What is good about disappointment

I frequently say to people I work with that one of the key things is how we deal with disappointment. It is a necessary skill,  because it is a frequent and inevitable occurance in an imperfect world. Each one of us has our own way of working with the  discomfort coming from disappointments in our plans or in other people. These ways are often based on how well our parents helped us deal with early shocks and disappointments, or whether they tried to shield us from the ups and downs of reality. Sometimes a parent can think that the best way to raise their child is to shower them with protection and insulate them from moments when they or the world are less than perfectly loving. However, the child has to learn to live in the real world, and the real world isn’t perfect. In other words, it is right –  and leads to the development of a healthy psyche – that the child is gently disappointed and comes to understand that it is not always possible to have people around them who understand and respond perfectly to their every wish. Even from an early age we have to learn to share, take our turn in games, postpone our own gratification and  acknowledge that other people have needs, moods and different agendas.

Rather than a parent having to being perfect  all the time, English Psychotherapist Winnicott said that they just had to be “good enough”.  This means that the parent provides enough support –  or “holding”  – to support the child without going to the extremes of  stifling it or of abandoning it.  The skill of the “good-enough parent” is to give the child a sense of loosening when faced with new situations rather than the shock and subsequent fear of being ‘dropped’. This allows the child develop resources, maintain a sense of control and  stops them from feeling that the world is unsafe all the time.

If this happens successfully,  the challanges of life do not frighten because the child builds up interior resources. It means that relationships does not threaten because, paradoxically, a smothering early closeness can trigger fears of engulfment in later life. And it means that the adult has a healthier structure for dealing with disappointment because as a child he or she has learned that life and people can not be perfect all the time. Often our disappointments do not arise so much from what actually happened, but more from how we compare what happened to our expectations, our inner patterns or our fixed version of reality. Disappointment show us that life –  like the good enough parent –  is not always available to us in the fixed way we want or whenever we demand it, but is still good despite that.

For this reason disappointments are good teachers. They allow us to see that there is more to us than our conscious thoughts and desires. They reveal how we can be attached to a specific version of how things should be, or of what life owes us. This does not mean they are easy because trying to avoid what disappoints is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. However, we grow more quickly if we are open to working with disappointments rather than avoiding them. Rather than being negative, they can become positive moments of growth,  leading us away from the suffering which is based on our lack of understanding of the deep reality of change.

Our culture has evolved into one that is pleasure-based and ego-identified, and that emphasizes immediate gratification. It also began to define success as your ability to control outcomes. Today, we teach our children that if you are an effective person, you can control your life. You can get and do what you want. If you do, you win in life. This modern image portrays “winners” as people who have it all together. You are not supposed to have internal conflicts, stress, or anxiety—that means you are incompetent. …… But this perspective flattens life. It denies the possibility of finding a deeper meaning to your experience. If you measure your self-worth and effectiveness according to these superficial cultural standards, then each time you suffer you are forced to interpret suffering as humiliation. Why would you choose to acknowledge suffering if it only stands for failure?

Phillip Moffitt, How Suffering got a Bad Name

Just when I think I know where I am going

As I mentioned in yesterdays post, at times our best plans get disrupted and we are faced with uncertainty. Sometimes these changes come from new ideas within ourselves which may be easier to deal with than those which are obliged on us, by the changing minds or circumstances of others. However, at the end of the day, all changes to our plans can be a challenge. If we are very attached to our plans or if the changes affect some aspects of our identity, then the changes can shake us to the core.

Making plans is a necessary part of life. Although meditation can help us identify when we are continually planning as a strategy to deal with our anxiety, normal making of plans is necessary for us to be effective, to move forward in our work  and to look after  those we have a responsibility for. Therefore a certain amount of living in and imagining the future is appropriate and necessary for our lives.

However, if we make a plan too rigid, or become fixed on a certain way that the future has to turn out –  or that others have to be – we can become too attached to a fixed notion of how the Universe should behave.  As I have said before,  this can make it hard to accept the diversions which reality takes from our own agenda. We believe things have to turn out in a certain way for them to be right.  Thus we lose connection with how things actually are. We can even think we are running the show.

Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right.
It lands left.
I ride after a deer and find myself
Chased by a boar.
I plot to get what I want
And end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others
And fall in.

I should be suspicious
Of what I want.


If I let go will I float?

Everything is meant to be let go of.

Meister Eckhard

Got some reminders today that changes of direction and endings are an inevitable part of our lives, touching our plans, our enthusiasms,  our things, our friendships. In fact, one of the core things we realize in meditation is that nothing is permanently satisfying or reliable. This challenges our need to be in control at all times, a need which is often driven by fear. The opposite of this need for control – of the future, our our plans, of others – is to trust, to let go. Deep down there is nothing to hang on to. Our mistake is that we look for certainty, for solid ground, when in actual fact, the deep reality which we come to accept is that nothing is really lasting or solid. Ironically, realizing that brings us the greatest freedom.

And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried,
each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.



I am at home in Ireland and have been struck by the welcome, ease and friendliness of people, in shops, taxis and at a football match. Early Celtic spirituality placed a huge emphasis on hospitality, and some of that has persisted to this day.

The focus of hospitality was especially directed toward strangers and the poor, and that still challenges us today, especially in our self-obsessed society. However, another reflection on openness and welcome which can be looked at, in the light of the last few posts, is how we offer hospitality to ourselves, to our fears, to the people and situations that scare us? We are sometimes easier on others than we are on ourselves. Can we turn towards those emotions that frighten us, rather than turn away?

May the blessing of light be on you – light without and light within.
May the blessed sunlight shine on you like a great  fire,
so that stranger and friend may come and warm himself at it.
And may light shine out of your eyes,
like a candle set in the window of a house,
bidding the wanderer to come in out of the storm.

Early Scottish Prayer