Maybe you took a job that was supposed to be fulfilling, but you dread going to work. Maybe you studied intensely for many months but still didn’t pass the bar. Maybe you thought you’d be married by now, but you aren’t even dating anyone. Maybe you poured your heart into a project or relationship only to get fired or break up. Maybe you and your kids aren’t as close as you were before.
When life doesn’t turn out the way we’d hoped, planned or expected, we feel tremendous disappointment and start doubting everything, including ourselves, writes Christine Hassler, a life coach and speaker, in her book Expectation Hangover: Overcoming Disappointment in Work, Love and Life.
However, according to Hassler, “your disappointment might be the best thing that has ever happened to you.” It opens the door to opportunities for healing our past issues, changing how we’re living now, and creating a future based on who we are — not who we expected to be.
Hassler created the term “expectation hangover” to speak to the disappointment and other negative reactions we experience. While there are many types, she says that most expectation hangovers fall into these three categories:
- Situational: something doesn’t turn out the way we wanted it to; or we don’t get the satisfaction we thought we would from a particular result.
- Interpersonal: we are let down by someone else; or we’re “unpleasantly surprised” by their actions.
- Self-imposed: we don’t live up to the standards or expectations we’ve set for ourselves.
According to Hassler, the symptoms of an expectation hangover are similar to a hangover from alcohol but “far more miserable and lasting.” They include: lack of motivation, lethargy, anxiety, anger, regret, depression, physical discomfort, confusion, self-judgment, shame, denial and faith crises.
In her book Hassler features a treatment plan with insights and exercises to help readers navigate disappointment and channel our expectation hangover into creating a meaningful life. It addresses four levels: emotional, mental, behavioral and spiritual. Below are three tips from her book to help you cope with your own expectation hangover.
1. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings.
Hassler stresses the importance of not comparing our experiences to anyone else’s. “You may think it’s silly to cry over being laid off when you know someone who just lost a child to cancer. It is not: your experience is your experience.”
She also notes that the symptoms of your expectation hangover are tied to the feelings you weren’t willing or able to face in the past.
She suggests doing an exercise called “release writing” to process your emotions. This includes writing for a minimum of 10 minutes (set a timer).
Before writing, put your hand on your heart to connect with your compassion and unconditional love. Then write whatever comes to mind. Hassler includes these prompts to help you get started:
- I’m angry because …
- I’m sad because …
- I’m ashamed because …
- I’m disappointed because …
- I’m scared because …
- I feel guilty because …
As you write, don’t edit yourself, or analyze. After you’re done writing, put your hand on your heart again, take a deep breath, and connect to the love inside you. Acknowledge your courage in working on this exercise.
Next either rip up the paper in tiny pieces or burn it. This helps you to fully release the energy of your emotions. Then wash your hands up to your elbows.
Finally, reflect on the experience in your journal.
2. Release guilt and regret.
During an expectation hangover, we tend to dwell in regret. As Hassler writes, “we replay scenarios over and over in our head, thinking of all the things we could have done or said, which is miserable.” We ruminate about our decisions and berate ourselves for not picking a different choice, judging ourselves for something we did in the past after knowing all the information in the present.
We also might experience guilt, believing we made a mistake or did something wrong. This stops us from moving forward. “If you drove your car by only looking in the rearview mirror, would you ever get to your destination?” Hassler writes.
To release guilt and regret Hassler suggests first thinking about what you feel guilty or regretful about. Then write about it. Write about the details, your thoughts and beliefs about the experience. Focus on exploring your thoughts and experience, and avoid judging yourself. Then ask yourself these questions:
- What did I learn about myself?
- What did I learn about someone else or a situation?
- How would I like to behave differently in the future?
Next, based on the lessons you’ve learned, think about the commitment (or commitments) you’d like to make to yourself about how you’ll act in the future. Avoid absolutes such as “always” or “never,” and focus on what feels encouraging.
These are several examples from Hassler’s clients: “I vow to tell the truth even if it feels scary for me;” “I promise myself to only pursue romantic relationships with available people;” “I promise to show up fully in my relationship with family members and tell them I love them every day.”
When you have your commitment or commitments, write it down, sign it and date it. “Say it out loud in front of a mirror to truly hold yourself accountable and anchor this sacred process.”
3. Observe, and adjust your behavior.
When we’re disappointed we might find ourselves not doing anything at all or behaving in ways that don’t create healthy or meaningful change. In another exercise Hassler suggests pretending you’re a scientist and paying attention to your behavior, formulating hypotheses about healthier habits and testing out your speculations.
First, observe your own behavior for a week. These are some of the questions Hassler suggests reflecting on in your journal: What am I doing or not doing that’s exacerbating the symptoms of my expectation hangover? What actions am I taking that are resulting in different outcomes than what I expect? What am I telling myself? How am I talking about myself and my life to others? How am I taking care of myself?
Next, based on your observations, formulate hypotheses about what you think will help you create healthier and more meaningful habits. For instance, you can use these prompts: “If I stop doing … then …”; “If I start doing … then …”; “If I start talking about … rather than …, then …”
Finally, begin testing your hypotheses to determine what behaviors help you move out of your expectation hangover.
When you feel disappointed because something didn’t happen or because it did but you’re surprisingly dissatisfied, it helps to remember that disappointments are really opportunities.
They’re opportunities to learn about ourselves, our needs, and our wants, and to create meaningful change in our lives.