Not letting our fears control us 2: Open to disappointment

One of the more important things for our psychological health is how we have to cope with disappointment. Losses are present in our lives from infancy onwards. Indeed, as Winnicott reminds us, a certain amount of disappointment is necessary as infants in order to allow a secure sense of self to develop. The parent has to gently “disappoint” the child in order to allow the child develop the independence to take on certain tasks for itself, to face the world without relying totally on the parent. This allows the infant have the resilience for facing the ups and downs of this world, as well as understanding that there is nuance in every person, and that we cannot expect anyone to perfectly satisfy all our needs.

If established well, the person can be comfortable on their own and have the space in later life to deal with the inevitable ways in which others let them down. If not, then one can struggle when a partner changes, a parent disillusions, a relationship goes sour or a job turns out to be unfulfilling, because one has looked to them to give life meaning. Another negative aspect could be that the child feels responsible for the loss and may pick up the mistaken idea that negative emotions are wrong, and to admit them is to show weakness or a lack of self-control.

Over the years all these losses add up. Some we have time to acknowledge, some not. Stephen Levine reminds us that grieving that has to go on for all the little losses and disappointments that happen throughout our days. He calls this “our ordinary, everyday grief” which builds up following the “disappointments and disillusionment, the loss of trust and confidence that follows the increasingly less satisfactory arch of our lives”.

One thing we can do in response is try to avoid feeling this grief, by hardening our hearts or denying to ourselves that the loss had any real meaning. However, although this provides a momentary feeling of safety, it can either lead to a gradual deadening of our experience of the world or reappear in our unconscious as anxiety or repeating behaviours. A better option is to stay open to life and acknowledge its inevitable losses, even the little ones. Ultimately, being open to feel the fear of loss is the only way to integrate it. It’s also the only way to a genuine relationship with others, because closeness to others cannot be founded on neediness or on the fear of being alone. Before we can be in relationship with others, we need to be able to accept a certain type of aloneness in ourselves. If we do not see that we will always be disappointed in the things that we think will fill it.

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