it reminds us that we can do for ourselves what we hoped would be fulfilled by an external source.

One key take away from that lesson is that we take full responsibility for ourselves. We learn that when the disappointment strikes, we can give to ourselves what we expected to have from the other. That can stop us from swirling into the self-berating vortex of thoughts that expectation and disappointment can trigger if we feel betrayed, regret, or shame. Otherwise, that vortex leads us directly to being a victim. The “full career” of disappointment, as Richo calls it, is the arc of realizing it, grieving it, and growing because of it.

Accepting that people, including ourselves, will fail some of the time is key to our own resiliency. Richo writes, “Disappointment can lead to despair, the illusion that there is no alternative. But to experience disappointment consciously is to embrace it, learn from it, … and accept that all humans are a combination of contradictions. Anyone can please and displease, come through and fail, satisfy and disappoint. No one pleases all the time, yet we do not give up on others.”

Just like Zoe’s concern in the podcast about disappointing those who believe in her and the folks who’ve placed their trust in her, we can only make ourselves wrong by believing we had control over someone else’s happiness. When disappointment strikes, it shows us an aspect of ourselves that perhaps held us back from our real potency. “Disappointment is a “dis-illusionment,” or freedom from illusion, projection, and expectation. All that’s left is mindfulness,” writes Richo. “To someone who disappointed me, I can say, ‘Thank you for freeing me from yet another of my illusions.’” Like Toto, we pull back the curtain, but instead of finding the bumbling old fraud, we discover own power and agency to fulfill our own wishes and dreams.