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