On a fall morning over a decade ago, I sat in a circle of women whose ages and stories varied. We clutched coffee cups and held in our emotions, no one wanting to be the first to share. What did we all have in common? Being part of a class at my church called “Interrupted Expectations.” I, as a counseling intern and co-facilitator, felt the pressure to say something brilliant but instead stared at the carpet.
Our leader, Jan Stockdale, pulled out a box of 24 crayons which, she said, represented our emotions. She showed us the whole range of colors but only pulled out two, black and white. Most of us, she says, were only allowed to experience or express a narrow range of emotions. But what about all the rest?
Everyone in the group had experienced some kind of loss, whether of a person, job, or dream. I was struggling with infertility. Loss leads to grief, Jan said, and grief leads to messy emotions that aren’t black and white.
I’ve been thinking of this again recently because humanity has endured a year of loss. Perhaps similar to the ones in my class, but also the loss of normalcy, routine, a sense of security. Now it’s the holidays, which are supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. Only what if they’re not?
When I think of the crayon all of us are holding right now, that we might not know quite what to do with, it’s disappointment. Psychologist David Brandt has studied disappointment for decades and he says disappointment is unmet expectation.
This is a relief to me. I worry sometimes that disappointment is a lack of faith. But that’s not true—it’s simply a human reaction to life not turning out the way we hoped. It’s an emotion, a crayon in our box, that helps us make sense of loss.
How do we effectively deal with disappointment?
First, we can identify our loss by using this sentence…
I hoped to ______ but ______ so I’m disappointed.
For example, I hoped to be with my parents for Thanksgiving but Covid-19 kept me from traveling so I’m disappointed.
Then we can ask, “What else am I feeling that’s related to this disappointment?” Jan Stockdale says common emotions are, “Loneliness, helplessness, fear, jealousy, envy, rejection, depression, rage, anxiety, dread, confusion, panic, disappointment, despair, and resentment.”
We can bring all of what we’re feeling to God.
Next, we can ask, “What do I need right now?” The answer might be a nap, conversation with a trusted friend, or to make an appointment with our counselor. Choose one thing, even if it’s small, and take action.
Finally, Brandt says what helps most with disappointment is gratitude. Why? Because it shifts our focus from what could have been to what actually is.
I have a stack of paper leaves that I like to pull out at Thanksgiving. We pass them around our table and each record a blessing from the year. This year I want to do it differently, to set a box of 24 crayons on the table then write a disappointment on one side of the leaf and a gift on the other.
“We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us.” (Romans 5:3-5, emphasis mine)
God’s love is big enough to handle all of our emotions, strong enough to see us through this hard season, faithful enough to never let us go, near to us when we need it most and beyond our expectations.
P.S. If you (or someone you love) could use a little extra encouragement right now, you may appreciate my book What Your Heart Needs for the Hard Days.