We all know the raw, painful residue of disappointment that is left in the wake of dashed dreams and fallen hopes. A developmental overview helps us to understand this feeling. Consider how children, who, of course, become adults, respond when their trust and expectations are betrayed or met with rejection or scorn. Young children lean toward openness. They develop character and evolve ideals through identification with the people they look up to — most significantly, their parents. By nature, children reveal themselves and connect with others. Children must also learn that together with openness comes vulnerability. This is a necessary fact of life. Inevitably, either specific conditions or the behavior of people closest to them will fail to validate their hopes and desires. When this happens, the way small children try to make sense of their situation is by believing that their thoughts or actions caused whatever went wrong to happen. However self-important and magical such thinking seems, this is how children connect cause and effect. An angry thought causes a sibling to get sick; a naughty deed triggers a typhoon.
Several defensive responses branch off from that notion of responsibility. Some children internalize the idea that disappointment, or even tragedy, is the result of their own wrongdoing. This leads them to feel scared or ashamed. For example, young children whose parents divorce typically feel that their angry feelings or errant behaviors are to blame for the rift in their family. While this flawed logic gives them some sense of control in a ruptured world, it also burdens them with a fear of their own power. They perceive criticism from others as further confirmation of how bad they are, and they are likely to feel humiliated. Other children respond to disappointment by withdrawal. This defensive style may lead them to pull away from those closest to them, and it sets up a life-long pattern of rebuffing intimacy with others. In an effort to retake control, such children may develop a pattern of teasing or bullying more vulnerable peers. Or, their defense of mocking may harden over time into cynicism.
From a more positive perspective, children who are fortunate to have a robust, buoyant sense of self are better able to wall off specific disappointments and reinstall their hopes into new relationships and ideals. These children have the capacity to separate loss or setback, however difficult, from the totality of their existence and worth. Their capacity for denial is a healthy adaptation to frustration or disillusionment.
Psychoanalysis has focused too much on the negative aspects of denial. For sure, hypertrophied denial — when a protective mechanism, such as denial, becomes overgrown and distorts experience — influences how people avoid reality and make unwise choices. The teenager who smokes does not believe that she will get emphysema; the adult who engages in an ethical breach is sure that he will escape detection. But another, more positive side of denial deserves consideration. This view realizes that denial, along with faith, is the only mechanism we have for handling the absurdity of facing life with the knowledge of our own inevitable deaths.
At the beginning of life, almost all change is good. We look forward to milestones and achievements — graduating from school, going on a vacation, getting married, building a career. We thrive on anticipation and hope for the future. Toward the end of life, that window closes. Most changes lessen our capacity for a vibrant life. The essential positive power of denial allows us to wall off the fact of mortality, to find meaning in our lives, and to make a difference in the world. Denial is a powerful gift in the human psyche that helps us to transcend the looming abyss of mortality as well as to overcome the smaller but poignant individual disappointments of everyday life.
The most painful disappointments are personal and proximal. We feel worse when our own child gets in an accident that we believe we could have prevented than when harm befalls children far away. But we can also feel disillusioned by society — by political or religious leaders, especially if we invested time and effort in a campaign or project and identified with the leader’s goals. Denial helps us to separate from the ruminative thinking of, “If only I had done it differently.” Denial allows us to say to ourselves, “I did the best I could,” and then to sidestep shame, avoid depression, and move on to the next moment.
A healthy psychic toolbox contains many strategies that help with disappointment. For example, the capacity to separate a part from the whole underwrites the oft-quoted school adage, “You did a wrong thing.” This is in contrast to the wholesale condemnation: “You are a bad child.” Humor allows us to lighten disappointment with a momentary joke. Altruism rewards our efforts for the greater good by providing a sense of personal pleasure.
These and other mechanisms help us to regroup after disappointment, to take stock of our goals, and to reinvest in new leaders and projects. By restoring our bruised psyches, we gather our strength, survey the landscape of our lives and dreams, and try again.email print