This is the fifth in a series on feelings. We have previously noted that this whole matter of “feelings” is murky and prone to misunderstanding. We have looked at emotions (fear, anger, joy, and sadness) to start with and then have proceeded to discuss the whole difficult business of communicating feelings, which is fraught with challenge. The present discussion is an addendum to understanding feelings, particularly how one “feels” when one is disappointed. An important aspect of “feelings” is that the term is not truly definable. The best we can do is to say that it is important, universal among humans and very possibly among many animal species. Feelings are important because they comprise one of the three basic elements of human psychological function, the other two being thinking and doing. It is not so much in the field of thinking and doing that we get into trouble. It is in the area of feelings.
Feelings and words
Let’s review just a bit before we go on to deal with disappointment, which is our present topic. Feelings, however murky and undefinable, begin with emotions, and very possibly with some kind of visceral experience in our bodies. This is the “gut level feeling” you have, or perhaps more accurately the sense that something is happening to you that you can’t quite put a name to. So we call this something-is-happening a feeling, or sometimes in the plural, feelings. There is an emotional and possibly a physical substrate to feelings, but then our minds wonder about and we have some random thoughts about this feeling. We might come up with a few words, but more often we “just feel” something that seems important. One of the things we discussed previously in these Feelings Blogs is that there are no perfect words for feelings, and very few exact words. So we are left with a situation where we feel something, possibly important, but we don’t know exactly what the emotion is behind it nor the cause of the emotion. All we know is that we feel something and feel compelled to put this feeling into words. In Feelings II we discussed how difficult to put feelings into words, but simultaneously how important it seems to us to do so.
Let’s be reminded that there are many ways of expressing feelings that are not verbal, or not verbal in the sense of a conversation. Poets might be the best wordsmiths when it comes to feelings, and musicians may be the next best, particularly those who write musical lyrics. Other artists, like painters and sculptors, also express feelings nonverbally, as do architects and interior designers and basketball players. One of my basketball buddies described a “go to the hoop layup” as a “thing of beauty.” Feelings come to us and we express them in our own manner, especially when the feelings are rich and pleasurable. But our focus right now is on the feeling of disappointment, something that is not easy to successfully communicate verbally.
This is a feeling word that I think is extremely important for us to (1) understand, (2) use with caution, and (3) hear with diligence. A couple weeks ago when we were “up north” at our cabin, Deb said she was disappointed in something I did or didn’t do. Now, two weeks past I cannot recall what I did or didn’t do. Interestingly, neither can she. But I do remember her saying she was disappointed. I remember we were on the paddle boat when she expressed her disappointment, but I can’t remember the content of this feeling.
Consider with me the whole array of thoughts, feelings, and actions associated with being disappointed: Doing: I did something or didn’t do something; Thinking: I probably thought what I did or didn’t do was the right thing to do; Feeling: Deb felt disappointed. Sound familiar? It should. It happens quite regularly in all of our lives. Because I am now in the enviable position of not remembering what she was disappointed about, nor is she, I can speak without particular emotion. But that surely wasn’t the case when she said she was disappointed in me. As soon as she said she expressed her feelings of disappointment (her feelings) I felt hurt.
Hurt people always hurt other people. You can remember that from previous blogs. This means that when people are hurt, they usually hurt someone else, very often the person who caused the offense. Deb was disappointed, and in her stating her feelings I in turn got hurt. I don’t know how or why I originally disappointed Deb, but I did disappoint her in what I did, and in so doing, I hurt her. Deb was hurt, got disappointed, spoke it, and then I got hurt. This is how it happens, most of the time. One person is hurt, usually unintentionally, and then in dealing with their hurt, hurts the person who hurt them. I know it sounds “crazy”, but this is the hardest thing to comprehend and accept. We discussed this hurt-people-hurt-people phenomenon in previous Feelings blogs so I won’t belabor the point here. I want to emphasize that disappointment comes first in the form of hurt. Quite importantly, I didn’t intend to hurt Deb, but to go further in understanding hurt and disappointment, I have to acknowledge that I hurt her in some way, actively (doing something) or passively (not doing something).
Speaking disappointment (Use with Caution)
Here is where most people get in trouble, but here also is where we could really come together in understanding each other. If you have read the previous blogs, you will remember that when I speak my “feelings” to someone, I am speaking about myself. Or I should be. Very often, sadly, this expression of feelings is about the other person. Recall (from a previous Feelings blog) the lady who said she “spoke her feelings quite clearly” when she told her husband that he was a jerk when he failed to turn on the car seat heater for her when he got in the car after turning the heater on for his seat. She thought she expressed her feelings. She didn’t. She expressed anger at her husband and railed at his character as I remember. But what had really happened: she had an expectation that he would be kind and think of her when he got in the car; she was disappointed when that didn’t happen; she was hurt; and then, sadly, she lashed out at him rather than saying how she truly felt. She was disappointed.
