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(December 2007)

Not Sweating the Small Stuff

Small disappointments occur on a daily if not hourly basis.  Bad hair days.  A silent phone when a call from a new love interest was expected.  The prime project at work assigned to a co-worker.  A much-anticipated event cancelled.  A higher than usual gas and electric bill that means no dinners out this month.  A half-pound gain instead of the expected one-pound loss on the scales.

Most of us feel that small sting of disappointment and then move on.  But this depends on how the disappointment affects us.  When how our hair turns out or our current weight is linked to our self-esteem, a bad hair day or a half-pound gain in weight may mean the cancellation of an important social event.  If being rejected for the plum office project brings up feelings of being discriminated against on the basis of our race or gender, feelings of anger and hurt may lead us to considering retaliation or resignation.

So the definition of small stuff is very much in the eye of the beholder.   

What About the Big Stuff?

The big stuff has to do with our deepest desires, our need to feel a part of the society we live in, and our basic human needs.

Most of us haven’t had to worry where the next meal will come from or whether we have clean water to drink.  But we are reminded by the recent tragedy of Hurricane Katrina that we are just as vulnerable as any third world country (in the victims’ opinions even more vulnerable!) when it comes to basic needs.  Certainly families born into or falling into poverty in this country know this first hand.

But beyond the basic needs are our expectations that we will achieve what we assume the majority of others in our society have achieved.  We will marry.  We will have children.  With hard work and thrift we will be able to purchase a home.  I recall an article back in the 1990s about how we were entering an era of envy.  Envy of homeowners by the larger and larger proportion of our society who will never be able to afford a home of their own.  Envy of parents by those who waited longer to start a family and found themselves sterile.  Envy of the single of all ages of those married—even unhappily.

Acceptance of one’s status—childless, single, renter—for the long term is much more of a challenge than overcoming a momentary disappointment.  Just like accepting any other permanent loss there is a grief process.  Disbelief, bargaining with God, anger, and depression are part of that process.  Scott Peck in his book The Road Less Traveled defined maturity as the ability to successfully overcome or somehow deal with life’s continuous stream of losses.     

What Are Some Tricks of the Trade In Dealing With Disappointment?

Let’s talk about learning how to avoid the Three P’s.

Personalization.  This is where we assume our fate is linked to who we are as an individual.  Feeling picked on by God or anyone else deepens any wound.   Learning to maintain a perspective that many others experience the same outcomes softens the hurt and even motivates us to join forces in support groups or political movements.

Pervasiveness.  This is where we decide that our one disappointment affects every corner of our life.  Is it possible to focus on our successes?  If our hair isn’t perfect, can we celebrate the great color of our eyes?  If owning a home isn’t on the horizon, can we fix up our rental just the way we’d like?  I recall shortly after my divorce in 1985 when I lived in an apartment that was dark and dingy, I’d spend Saturdays looking at model homes I couldn’t possibly afford and felt more and more depressed.  One Saturday I realized that the reason I liked those model homes is that they were so clean and neat.  I went home and spent two days straightening and cleaning, adding a few decorator touches from the dollar store, doing what we now call “staging” a home, and voilá!  I had suddenly wiped away a major disappointment.

Persistence.  This is when we convince ourselves that our fate will be the same the rest of our lives.  If there’s anything we know for sure is that life will never stay the same.  We negate the power of prayer and the nature of life itself when we decide our fate is sealed because of a disappointment in the present.

If we can talk ourselves out of thinking today’s disappointment is personal, pervasive, or persistent, we can then become activated to move forward, to come up with a Plan B that may be ever so more satisfying than Plan A ever thought of being. 

So try a new P word—POSSIBILITY!