A few years back I decided to take my husband away for a surprise vacation. This was partly motivated by the flight reward points I had been accumulating with my business travel. My hope was that when redeemed, it would save us a bundle on the travel costs. Excitedly I called the rewards companies customer service to arrange our free flights. However, after a somewhat confusing and frustrating conversation, my hopes for free flights were quickly deflated.

Mini Disappointments = Mega Opportunities. In the realm of disappointments, this was a mini one. The often-toted advice in this type of situation would be “shake it off” and “don’t give it another thought.” As common as this advice may be, its not very helpful. Ignoring the emotions of disappointment doesn’t make you better at handling them, nor does it strengthen your resilience for future ones.

Small disappointments are great opportunities to practice being disappointed. As counter-intuitive as this sounds, consider how often you feel frustrated or let down by misunderstandings. It would be unrealistic to expect to go through life without experiencing disappointment. How you handle these small disappointments can make a stark difference over time in how you react to the big ones. To build these skills it helps to understand the neurochemistry of disappointment.  

Dopamine and Your Expectation Circuitry. Disappointment is directly connected to the neural transmitter, dopamine. Most know dopamine as a “reward” chemical.  This is only partly correct. When it comes to disappointment Cambridge University Researcher, Dr. Wolfram Schutz studies suggest its role is less around achieving the reward but instead, more around the anticipated correctness of the reward.

Overlaying this science on my experience, it can be assumed that my brain anticipated getting a reward in the form of a free flight, causing my dopamine levels to surge. Once on the phone and it became apparent my reward was not going to be met, my dopamine levels fell, and the familiar pang of disappointment was experienced.  

Here are three strategies to help manage the neurological anticipation and handle the disappointment in a more resilient way.  

  • Take a moment to feel the disappointment.  Don’t try just to ignore the feeling or simply “brush them off.”  Suppressed or ignored feelings do tend to build up over time making them harder to manage in the long run. Whether a big or small disappointment, acknowledge it.  Research from Matt Lieberman out of UCLA used fMRI’s to show activity in the emotional system of the brain is lessened by recognizing and identifying the negative emotions being perceived. By admitting to yourself you feel disappointed, you dilute the intensity of the feeling. Interestingly, it is within the same emotional brain system that the nucleus accumbens is located which is responsible for the dopamine circuitry in the first place, which helps you manage your reactions at a neurochemical level.    
  • Keep disappointment in perspective with the ‘Rule of 10’.  Your emotional brain is notorious for blowing things out of proportion. One way to offset this response is to mentally put parameters around your disappointment to keep it in perspective. Ask yourself, will this have an impact in 10 minutes from now? 10 hours from now? 10 days, weeks, months or years?  The big ones need a lot more of our mental and emotional resources, so keep the small disappointments within realistic parameters. 
  • Don’t lose focus on what is good.  You tend to experience loss more strongly than reward, even at a neural level (check out this great review in Scientific America). Without intentional action, you are prone to lose sight of the good or minimize the positive possibilities for the future. At the least, there is often an opportunity to learn something from disappointment, even if it means increasing our disappointment tolerance and strengthening your resilience with the strategies shared.

Unmanaged, disappointment takes up a lot of mental real estate, energy, and enthusiasm that is better spent in other ways. Resilience isn’t about not feeling emotion, its about strengthening your ability to recover and learn from disappointment and setbacks in a way that makes you stronger in the face of future challenges.

For me, this was a small disappointment but a great opportunity to practice for the next time without losing sight of the fact that we were very lucky to be going on a vacation!

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