Whether the car seat heater, or another of a myriad of things that have caused hurt and disappointment, the real task is to speak disappointment first and foremost. Having said this, however, we are in swampy grounds because very few people know how to do speak their feelings, much less hear it from other people. To begin with you have to know that you are hurt and disappointed. Please review this matter of knowing that your hurt in Feelings 2 and Feelings 4 To be successful in this endeavor you will have to realize that your feelings are important, that you had an expectation that someone would do something (or perhaps that something would happen), and it didn’t happen. As a result you were hurt. Thus, despite it sounding and seeming narcissistic to say so, disappointment is all about you in this very important aspect of feelings. You feel hurt. You feel disappointed. You Feel. Important. Very important. Next, you have to say it. You need to learn to be brave in expressing your feelings and then learn how to speak them clearly. So say it, say it clearly, and say it without fear thoroughly remembering that you are talking about you, your feelings, your value system, your expectation, and your hurt. But remember, this is half the battle. It is not the end of the battle however. This half-battle could turn into a full-fledged war because when you say you are disappointed, your friend will have an important feeling: hurt. You have to be prepared for the resulting offence felt by the person you’re talking to.
There is no way getting around this phenomenon. It is not something to be avoided. It is something to be aware of. So if you’re going to express disappointment, it behooves you to make it clear that this is your feeling, your hurt, your expectation, and your disappointment. Most likely, however, it won’t matter how you take ownership of your feelings, your friend will also be hurt. You need to know that this is part of being human and being in a relationship with another human being. We all get hurt rather frequently and rather easily. The best thing we can do, and certainly the first, is to recognize that if I say I am disappointed in you, my statement will hurt you.
You must realize that in speaking your disappointment, the person who has disappointed you will mostly likely defend their action compared to a matured response of containing their hurt and just hearing you out. So, unless you are lucky enough to express your disappointment to an emotionally mature person, she or he will say something hurtful back to you, or at the very least make some defense at having done (or not done) what s/he did (or didn’t do). If you express your disappointment, you will have to wander in this swamp for a while until the two of you can come to a better understanding of one another. You can further the process of understanding by focusing on how you are “just talking about my feelings” and not really talking about them or their actions. If you stick with your feelings, your expectations, your hurt, and your disappointment, you will then avoid the focus being on what your friend did or didn’t do that disappointed you. Re-read Feelings II: expressing feelings for some recommendations.
If you stick with your feelings, your expectations, your hurt, and your disappointment, you will then avoid the focus being on what your friend did or didn’t do that disappointed you.
This is very hard as we discussed in Feelings II, but it is essential to learn how to do this. Or come to our office and we will help you learn to do it. First you recognize your hurt and all that goes with it like your value system and your expectations. Then you can say something about what actually happened (or didn’t happen), but spend a little time as possible on what s/he did. The rest is up to your friend.
Hearing disappointment (Hearing with Diligence)
Here I speak to the person hearing the disappointment. Disappointment is always hard to hear. It is no easy task. You will be hurt, which is most important to know and note. You will be sad, which is even more important. You will be hurt and sad because you love (to some degree) the person who is disappointed in you. Furthermore, you very well may not have done (or failed to do) what your friend expected of you. You probably did your best. Maybe you just forgot. Maybe you worked hard at doing this thing right. Maybe you really don’t care much about what you did. None of this matters in the long run. What matters is that if your friend says s/he is disappointed in you, you will be hurt, and you have to contend with that fact. Once you recognize the hurt factor, you can move forward. If you fail to recognize the hurt factor, you will defend and explain what and why you did what you did, which will only make matters worse. I like to think the best of people: you intended to do the right thing. Maybe you actually did the right thing and your friend has a different perspective. Maybe you thinks you did something that you actually didn’t do. This doesn’t matter at the time of disappointment and hurt. The facts don’t matter when it comes to feelings. It’s the feelings that matter. The particulars can be discussed later. What you need to discuss at this point is the hurt factor, first your friend’s hurt, and then speak your hurt, hopefully without defensiveness. Your hurt then would sound more like “I am so sorry to disappoint you. It saddens me. You are important to me. Again, I am sorry. I don’t want to hurt you. And obviously, even though I didn’t intend to hurt you, I did.”
It is very hard to govern your reaction to someone being disappointed in you. It is hard primarily because you are hurt and secondarily because you intended to do the right thing. You can serve your friend, serve yourself, and serve your relationship by forestalling your explanation and defense and focus on what your friend feels. And then on what you feel.
Previous Blogs on Feelings (I, II, III, IV)
Damasio, A.R. Descartes’ error. NY: Putnam’s Publishing
Hillman, J. (1971). The feeling function. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications
LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. NY: Simon and Schuster
Powell, J. (1969). Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? Allen, TX: Tabor Publishing