So I spend a lot of time thinking about shit. It’s kinda my job. I’ve also read a lot and I listen to podcasts and I do the things smart people do. But while I would like to tell you that I am now super smart, I mostly constantly realize one single thing….
I know very little.
In fact, I know nothing about a lot of subjects. And there are a whole slew of subjects about which, quite frankly, I know disturbingly little. Then there are the subjects that I’ve definitely read an article about, but I’ve forgotten what it said except for that one line about the chimps. That was a good line.
My point here is not to be self-denigrating, but to suggest that all of us, realistically, know very little. I mean, some of us know a lot, for people, but compared to Yoda or Data or Stephen Fry, we know dick.
This awareness of my lack of knowledge, however, means that I am pretty excited when I think I kinda figure something out. Now, the nature of my brain means that this something is probably not going to be a mathematical equation or something involving, erm, facts. My world is one of story, and narrative, and empathy–of attempts to trace the webs of intention and id and instinct that propel us crashing through life. I spend vast amounts of time trying to interpret these disturbances in the undergrowth; to figure out other people even though I know, because Philip Roth told me so, that we can only ever get each other wrong.* That said, I think I figured something out this year that is pretty gotdamned powerful and has maybe made me less of an asshole, to myself and to others.**
Here’s my little revelation:
I don’t get to be disappointed.
When I’ve said this line to people, they stare at me like one might at a misprinted fortune cookie. So let me explain.
What I’ve realized this year is that disappointment is a passive stance based on expectations I probably have no right to have, either because they are unfair or I have not actually articulated them to the other person…or to myself.
Let’s unpack that theory, shall we?
First of all, there’s the idea that disappointment is a passive stance. When I’m disappointed, I let another person’s actions define my emotional state. In other words, I cede my own emotional control to another person.
Meanwhile, this person may or may not have been aware I even had the expectations about which I am now disappointed. Here’s an example: I cook an amazing dinner, hoping that my friend will greet me with a thousand praises. Instead, he drops his bag inside the door and tells me what a shitty week he’s had, shoveling the food in his mouth as if it were prison rations rather than carefully prepared coq au vin.
Here is where I have to scrutinize whether I have been honest, to my friend or to myself. Did I tell him that I was inviting him not to dinner, but to an hour of praising me preceded by food, the intended subject of said praise? Probably not. Did I even admit to myself, consciously, that this is what I wanted? Again, probably not. But every chicken part I seared was probably accompanied by a fantasy of his looks of tender adoration as meat juice ran down his chin.
So I have invited him to my house under false pretenses, expecting a reaction I have not articulated. When those expectations aren’t met, I feel disappointment. I may allow my night to be ruined, or my relationship with this friend may be soured.
What I should do, instead, is weigh my motivation before I offer anything. What am I really asking for, when I extend an invitation? I listened to this brilliant podcast about communication recently, and Dr. Neha Sangwan was talking around this idea. In her example, I might ask a friend to go hiking, but she doesn’t want to go hiking. I feel disappointed. But this is where I have to ask myself: did I want to hike (which I can do by myself or with anyone else) or did I want to see my friend (which is not the same thing as going on a hike). If it’s the latter, that means I can say to my friend, “Hey, I just want to see you. What if I come over with some brie and we high five and hug it out?” (That last part was not Dr. Sangwan’s example. She’s much more sophisticated.)
Reversing Dr. Sangwan’s example is what I try to do nowadays when I feel disappointment with someone or something. I start with the feeling and try to get back to the root of what I’m really disappointed about. Almost always I find that it’s something I’m not being honest with myself about or it’s something I never articulated to the other person.
And then what do I do with that knowledge? First of all, it helps me let go of the passive feeling of resentment that disappointment engenders. I can say “Okay, I need to do better at communicating, next time.” Secondly, and more importantly, I also have to confront my expectations and take responsibility for them.
What I mean by this is that sometimes people genuinely aren’t treating you well or they’re not giving you what you want, or need, or believe to be fair. If I refuse to go the passive-disappointment route but rather expect myself to articulate what I want out of a situation, that means I have to take action.
Let’s use as an example the friend who always, and I mean always, bails on plans. I can continue to invite that friend to the same kind of events, and subsequently “be disappointed” when they bail. I can allow this to happen over and over until I feel so resentful that I kinda hate that friend. Or I can ask myself what’s really going on. Is this friend bailing because he really doesn’t care about me? If so, maybe I need to reconsider the friendship. But if not, maybe I need to reconsider my behavior. Maybe I should stop asking him to do things he clearly can’t or doesn’t want to do. I can find different things he might want to do, or I can say, simply, “Hey, I want to see you.” I can take all the energy that would have been sucked up by feeling sad and resentful and turn it into making the friendship work.
I’m still not totally adroit at this whole strategy of not being disappointed, but the process of working backwards from my reaction of disappointment is really helping. I have to ask myself what is it I really wanted from someone, or a situation, and often that question results in an epiphany of “Oh, what I wanted had nothing to do with that person” or “Oh, what I really wanted was unreasonable and kinda selfish.”
I’ve learned a lot about myself from doing this and I think I’m getting better at dealing with situations that would have driven me batty, in the past. Most importantly, I think it’s made me less of an asshole. Always a good thing.
What are your thoughts on disappointment? Feel free to share in comments!
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*American Pastoral. Read it.
**My only real goal at this point, since I’ve given up on ever having abs.