The Four Faces of Disappointment

(Want the TL;DR? Download the Four Faces of Disappointment cheat sheet.)

This week, one particularly disappointing event left me feeling uncertain and stuck for the better part of a day. I was surprised and even betrayed by my own paralysis, frustrated that I had allowed my feelings to keep me from moving forward.

Once I gained a bit of distance from what happened, I began thinking about how I, and then how others, respond to disappointment. As I started identifying patterns of behavior, I recognized four approaches that create the Four Faces of Disappointment. The Four Faces are based on two factors — who we blame when things go wrong, and how we process unwanted emotions.

By becoming aware of the Four Faces, we are better able to manage our response to disappointment. But first, let’s take a close look at the two factors — blame and emotional processing.

The Blame Game

When disappointment strikes, our instinct is to figure out what went wrong so that it doesn’t happen again. The mind is a great meaning-making machine, and as it tries to make sense of what happened, we can unwittingly fall into the blame game. When it comes to blame, people typically handle it in one of two ways — they blame themselves or they blame others.

Self-blamers accept full responsibility for what went wrong and blame themselves. They turn the focus inward, examining every thing they said or did that could have caused the disappointing outcome. For example, the entrepreneur whose prospective client rejects her proposal might think that she priced herself too high, or the guy who doesn’t get the second date might believe he said the wrong thing.

Other-blamers point the focus towards outside circumstances to explain the cause of the disappointment. It could be another person (“He’s crazy to turn down my offer!”), place (“This town is too small to find a good date!”), or event (“If my prototype hadn’t broken, I would have landed the deal!”). Whatever the source, the cause rests solely outside of the disappointed person, and therefore it’s not their fault.

Of course, none of us are entirely self- or other-focused when it comes to blame, and how we respond is based in part on our circumstances. However, most of us lean more towards one than the other, and by knowing our tendency, we gain more control over our response.

It’s a Process

Disappointment (and all of the other unwanted emotions that come with it) isn’t a pleasant feeling. It hurts, and when we experience pain, we want to make it go away. Our meaning-making mind wants to make sense of those painful feelings — to process them — in order to prevent them from happening again.

So when we have an emotion we don’t want, such as disappointment, we tend to fall in one of two categories — we are either self-oriented or other-oriented in how we process emotions.

Self-oriented processors retreat inside themselves to make sense of the disappointment, allowing their focus to move inward as they process their thoughts and feelings. They need ample time and space for inner reflection to achieve resolution.

Other-oriented processors work through their disappointment by sharing their thoughts and feelings with other people. They find value in talking through a problem and derive benefit from having someone else serve as a sounding board.

Again, no one is completely self- or other-oriented, and many of us rely on a combination of both in order to reconcile our unwanted emotions. However, as with blame, we often tend towards one or the other, and knowing our tendency can help us effectively handle disappointment.

The Four Faces of Disappointment

Based on your blame and processing tendencies, you likely tend towards one of the Four Faces of Disappointment — the Recluse, the Confider, the Seether, or the Confronter.

The Recluse is the self-blamer/self-oriented processor. When they are disappointed, they blame themselves and work through those feelings through contemplation and self-reflection.

The Confider is the self-blamer/other-oriented processor. They blame themselves and are compelled to share their feelings of guilt and shame with others when disappointment strikes.

The Seether is the other-blamer/self-oriented processor. When they experience disappointment, they hold others responsible but keep that belief to themselves, preferring to work through it alone.

The Confronter is the other-blamer/other-oriented processor. They blame others for the disappointing outcome and share that belief outwardly, including towards those they deem responsible.

(Click here to download a cheat sheet to the Four Faces of Disappointment.)

While some people clearly identify with one of the Four Faces, others may embody different faces based on circumstances and relationships. For example, you may be a Recluse in your professional life, blaming yourself when problems arise and working through it in your inner world. However, you may tend to be a Confronter with your partner, blaming them for unwanted outcomes and needing to talk through your feelings.

Next Steps

Although you likely identify with one or two of the Four Faces, you’re not destined to that behavior forever. In fact, when we know our tendency, we become aware of how it serves us — and how it keeps us stuck.

In my upcoming posts, I’ll detail the problems and pitfalls each of the Four Faces may experience, and a roadmap through disappointment for each one. In the meantime, download a free cheat sheet for the Four Faces of Disappointment, and let me know which of them resonate with you.