Are you disappointed with:
*The size of your last raise?
*The grades your children brought home from school?
*The new car?
*The year 1985?
Like death, disappointments are a certainty. And like taxes, they seem to be on the rise, says clinical psychologist David Brandt. If you are lucky, you get over them quickly; if you aren't so fortunate, you dwell on your disappointments, making yourself miserable, tense and depressed.
From Thanksgiving through January, the dissatisfactions seem to hit more often and harder, sending many scurrying to psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health counselors, says Brandt, whose book, Is That All There Is? Overcoming Disappointment in an Age of Diminished Expectations (Pocket Books, $3.95, 1985), is the result of years of research and talking to people about the letdowns of life. "People invest a lot of time and energy in their holiday season fantasies," says Brandt. "Then their spouses, children and friends don't always measure up."
He defines disappointment: "A state of unhappiness brought on by the failure to satisfy a hope, desire, dream or expectation."
"It is one of the oldest experiences," says Brandt. "It is a universal experience. It creates a sense of loss -- not of an object, not of a person, but of an idea. With that idea can go enthusiasm and direction."
To heal from disappointment, he says, you must pass through stages -- a natural progression of internal events: expectation denied, alarm, resistance, resignation, acceptance.
Disappointment can be experienced many times in a day or week. The big ones are unmistakable -- You are passed over for a promotion or your love interest says "no" when you say "marriage." But disappointment often comes in small packages, says Brandt, minor losses that scarcely seem to matter:
*It rains the night of the big dance.
*Your spouse cancels plans for dinner out to work late.
*The car dealer tells you the model you want is back-ordered.
Like a common cold, a little bit of low-grade disappointment can be tolerated, says Brandt. But when the feelings of hurt, anger, resentment, sadness and self-pity caused by continual disappointment are allowed to fester, it can affect your outlook, thinking, behavior, facial expression, posture, breathing, even your threshold for pain. The stress that accumulates can bring on headaches, backaches and ulcers.
Brandt's study of disappointment started with his own experience. "I seemed to be going through something that was much more than a midlife passage," says the 40-year-old San Franciscan. "I found my life filled with chronic dissatisfaction and disappointment.
"Prior to this time, I had these feelings only intermittently and considered them par for the course. Now they seemed prolonged and deep. Every galaxy in my universe was tinged with the pallor of failed wishes. I also realized I was not alone. My patients were complaining about it as well, suffering through it without calling it by its proper name.
"It wasn't something they openly discussed with family and friends. It would have been like complaining about ingrown toenails. You know it hurts, but who cares to hear it."
In talking with approximately 150 people -- of various ages and incomes, mostly in New York and California -- Brandt isolated four central arenas of disappointment:
*Relationships: Disappointments pertaining to self, partner, functioning of the "we."
*Sexuality: Disappointments pertaining to a loss of romance, desire or ability.
*Work: Disappointments pertaining to salary, recognition, meaning, a job that has become too routine or too specialized.
*Family: Disappointments pertaining to conflict, or too little caring, closeness or loyalty.
"Within these arenas we live our lives, expending most of our energy and time," says Brandt. "From each, we take some measure of our sense of worth and self-esteem. When things go smoothly, we feel good. When there is difficulty in one or more, our sense of self is undermined and we may doubt our ability to cope."
Brandt also identified three personality styles that suffer the most intensely from disappointment:
*The Acquiescent: This individual has no expectations of his own. He strives to meet those of others -- parents, sisters, brothers, spouse, children, teachers, boss, coworkers. Approval is his number-one priority. It is foolish and self-defeating to try to please all of the people all of the time, says Brandt.
*The Deprived: He suffered a serious disappointment early in life and, as a defense mechanism, now walks around expecting the worst. If the worst happens, he says, "I told you so!" But most of the time it doesn't. Says Brandt, if you are always looking up waiting for a piano to fall on your head, it puts quite a crimp in your neck.
*The Self-Important: This individual feels special and entitled to VIP treatment. He doesn't like to wait in line at the bank or be seated at an out-of-the-way table at a restaurant. As a child, he was emotionally gratified, constantly and immediately. Now, he is defeated by the human condition because his expectations are overblown and egocentric.
Beyond personality style are other forces that can bring on disappointment, says Brandt. Various stages of life, from infancy to old age, are filled with developmental challenges or "passages" that can diminish hope and dreams. Less predictable, he adds, are socially induced forces that cause the "Big D." Among them:
*Madison Avenue Admakers. They convince you that by buying a particular product, your life will be happier, handsomer, sexier, more fulfilled. So you buy their products. After the novelty wears off, says Brandt, you find that your life is no different than before.
*Television: That the average American family watches seven hours of television a day, says Brandt, is bound to have a strong influence. Television and movies present a view of life that is overdrawn and exaggerated, portraying highlights without the duller moments. By comparison, daily living seems mundane. You've never seen the hero floss his teeth or the heroine divide laundry. You watch the opulence on "Dynasty" or "Dallas" and can't help but covet the same cars, clothes, furs, jewels and homes. Even more down-to-earth programs like "The Cosby Show" and "Family Ties" treat you to a distorted view of reality: Does anyone in your neighborhood neatly solve family problems in 30 minutes or less?
*Economic Ups and Downs: Everyone from the 6-year-old who didn't get a pony for his birthday to the 60-year-old who must scrimp during upcoming retirement years has had dreams thwarted by economics. The 76 million "baby boomers" are particularly susceptible, says Brandt. No other group has had as much privilege and advantage. Raised on pablum and promises of the best care, clothes, food, housing, education, they grew up with expectations of easy success and are now finding it rougher than anticipated.