Dr. Paul on how to cope with disappointment and frustration

It’s important to greet these negative emotions by name and acknowledge that’s what you’re feeling.

I came home the other day from a long walk, looking forward to having a small dish of strawberry ice cream. During the pandemic, I take my small pleasures where I can.

I opened up the freezer — but where was the container? It was gone. Lo and behold, my wife had finished it the night before. Needless to say, I was disappointed.

Everyday life is filled with small, medium and large frustrations and disappointments. Frustration is when something gets in the way of my doing something I want to do, and disappointment is not getting what I want. We’re all frustrated that the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing and that we can’t do the things we like to do. And disappointment comes for a visit when our expectations, hopes and dreams don’t materialize.

Joe is struggling with lower back pain that just won’t quit. He’s doing everything his health-care provider suggested, but when he wakes up in the morning with a sore back, he’s frustrated, which can quickly turn into anger. “When will this go away! I hate it!” he yells. Frustration and anger often feel alike, just like disappointment and sadness are close cousins.

Indeed, learning how to handle frustration and disappointment is a lifelong endeavor that starts at birth. Learning how to effectively manage these emotions are important components of emotional health.

So how can we more effectively cope with frustration and disappointment?

Acknowledge and name your experience. Note to yourself that you’re feeling frustrated or disappointed. Notice how your body feels. Become aware of the thoughts that run through your mind. Don’t push your emotions aside, tell yourself a story, or talk yourself out of your feeling. Greet disappointment and frustration by name and acknowledge that’s what you’re feeling.

Breathe. When anger or sadness starts to show up, take an easy breath through your nose, hold it for a beat and take a long slow breath out through your mouth. Repeat three to four times. These breaths will help you relax a little if strong emotions start to arise. They will help you keep your emotions in control.

Remind yourself — disappointment is not a terminal illness. Sure, no one likes to be disappointed. But it’s a lifelong occurrence that can’t be avoided. Even bigger disappointments, like not getting a job or a relationship that goes upside down, are events that occur in the course of your life. We do manage to live through even these larger letdowns.

It’s fine to feel a little sorry for yourself. Of course! As a friend once told me, “It’s OK to visit Pity City, but don’t move in.” Feeling sad for yourself is a way of licking your wounds and healing. It’s a natural emotion.

Try adopting a more neutral approach toward your disappointment or frustration. Keeping your perspective is important. After acknowledging your feelings, consider adopting a more neutral attitude toward your disappointment. I always ask myself after a letdown, “So what?” It’s both a question and a statement.

What do I want to do about my setback? Sometimes, I can do something like run to the store and pick up another container of ice cream — and other times, I can’t. But the statement suggests another attitude that I can cultivate — a sense of whether or not it’s really a big deal. This question helps me step back from my emotions and consider how this disappointment fits into the whole of my life. It can help me approach the experience more objectively.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.

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