Children and Adolescents, Positive mental health

26 August, 2015

Coping with disappointment and failure

Professor Jim Lucey explores how we can improve our responses to disappointment by taking control over our thought processes.

Disappointing events do not cause depression. Instead, depression may be caused by the way we perceive our disappointments. In the past, it was believed that depressed people had more negative thoughts because their mood was so low. Now, we understand that it is negative thinking that maintains depressed mood. This objective understanding paved the way for new and more effective therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based CBT and, more recently, dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT).

Disappointments need to be acknowledged.

Unfortunately, some of us are more likely than others to misinterpret disappointment. Depression arises when we fail to process disappointing information correctly. Such depression is especially likely if we generalise from a setback, or magnify its significance. We may become depressed if we personalise a disappointment or selectively infer a meaning from some aspect of a disappointing experience (without considering other more positive data in our lives). Cognitive responses such as these have been called “ logical errors of thinking”. These “errors” may seem justified at the time, but, objectively, they are false mental positions that only serve to generate more negative conclusions. These negative positions cause us to feel more downcast and so disable our ability to bounce back!

Take for example the disappointment of not getting a new job. In reality, a disappointment (such as not getting a longed-for promotion or failing to be appointed to a hoped-for new position) says as much about the employer as it does about the candidate. The overall merits of any candidate for any position have only partial bearing on an employer's decision to employ a certain person. An employer appoints the person they think they need (not necessarily the person with the brightest future). A wise employer gives a job to such a person instead of another because that person fits the employer's needs and for no other reason. Logically, this means that excellent candidates with great qualifications and potentially fulfilling futures must be disappointed every day.

To draw a negative conclusion from a failed job interview is very depressing, and it is a mistake. Logically, a failure to get such a job is not a reflection on the value of the disappointed person. Unfortunately, the failed candidate may:

  • generalise from the experience (“I didn’t get this job so I am not going to get any other in that industry!")
  • magnify the significance of the disappointment (“that job was the one that was going to change my life; failing to get it is catastrophic for my future!")
  • draw an arbitrary personal significance from their disappointment (“they obviously knew I wasn’t up to it; my failure is a reflection on me as a person, now I am proven to be of less value").

Each of these conclusions is destructive and yet each seems apparently justified and logical.

We have to break negative automatic thoughts.

One consequence of such negative thinking is to promote the development of negative automatic thoughts (NATS). Examples of NATS include:

  • I am always going to be found out…
  • I am weak…
  • I cannot be ever happy unless…

Subsequent minor setbacks perpetuate disappointment by further validating our NATS at the expense of other positive data.

Some disappointments also resonate emotionally with negative core beliefs established over many years. Although these beliefs may have been suppressed for a long time, they can easily be rekindled or reignited by more recent disappointments. Negative core beliefs involve the key cognitive triad of the Self, the World and the Future; for example “I can never be happy unless I am successful, or “the world will always reject the things I do” or “the future is always bleak”. When a disappointment amplifies these negative core beliefs, such a setback is felt more deeply and is much more depressing.

Of course, some disappointments are objectively real. Their pain is based on objective facts. Some losses cannot be denied. Some grief cannot be rationalised or dismissed. Some traumas cannot be concealed. Nevertheless, the evidence is that, even in these circumstances, negative thinking is still unhelpful. Thinking negatively is just not productive or useful, even if the facts appear to provide an objective basis for despair!

One CBT technique is to recognise that negative thoughts are just that: they are thoughts. They are no more and no less than thoughts. Some negative thoughts may be best left be where they are. Unattended.

Disappointment is part of life.

We all have hopes and dreams, and yet, inevitably, most of our plans come to naught. It must be so. The alternative is inconceivable; an individualistic world built upon nearly seven billion separate visions of the self, the world and the future would surely be a nightmare.

Think for a moment of living in a space where we each of us got our way every time. Think of a life in which everyone had complete determination over our fate. Thankfully, chance, life’s inevitable uncertainty and the sheer necessity of relating peacefully to one another mean that we will all be challenged by disappointment. It is how we respond to that disappointment that really matters.

CBT can help us to learn new ways of perceiving our self, the world and our future, overcoming depression by recognising our errors of thinking, challenging our NATS and rejecting our deeply held negative emotions. We can undo our negative responses to “the slings and arrows of life”. CBT can help us address our long held negative beliefs and teaches us to focus on our current experiences.

When negative thoughts are challenged in this way we become cognitively skilled and more able to recognise our mental phenomena, our thoughts and our emotions. We can learn to recover despite our negative thoughts, rather than live at their mercy.

Modern therapy is effective because it teaches us to regain mastery over our thoughts and our emotions and so to recover from our disappointments and our failures.

Listen to Professor Jim Lucey on Today with Sean O’Rourke 26/08/2015