Creating New Pathways Through Disappointment
I was given a beautiful gift. I was invited by a client to walk with her as she processed feelings of great disappointment. She had been invited to apply for a new position. As a talented and hardworking professional she saw this as a great next step in her career. After a lengthy interview process, she was not selected. The gift that was revealed to me as I held space for her to process her disappointment was a renewed awareness around the mayhem our thoughts create when we are feeling vulnerable. I invited her to speak freely about the thoughts running through her brain. It was clear she had chosen to walk down a very unpleasant path of self-doubt around her intelligence, decision-making, and value. She was choosing this moment as an opportunity to revisit old disappointments that she had not yet let go of. She was reopening old wounds to provide evidence that she wasn’t enough.
The joy and excitement she had experienced just a few hours before getting the news was completely gone. The hopefulness of a bright future and the pride of her accomplishments were banished from her consciousness.
I listened as she flogged herself with false statement like, “I’m an idiot,” “I feel foolish,” and “I should have known better.” I watched her sink deeper and deeper into shame, regret, and fear by embracing the self-inflicted beating as if it were deserved. I stepped out of my observer/listener role with a simple question, “Is it really true that you are a fool for getting excited about this opportunity?”
With this simple question we began the process of building a new pathway, a nurturing, loving pathway where disappointment becomes a learning experience and discomfort becomes opportunity for growth. A pathway where outcomes that are different than what you hoped for become places for gathering new information and clarifying what you truly want and need.
Through out our conversation she was able to turn this experience around from “I was a fool to get excited” to “This experience helps me better understand where I want to go next with my work. I am grateful.” But the bigger and even more valuable lesson was that she gets to choose the pathway she walks when things turn out differently than she hoped. And going after new opportunities can be, if she chooses, nurturing, loving, and even fun—regardless of the outcome.
As so often happens with my clients, her learning was a mirror for my own processes and growth. I am thankful be invited to be present.
Might she (we or I) slip back onto our old pathways? Of course. Old pathways temporarily feel comforting in the same way it feels to keep checking on a toothache by biting it. However, the relief (or release) in finding a new pathway is satisfying in a sustainable way! Choosing a pathway that includes feeling disappointment but also following up with reflection, learning, and transferring our learning to new situations helps us get closer to understanding to how we most want to live our lives.
Where do you go with your thoughts when things don’t turn out as you’d hoped they might?
Do you view the experience as the victim whose pride was trampled, who was betrayed, or who passively awaits an apology or for someone else to make you okay again?
Or do you take on the villain role, turning into an enraged person who just wants revenge or to intimidate those who you perceived wronged you?
Maybe you become the self-appointed hero, pledging action to save everyone from similar fates, but in reality you get further from what you actually desire?
The victim, the villain, and the hero roles have a dark side in which we can get stuck for years. We all know people who haven’t move forward from past disappointments: the co-worker we avoid having lunch with because we just can’t hear about the promotion they didn’t get (one more time), or our friend—the jilted lover—who is fixated on their ex and their life, never rebuilding their own happiness.
I find myself adopting many of these roles before I catch myself. Stopping and turning around thinking errors takes practice and requires having a go-to tool. I recommend using the question that comes from “The Work” by Byron Katie. Katie tells us to isolate a single negative thought and ask the question, “Is this thought absolutely true?” I was working with another client just the other day who shared a cautionary and fearful narrative about what might happen if her boss, who she feared was being wronged by the leadership of the organization, chose to leave. Her story was filled with doom and gloom scenarios. It was also filled with inaccuracies that had been conveyed to her through gossip.
After bearing witness to and holding space for her to share her narrative, I asked a simple question, “Is it absolutely true that the organization will not exist without _____?”
She paused and responded, “No. It is not absolutely true.”
I could feel her actually relax and breathe for the first time since we started our conversation. Now we had a new pathway to explore aside from the pathway she had been walking, which was full of fear. She had come to me as the hero advocating for her boss as a strategy to relieve her own feelings of confusion, fear, and disappointment.
Learning to question your own thoughts brings relief. The client in the story at the beginning of this article had been rejected for a position she desired. The position represented an acknowledgement of her hard work. It represented what is possible for her. In viewing the rejection, she went into victim mode. “I’m an idiot. No one will ever see my talents.” “They don’t think I’m good enough.” In essence, everyone is doing this to me.
When we were able to ask the question “Is it absolutely true that they didn’t think you were good enough?” she was able to answer with a definitive no. She was actually invited to apply, so they did think she was good enough. She decided to step out of the victim role and instead ask for feedback on where she could improve when another similar opportunity comes.
What limiting thought has you stuck? Is it absolutely true?