Monday, February 22, 2010

Dis*ap*point -verb (used with an object)

–verb (used with object)
to fail to fulfill the expectations or wishes of: His gross ingratitude disappointed us.

This word, this concept of disappointment has come up several times in the past few days. When something crops up like that, repeatedly, I try to give it some attention. How do you deal with people being disappointed with you? How do you deal with being disappointed by others? What does it even mean to you?

I had a client tell the other day that coming back to a therapy session was difficult because there was a fear that I would be disappointed in the client. I was a bit taken aback. I had to ask myself whether I was disappointed. The thought never occurred to me to be disappointed in my client. I reframed the thought and we moved on...

Later, I was talking with the parents of a youth and the word 'disappoint' caught my attention again. I had the privilege of being asked to baptize a teen that I'd worked with in my former role as a minister to youth in Oklahoma. Her mom told me that when talking to her daughter about being baptized, she asked, "If you know it is something you should do, why haven't you already done it?" Her daughter told her that she didn't want to be a disappointment to God. As I continued talking to the mother, I became curious what it meant to "disappoint" someone. She told me that growing up, she would rather her mother get angry at her than to be disappointed in her. I understand that concept, but I never really stopped to consider what it really meant.

With my own children, I try to avoid getting angry, or if I am, I at least try to be honest about it. Sometimes when I'm disciplining one of my kiddos, I have to wait until my anger dies down so I can think clearly and be more effective. When that happens and I'm able to talk to the whichever child it is, I have used that phrase. You know the one... "I'm very disappointed in you..." instead of "I'm very angry with you..." Before now, I thought I had a handle on what I meant, but now I'm not so sure.

Being bothered by not being sure, I started to think about what it meant to disappoint someone, or be disappointed in someone or something. Before I looked up the definition, I came to the conclusion that it had to do with 'expectations'.

If I expect something to be a certain way and the reality of that thing falls short of my expectation, I'm sure to be disappointed.
If I believe that someone expects a certain thing of me and I am unable/unwilling to meet that expectation, I'm sure to disappoint that someone.

So, really, does disappointment have to do more with perception of reality than it does with reality itself? What if I hold no expectations about a person or a situation? Does that mean I am immune to disappointment where that person or situation is concerned? Is it even really possible to hold *no* expectations?

Where this concept sticks in my craw is where it has to do with a person's perception of him or herself. How terrible is it to live with the idea that you have to meet a person's expectations of who or what you ought to be in order to not consider yourself to be a disappointment? Surprisingly I see it all the time, and not just with my therapy clients. I think it is a more pervasive problem than we like to admit.

Tonight, I wrote a message to a friend trying to explain that I was not going to add this friend to my contacts in Facebook. Note that I am being very specific in my wording in that previous sentence. I have a friend. A person that I value enough to consider a friend in real life. That friend wants to be a contact of mine on Facebook. Facebook uses the phrase, "Add this person as a friend" and creates an expectation. The unspoken phrasing is that if I do not add this person to my contact list, then somehow, that person is no longer my friend, or that I don't wish to be friends with that person. Voila! I have just disappointed my friend.
It is insidious, isn't it? How we create expectations (sometimes unwittingly, although I think the creators of Facebook did it on purpose to create this very situation) by creating perceptions that don't always reflect the reality of the situation.

In truth, not adding a person to my list of contacts on Facebook (or MySpace, or Twitter, or LinkedIn, etc) doesn't change anything. It just means I didn't add them to my contact list. It is not a venue in which I wish to interact with this particular friend. Could it mean something else? Sure. But does it?

In the situation with my children, where I use this concept of setting expectations and the possibility of disappointing me as a discipline tool... is that too manipulative? I don't think it has to be. As a parent, it is my sacred task to set clear, reasonable expectations for my children to grow and develop. I leverage my relationship with them, my love and affection for them, into behavior modification. But a parent has to be careful here, as it is easy to overdo it and create expectations that are unreasonable and leave a child feeling inadequate and unable to ever please the parent. Then they may end up in therapy later, wondering why they feel like a failure when they come home for the holidays despite their diplomas and six-figure salaries.

Perhaps I've spent too little time over the years working out how I disappoint or am disappointed by others. The more I think about it, the more I see how pervasive this idea, this concept truly is.

So, what can I do about it? First, I think it is probably a good idea to do some "meta-thinking", that is, thinking about how one thinks. Do you have reasonable expectations about things or do you always blow things out of proportion? Perhaps the opposite is true and you're too laid back and don't take things seriously enough. That is precisely the case I've seen in some pre-marital couples when they come to counseling. One member of the couple doesn't step up to the level of expectation of the other and it leads to all sorts of hidden resentment. So, step 1 is to consider your own expectations and evaluate whether they are reasonable.
Next, it is probably a good idea to think about what other's expectations are of you. Has someone set unreasonable or unachievable expectations on you that you've spent lots of time trying to live up to? How does that make you feel? Like a failure, hmmm? What if you were able to unshackle yourself from unreasonable expectations and say, "No, that is unreasonable. I refuse to be held to this unreasonable expecation." What would change in your life? In your relationships?
Let me know, would you? I'm really curious, and you don't want to disappoint your friend, do you?


Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of what you are saying here, Jeff. Personally, as a Christian, I expect myself to make good decisions and to set standards for my behavior. On the other hand, as a musician, I have to expect myself to practice constantly. I've learned that I can't get up in front of a group and give a cold performance and do it flawlessly. It takes so much practice and preparation! There is a lot of expectation for people who pursue a music degree. In the past year, however, I've learned that even if I don't perform a piece as well as I wanted, I must ask myself, "Did I put enough practice into it? If so, don't sweat it; there will be other performances." If I feel like I could have practiced more, then I have a reason to be disappointed with myself. I think this is God's way of telling me I have to work really hard in order to be a good musician.

marlis said...

Much disappointment is self inflicted - totally agree with this. Whether you are trying to live up to your parent's expectations (did I ever even live up to my mom's of me - I don't think I'll ever know but at this age it's not important anymore)or those imposed by spouses/friends or your own. It is your own that matters most. I expect myself to be kind to others, to be understanding and caring, and to grow my faith. Makes life simpler.

Young children are very susceptible to feel less than good enough - it's a very tight tightrope you walk. I did not live up to my son's expectations when I quit teaching and although we talked about the move, the ramifications of that move didn't become apparent until he was 25. But since life doesn't have an undo button, we go forward and mend our ways.

Very thought provoking indeed.