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Gina Hassan PhD


Working with Disappointment: When Things Don't Go as Planned
by Gina Hassan, Ph.D.

Unlike other creatures, human beings are prone to a particular “habit of mind.”  We expect!  We look forward to, we consider, we think.  We have ideas of how things are supposed to be, and, therefore, how we want them to be.  But life does not always unfold as planned and disappointments can be hard to weather, particularly in a culture that teaches us that if we work hard we can make things happen according to our wishes.  While practice, discipline, and intention certainly influence what happens, the idea that we should be able to control how things unfold is a mistaken belief that can lead to great suffering.

Pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting are not subject to our control.  When we get pregnant, how our baby arrives in the world, whether breastfeeding goes smoothly or not, and exactly who our child is – these are things that we can influence, but not dictate.  Yet we often come to these experiences with elaborate fantasies about how things are supposed to be – and, when our expectations diverge from our lived experience pain, suffering, and, in particular, disappointment can result.

So how can we work with the emotion of disappointment? How can we make room for the experience we are having rather than cling tightly to the experience we hoped for?  Whether this means letting go of our fantasy of natural childbirth, or of an easy entry into breastfeeding, or of being able to breastfeed at all, acceptance can be hard to come by.  For some, acceptance is equated with a kind of helplessness, passivity, or even depression.

There is, however, a way for us to honor our disappointment without being caught in its grip.  After all, when we try to pretend that something isn’t so, or try to force ourselves to “think positively” in the face of disappointment, the emotion doesn’t usually diminish.  We may be able to hide from it briefly, but the power of the emotion will persist and will ultimately take up more room than if we grant it the space it needs.  In fact, the harder we try and push something away, the more persistent it becomes.

To clarify, acknowledging disappointment is not the same as wallowing in it.  In fact, we can notice the contour of the feeling without getting caught up in the content or the story.  We can observe our disappointment, for example, as it arises and as it passes.  We can also notice when there is a story attached to the emotion.  The story usually has something to do with culpability:  It is my fault that I can’t feed my baby as nature intended, or it is my OB’s fault that I ended up with a C-section.  We can get caught up in the “if only she had …,” or “if only I had…”  Getting caught up in the story in this way usually intensifies emotion, trapping us in its grip.  Accepting that things are not always in our control and that things happen for unknown reasons, that they are simply part of life’s journey, is a stance that can ultimately help us to move through difficult emotions.

As parents, we frequently find ourselves in the position of having to make difficult decisions.  Since we cannot see or control the future, we make the best decisions we can, given the support, resources, and information we have at the time we are making them.  The reality is that no matter how much we have prepared, how many books we have read, how many prenatal yoga classes we have taken (or skipped), or how well we have eaten, things don’t necessarily turn out as planned.  When we have worked hard to have a natural childbirth, for example, and end up with medical intervention we may feel that we are at fault, we could have done something differently, should have known better, should have prepared more, etc.  The truth is that we are not in control of the outcome and we are not at fault.

To sum up:  If you find yourself caught in the grip of a difficult emotion try observing it through the lens of the following paradigm.  An easy mnemonic for remembering this paradigm is – R.A.I.N.

Recognize:  I am feeling disappointed.

Acknowledge or Accept:  I am aware that I am having this feeling and will try as best I can to accept it without judgment.

Inquire or Investigate:  I will notice what this feeling of disappointment looks like, feels like, sound like, etc.

Non-clinging:  I will make space for this feeling to arise and to pass, I will neither cling to it nor push it away.

Gina Hassan, Ph.D. is a perinatal psychologist who offers individual and couples therapy, as well as Mindful Mothering Groups. She has been on the Birthways board for over three years.