Disappointments are an inevitable part of life. As imperfect creatures living in an imperfect world, it’s unrealistic for us to think that things will always go our way, or to assume that we’ll be able to get what we want out of sheer force of will.
While some disappointments are the result of unmet external conditions, such as not getting that job, receiving that promotion, or winning that competition, etc., other disappointments stem from an internal framework of high expectations – of ourselves, or of others.
These disappointments, because of their relational nature, are perhaps harder to overcome. If a friend or a loved one lets us down, or if someone rejects us, it can leave us feeling despondent and deflated. Similarly, if we let ourselves down, we may struggle with a sense of hopelessness and be less inclined to work toward something in the future.
Expectations Aren’t a Bad Thing
I’ve always disliked the familiar refrain of “don’t expect anything and you won’t be disappointed” because I don’t think expectations are problematic in and of themselves. In fact, having expectations – of yourself and of others – is beneficial, for they can help guide us in making good decisions, push us toward goals or self-improvement, and hold us accountable for who we say we are and how we live our lives.
The trouble is when our expectations become too high or when unmet expectations disproportionately affect us – that is, when we seek the fulfillment of some expectation as compensation, to fill some sort of void in ourselves that simply cannot come from anything or anyone outside of ourselves. If the expectation isn’t met, it can cause our unraveling, for we have subconsciously attached a personal need to it. This is when expectations become dangerous.
The Power of Perspective
While we will all struggle from time to time with disappointments and unmet expectations, we can learn how to navigate them more successfully through the use of perspective.
Indeed, Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor from 161-180 AD, believed that one of the best ways we can protect ourselves from spiraling into a dark abyss is by adopting the right perspective – time and again, in every situation, circumstance and even moment.
In the book Meditations, a compilation of Aurelius’ thoughts and reflections published after his death, he offers practical guidance for navigating life’s inevitable disappointments and misfortunes. Below are five nuggets of wisdom based on his writing.
1. We cannot blame external factors for our unhappiness
As Aurelius wrote:
“External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now. If the problem is something in your own character, who’s stopping you from setting your mind straight? And if it’s that you’re not doing something you think you should be, why not just do it? – But there are insuperable obstacles. Then it’s not a problem. The cause of your inaction lies outside you. – But how can I go on living with that undone? Then depart, with a good conscious, as if you’d done it, embracing the obstacles too.”Marcus Aurelius
In other words, we alone are responsible for our joy, peace, and contentment. To place our happiness in someone else’s hands – by blaming them or their actions – is to cast an unnecessary burden that they are incapable of alleviating. Similarly, to place our contentment in a future condition we hope will be met is not only to neglect the very blessings of the present moment but to remain on a never-ending search for something forever elusive.
2. The more we resist or fight against what does or does not happen to us, the more miserable we’ll be
As Aurelius wrote:
“Have you ever seen a severed hand or foot, or a decapitated head, just lying somewhere far away from the body it belonged to…? That’s what we do to ourselves – or try to – when we rebel against what happens to us; when we segregate ourselves. Or when we do something selfish. You have torn yourself away from unity – your natural state, one you were born to share in. Now you’ve cut yourself off from it.”Marcus Aurelius
And in a separate passage, he writes:
“Why is it so hard when things go against you? If it’s imposed by nature, accept it gladly and stop fighting it. And if not, work out what your own nature requires, and aim at that, even if it brings you no glory. None of us is forbidden to pursue our own good.”Marcus Aurelius
In other words, it might do us well to view the things that do or do not happen to us in a favorable light. This is, of course, a lot easier said than done. But, if we can learn to see things as being “prescribed” to us, perhaps as a teachable moment or something we’re meant to learn from, this can fundamentally shift us from a victim mentality to one of empowerment and change.
3. We’re only negatively affected by things to the extent that we allow them to negatively affect us
As Aurelius wrote:
“Let it happen, if it wants, to whatever it can happen to. And what’s affected can complain about it if it wants. It doesn’t hurt me unless I interpret it’s happening as harmful to me. I can choose not to.”Marcus Aurelius
“Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.”Marcus Aurelius
In other words, we can choose our perspective, interpretation, and meaning of events. For instance, going to a holiday party by yourself is only depressing and upsetting if you choose to see it that way.
While it’s much easier to lament about a misfortune by saying, “but, it’s just so hurtful” or “it was just so wrong”, this doesn’t change our circumstances and hardly allows us to move forward. The bottom line is that we have more control and agency than we think of giving meaning to our experiences. And this is something to celebrate!
4. Pay attention to your feelings and ask yourself why you are feeling a certain way
As Aurelius wrote:
“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.”Marcus Aurelius
Similarly, he writes:
“Discard your misperceptions. Stop being jerked like a puppet. Limit yourself to the present. Understand what happens – to you, to others. Analyze what exists, break it all down: material and cause. Anticipate your final hours. Other people’s mistakes? Leave them to their makers.”Marcus Aurelius
In other words, if you’re feeling disappointed about something, stop and ask yourself: “why am I so disappointed?” or “what is it that is causing me to be disappointed?” Is it truly something that was done or not done to you? Or is it that you’ve ascribed a personal need to an expectation that, because it’s gone unfulfilled, is exacerbating that void? Remember: try as we might, the void many of us feel as human beings can’t be filled by anything or anyone outside of ourselves.
5. Mastering the mind is vital to living well
As Aurelius wrote:
“If you can cut yourself – your mind – free of what other people do and say, of what you’ve said or done, of the things that you’re afraid will happen, the impositions of the body that contains you and the breath within, and what the whirling chaos sweeps in from outside, so that the mind is freed from fate, brought to clarity, and lives life on its own recognizance – doing what’s right, accepting what happens, and speaking the truth – If you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past – can make yourself, as Empedocles says, ‘a sphere rejoicing in its perfect stillness,’ and concentrate on living what can be lived (which means the present)…then you can spend the time you have left in tranquility. And in kindness. And at peace with the spirit within you.”Marcus Aurelius
In other words, at the end of the day, our mind is the only thing we can have control over. So, don’t let it rule you – and don’t become enslaved to it. Instead, make it work for you and use it to your advantage!
You can begin by first paying attention to your thoughts. If you’re thinking something like, “All is done is mess up” or “I can never do anything right”, dismiss that thought at once. Reject it. Say to yourself, “Well that’s not a very helpful thought. No more!”, recognizing that it does not serve you any good purpose and is not beneficial. This requires a lot of effort and work. But, the more you practice, the easier it will become.
Hard, but worthwhile work
Unfortunately, we simply cannot wish away our disappointments. Nor should we throw up our hands and commit to never having any expectations. After all, we are human beings with very real feelings, needs, and wants.
As Aurelius’ writings suggest, however, we must take responsibility and exercise the agency we have not only in understanding our disappointments but in overcoming them by choosing the perspective we adopt.
Learning to do this takes time, energy, patience, and hard work. But, we have the potential, Aurelius writes:
“If we can learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.”Marcus Aurelius
“It is we who generate the judgments – inscribing them on ourselves. And we don’t have to. We could leave the page blank – and if a mark slips through, erase it instantly.”Marcus Aurelius
This is powerful! It means we have more authority than we think – if only we learn, and keep learning, to use our mind and perspective to our advantage.