Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Anna's 5 Stages of Dealing With Disappointment

I am no scientist. I like to read science-y things like research and theories and stuff, but I did not do any of that before typing this blog. I don’t know if someone else has developed a list similar to this or not and I certainly do not claim to know that everyone will experience disappointment in this way. All I can say is, this is what I have discovered about myself, and my goal is to move from initial disappointment to the final stage in as little time as possible. I almost always get there, but the length of time depends on many variables.

Stage 1 – Sadness and Self-Criticism

Disappointment effects people so differently. When something doesn’t go the way I want it to, I am immediately sad. I typically welcome sadness when needed, so it isn't a surprise that this is my initial reaction. Next I turn inward and beat myself up. When my 8yo experiences disappointment in a missed soccer goal or a poor video game outcome, he lashes out and says how unfair the world is and expresses anger. I turn inward and criticize myself and the many ways I allowed myself to mess up or contribute to the disappointment. This coupled with the sadness I feel for things not turning out as I hoped is a dark place for me.

It might be easier to illustrate this by using an example. Let’s take a recent race, which did not go as planned. I was cruising along feeling really strong (while ignoring some knee pain) when at mile 8 I realized I had to stop running. The realization that this race would not end the way I hoped brought me to almost instant tears. I then immediately began berating myself for a variety of things I was certain contributed to this disappointing situation in which I found myself.

Totally faking it and smiling through the knee pain.
Photo Credit: Janzow Photography

Stage 2 – Pity party, Why Me and Poor Me

After sadness and beating myself up over the initial disappointment, where I hate to be but can tend to stay for a while, comes the big ol’ pity party. I start feeling really sorry for myself. I think of all of the other disappointments that have come my way and wonder why nothing good ever happens for me. I feel like I am the only person in the world who has ever had something disappointing happen to them and I am so sorry for myself. Boo freaking hoo. I might even have some anger here at those I view as never having to face a challenge like whatever it is I am dealing with.

In relation to the race, I kind of went back and forth between pity party and sadness during the actual race. I was able to finish albeit hobbly, which definitely made things feel more positive, but as my knee pain persisted throughout the weekend so did the feeling really sorry for myself and my injured POS situation.

Happily, I don’t usually stay here very long. This is an important place for me to go though, for if I don’t go to this place, I can’t access my thoughts and feelings surrounding why this story I am telling myself is not the truth. If I don’t spend at least a little bit of time here, I can’t get to Stage 3.

Stage 3 – Gratitude

This is where I think of the many people in the world who have it so much worse off than me. My mind goes to my friends who are strong and fierce and who have disabilities that do not allow for them to experience the beauty and rush of a trail run. I think of the people I work with who have a debilitating disease that would love nothing more than to be out living their lives as opposed to being trapped in so many ways by the disease. It is here where I find my grateful heart and can appreciate all that life offers me, even in the times when what is happening might not make the most sense.

This stage initially happened during the race, which is why I could finish at all. In the race example and I imagine throughout lots of examples in my history, I spent some time dancing between these 3 stages. Sadness and self-criticism, poor me, why me, wait I’m grateful, this sucks, people have it worse than me, I’m sad. Eventually though, without a doubt, I move into Stage 4.

Stage 4 – Problem Solving

I know I am a creative problem solver. It is one of my superpowers and I take great pride in my ability to think of creative ways to solve problems. In times of disappointment though, I forget this is my power. It takes me a while to get here, and I often need to ask for help. I have people in my life I can reach out to who will remind me I am strong, who will build me up and help me see that I nearly always hold the key to my own success.

I know the root of my knee problems that keep derailing my racing goals is my gait. I know this, and began trying to problem solve on my own after the race and became quickly overwhelmed and discouraged. I tried to do it by myself and had not yet remembered my superpower. I reached out to a friend who reminded me of my strength and who helped me sort through the ridiculous amount of information, which is where the planning happens. I need to have a plan when things don’t go the way I hope they will. Problem solving and planning have to happen before I move into stage 5.

Stage 5 – Acceptance and Total Domination

Okay that might be a little dramatic but it really can feel this way sometimes. Once I accept that this is my story and I develop a plan that I begin to execute, I feel like I am totally dominating my own life. I got knocked down, but I am back up and better than before. When I face a disappointment or challenge or things don’t go the way I want them to, Stage 5 is when I use that experience as fuel for my learning fire. It is where I grow and become better. It is through these hard things and challenges that I become a better version of myself. When I can say “yes this bad thing happened, and it was the best thing that could have happened for me” I am accepting and I am dominating. I am in stage 5 when I realize that this situation didn’t happen to me, it happened for me.


In the race example, I moved across all of these stages in about 2.5 days. I finished the race Saturday morning and had made it to stage 5 by Monday night. My goal is to move through these stages in as little time as possible. Some issues or challenges take more time, and others it may be lightning fast. 

For an example of fast, say I am on my way to work and I hit really bad traffic. I’m going to be sad and criticize myself because I’ll be late and what does it say about me as a person to be late? How could I not be the super prepared person who knows better than to be late? (Stage 1) Then I’ll feel sorry for myself and say man, this always happens to me and why me and feel like the only person who has ever been stuck in traffic. (Stage 2) I’ll realize in the grand scheme of things how lucky I am to have a job and a place to be and will recognize the many people who don’t. (Stage 3) Then I’ll realize the people I work with are reasonable and will totally understand that things happen. All I need to do is make a call or send a text and it’s fine. (Stage 4) Lastly, I’ll recognize that this traffic could be preventing me from some other type of challenge, like an accident if I were in the wrong place or if I were driving faster (Stage 5). This thought process probably happens in about 2 minutes, if that.

Other times with big stuff, like my cancer diagnosis, I moved repeatedly through these stages and certainly not in a straight line. I can still look back and break that time into the various stages though.
Like I said, this is not based on any science besides my uber observation (read: over-analyzing/obsessing) of myself when I face something challenging. I think it is valuable to understand the ways in which we face challenges and discover the positive ways we cope.

There are some issues I face where I just can’t get past the pity party. I might sit there for weeks with a given situation and until I reach out for help to remind me of my problem-solving super power, will sit there frozen and totally prolonging advancement to the next stage. I feel strongly that the more we understand who we are and how we do things, the better we are as people. I am no expert, but I do feel a sense of empowerment by outlining all of this and being honest about the way I deal with things in my life. 

For those who know me well, let me know if you think I missed anything!