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New Year, Same Problems: How To Deal With Disappointment

Woman social distancing looking out window.

Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • It's normal to experience feelings of disappointment as the pandemic rages on.
  • There are steps you can take to cope, like practicing gratitude, adjusting your expectations, and taking charge of what you can currently control.

With a global pandemic, a highly politicized election cycle, and holidays sans the usual traditions, it’s understandable that you might feel a sense of disappointment in the first few days of 2021. After all, the start of a new year often comes hand in hand with the promise of better days ahead.

Yet 2021 is here and nothing much seems to have changed: the rate of coronavirus infection is higher than ever and vaccinations against COVID-19 are rolling out slower than anticipated. It's normal to mourn the plans you’ve had to cancel over the past year or the goals you've had to put aside for now.

We spoke to some experts on how to cope with these feelings of disappointment in the new year.

What This Means For You

There’s so much we can’t control during a pandemic, but there are ways to manage your subsequent feelings of disappointment. Try practicing gratitude, adjusting your expectations, or working to change what is in your control.

Understanding Expectations

"Understanding disappointment is the first step to mastering its unpleasant side effects," relationship consultant Janice Presser, PhD, tells Verywell. "We’re all disappointed when our expectations aren’t met, no matter what they are. And that’s where our real power is: our expectations are within our own control, even when our external circumstances are not."

Presser says, no matter the type of disappointment we're facing, we can often make matters worse for ourselves. "We may tend to complicate things even further with self-blame rather than reset our expectations," she says. "Why? It’s easier!"

The pandemic itself is hindering our traditional forms of coping with unmet expectations. "Most of us learn to deal with the occasional unmet expectation because, under ordinary circumstances, they don’t happen all the time," Presser says. "When it’s something more global—a pandemic, for instance—our entire world is turned upside down. Even the ordinary expectations we’ve come to expect to be fulfilled, albeit imperfectly, may be impossible to satisfy. This sets us up for constant disappointment, even while the unrelenting stress causes us to want perfection even more."

Altering the way you understand your own expectations can be a first step to feeling better. "Resetting expectations requires some self-examination—some real effort to change how we evaluate a situation," she says. "By contrast, the pain of unmet expectations can easily become familiar, therefore more tolerable."

How To Curb Your Disappointment

How can we move forward? Cautious optimism may be the answer. "One of the hardest things is not knowing when a hard time will end," Dove Pressnall, MA, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles, tells Verywell. "I see people set plans for themselves, assuming the pandemic will be over and then being disappointed over and over. A balance of realism and optimism—being able to see our challenges and losses with clear eyes while at the same time holding the belief that we will get through and be 'all right' in the end—lets us make better decisions in the moment without getting too caught up in our current difficulties or future plans."

Practicing gratitude in your daily life can also help soothe those feelings of disappointment. "Focusing on what we have to be grateful for is psychologically protective and, in the context of overwhelming death and hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping perspective can help us feel better," Pressnall says. "At the same time, it's important to not try to ignore the real, day-to-day stress and distress we are experiencing as the result of things outside our control."

Presser outlines three steps you can take to overcome your overwhelming disappointment:

  1. Start by figuring out what you can make less disappointing, and what is beyond your control. (You can’t control a virus, but you can master safety protocols and make others feel safer when you’re around.)
  2. Allow yourself a limited amount of time to worry, be angry, cry, and complain. Note: limited time.
  3. Use that time to decide if there is a workaround for whatever is disappointing you, and then figure out how to put it into action.

"While it’s been a longer, harder time than most people expected, this too shall pass," Presser says. "And, all the exercising you’ve done—strengthening your ability to convert disappointment into action—will serve you well into the future."

It's important to be gentle with yourself throughout this process. A recent study on goal pursuits found backward planning can help people stay motivated too. To backward plan, researchers suggest picturing a time in the future when you have accomplished your goal, then, working backwards, note the steps necessary to reach your goal.

This can be as simple as: when the pandemic is over, I want to go to a cafe and have a cup of tea. I can have a cup of tea when the numbers drop. The numbers will drop when we get the virus spread under control. The virus spread will get under control when people like me stay at home. I’ll have a cup of tea at home now, but I know that in time I’ll be able to enjoy a cup of tea at my favorite cafe.

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  1. Park J, Lu F-C, Hedgcock WM. Relative effects of forward and backward planning on goal pursuitPsychol Sci. 2017;28(11):1620-1630. doi:10.1177%2F0956797617715510