3 Keys to Dump Disappointment
Secret weapons (hey, one worked for Nicole Kidman) for moving on when life crushes you like a bug.
By Tracy Thompson
September, 2003; Lifetime Magazine, Page 68
Suppose you're a famous actress whose marriage to Tom Cruise has just ended, much against your will. You're still reeling when you're about to start filming a movie in which you playa role as-get this-a writer on the brink of suicide. "Wonderful!" you say. "I can not only wallow in my own anguish, but explore someone else's. Sign me up."
Nicole Kidman thought hard before she agreed to play Virginia Woolf in The Hours. But diving into the part turned out to be the best possible therapy for dealing with profound disappointment over her divorce. 'The power of work, the power of creativity and the power of being able to put your everything into your work at a particular time," she has said, "can be your salvation." Nicole won an Oscar for her performance, and some of us might be inclined to give her the Queen of Denial award, too. The American psychotherapy industry-much of our culture, in fact-rests on the premise that mental health depends on exploring our pain, achieving "closure." Not doing this, we've been told, is an invitation to everything from depression to eczema. And yet, here's someone who found a new way to ditch disappointment. Are there lessons here for the rest of us?
Immerse yourself in something new
Throwing yourself into work may seem like a knee-jerk response, but it can stop you from channeling your angst, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University in California, who coined the concept of "flow," which is what Nicole was talking about. She immersed herself in a satisfying project that required skill and concentration. And you don't need a major film deal to follow her lead. Pick any task-scrapbooking, tutoring, your job (if you're lucky enough to love it)-in which you can lose yourself. That's "flow." It can be a tonic for times when you're tempted to brood.
Even if all you're doing is mowing the lawn, "if you accept the goal to do it elegantly, beautifully, faster, the chore becomes challenging," says Csikszentmihalyi. "You've accomplished something, and that removes a layer of depression." Think: When I'm done, this lawn will be impeccable.
Wrap your mind around it.
With the passing of time, the letdowns in life often seem like small potatoes. You can put setbacks in perspective more speedily if you ask yourself some hard questions. The name for this is "cognitive therapy"-it's based on the principle that our thoughts can change our emotions. Instead of reverting to all-or-nothing thinking ("John dumped me; I'm a loser"), look at crises in the right context.
When Jean Josey, a 36-year-old technical writer who lives in Dublin, California, was in her mid-20s, she lost her "dream job" to another candidate. After the hiring manager called with the news, Jean threw herself on the bed and sobbed. That she had just broken up with her boyfriend made it harder, she says. The job had become her cosmic consolation prize.
Separating her love life from her career would have helped Jean avoid linking the two rejections into one big "life is so unfair," says Robert Leahy, Ph.D., director of the American Institute of Cognitive Therapy in New York City. "God isn't handing out rewards and punishments based on your virtue," Leahy says. Examine your assumptions. You could cling to the belief that life should be fair, but you'll become resentful and bitter-traits that, Leahy points out, "are not good for your career." Not to mention your life. Then change your focus. Jean could have asked herself: "Was this the only job I could be happy in?" Probably not. Leahy suggests that you ask yourself: "If I had gotten what I wanted, what would I be doing that I can't do now?" Try making a chart with these three headings: Event, Knee-Jerk Reaction, Other Possible Interpretations. Somewhere in there is information that will surprise you.
Take a reality check
I once had a co-worker who wanted to be a Washington, D.C.-based political reporter. She got her first big-city job at the paper where I worked, and inherited from me the newsroom's dog assignment-the 6 P.M. to 2 A.M. police beat. To her, this was an unacceptable career detour; before long she was fired. Undeterred, she moved to Washington to pursue her dream. But nobody gets to be a political writer there without a fat Rolodex and impressive clips. She lived in D.C. for years, angling for a break. It never came. I haven't known anybody as relentless in pursuit of a goal, or as chronically disappointed.
People who are rigid about what they expect from life tend to wind up that way, says David Brandt, Ph.D., a San Francisco-based psychologist and author of “Is That All There Is?' On the other hand, research on athletes who deal with disappointment regularly shows that they typically possess flexibility, vigilance and the ability to focus on things they can control. So when one approach flops, try another–sometimes failure is trying to teach us something. When it comes, "if we don't redirect ourselves, we're lost," says Brandt.
Which brings us back to Nicole Kidman. "She focused her suffering in creative ways, and set new expectations," Brandt says. "What she did was wonderful." In the film, Nicole, playing Woolf, argues passionately that the only life worth living is a life embraced fully-even though, for Woolf, that embrace included a madness that led to her suicide. "To look life in the face, to know it for what it is, to love it for what it is," Woolf says, "is the right of every human being." It's a right you can't claim without risking disappointment.