Complex PTSD and Dealing with Disappointment

We all deal with disappointments. Maybe it was an online flirtation that seemed to hold so much promise or a job interview that seemed to go really well – and then, in the end, things just didn’t work out as we expected – and we feel disappointed.  If you have suffered from child abuse and subsequently experience PTSD you feel disappointment more acutely. This is largely due to the grooming process that was used by paedophiles to groom children for their use. They promise all sorts of wonderful gifts and seductive offerings to lure the child. When the actuality of the situation becomes revealed to the child the profound sense of shock and disappointment is indelibly imprinted on that child. That disappointment can never be erased and follows the child for the rest of their lives. They are damaged.

As an emotion, researchers describe it as a form of sadness – a feeling of loss, an uncomfortable space (or a painful gap) between our expectations and reality.

When we believe that there’s something we must have to be happy and fulfilled, we can set ourselves up for disappointment. Though unpleasant, our experiences of disappointment provide valuable information about our beliefs about ourselves, other people, and what will make us truly happy.

Next time you feel disappointment, ask yourself these four questions to get back on track with understanding yourself and what you truly want. This is particularly important to do if you suffer from any form of trauma. Evaluation is vital as we can loose perspective on reality so easily.

What?

We believe that only a certain thing can make us happy.

Exposure to media messages teaches us to associate happiness with certain things (like expensive objects, beautiful people, and important titles). So we can develop some pretty fixed ideas on what will make us happy, and eventually train our minds to believe that we’ll only be happy if we get those things.  We mistakenly believe that it’s the thing that is going to make us happy and when we don’t get it, we’re disappointed. Researchers have found that there’s no guarantee that if you get the things you want you’ll be happy – in fact, there’s quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. People’s satisfaction with things is very short lived. Experiences in which we enjoy what’s happening in the moment have a much more lasting effect on our overall happiness.  And, the great benefit of this is that you can start enjoying the present moment anytime – and it’s free!  Focus on how you want to feel in the moment – rather than how you believe you’ll feel once you get the thing you want so badly.

Who?

We believe a certain person is the only one who can fulfill our desires.

A common misconception is believing if we meet “the one” that everything else in our lives will fall into place and we’ll live happily ever after. We learn to associate a small number of positive personal attributes with many others, it’s called the halo effect. For instance, if we meet someone who’s tall and good looking, we’re then more likely to believe that the person has a number of other positive qualities (like being rich, trustworthy, intelligent, sexy, and fun) but all we really know about the person is they’re tall and good looking. We may be profoundly disappointed when that person we put our hopes on doesn’t meet our expectations.

The key is knowing how you want to feel in relationship and to focus on that instead of how you think the other person should be.  You may want to feel at ease, interested, and engaged. So instead of thinking, “They should be interested in me and engaging me and making me laugh,” think about being interesting, engaging, and in good humor yourself. It’s a simple shift in intention that can save a social encounter from the clutches of disappointment.  And, it may help you to approach the situation as one that helps you get clarity on what you want in relationship instead what the other person should or should not be doing for you.

When?

We set a time limit for how long it will take to get what we want.

Our expectations about when things should happen are influenced by social norms. There are unspoken rules for how long it’s supposed to take to achieve a certain career goal or relationship status. So we put our goals on a timeline. We often gauge our success based on how well our peers are doing; this is called social comparison.  We compare ourselves with those who have the same goals and are similar in age and background. Social media can fuel social comparisons. It’s difficult to remain unaware of our friends’ successes. (Though it’s important to remember the few people post updates to let everyone know that they haven’t reached their goals yet!)   If we don’t meet these deadlines and we watch others reach their goals quicker – we can become disappointed – and what’s more, we can become discouraged and give up. It’s important to remember that these time limits are self-imposed, somewhat arbitrary, and often unrealistic.

The key again is remembering how you want to feel – it’s unrealistic to think that if you’re suffering along every step of the way toward your goal that you’re going to be in a state of bliss once you finally do achieve it.  A better indicator of a satisfying outcome (whenever it occurs) is how you’re feeling along the way. If you enjoy the process, you’ll be less focused on how long it takes to get there!

How?

We have fixed ideas about how it’s all going to come together.

Perhaps the most difficult expectation to relinquish is how. Once we have a desire, we often immediately began to think of ways to go after it. If we can’t think of any good ways to get what we want, we may simply give up right then and there – and feel disappointed.  Or, we may develop elaborate schemes for how to get what we want – which usually involve other people following a script that we have written for them and/or having a series of events unfold in a particular way. When it doesn’t go according to our plan, we may interpret it to mean that we can’t have what we want and we can feel disappointed.

In this case, it’s important to distinguish between the means and ends. That is, remembering what we need to do to get what we want may be different from the end result. Abraham Maslow identified one characteristic of self-actualized people as an uncanny ability to distinguish between means and ends. They’re able to keep an eye on what they truly want and stay open to various ways that it can come about at the same time.  Consider that there are many ways of reaching your goals and getting what you want in life that you may not be aware of yet. Remember the famous quote by Rumi, “What you’re seeking is seeking you.”  Consider being open to yet unknown possibilities.

Going Deeper

Being open to possibilities takes practice – particularly when you’re navigating the uncertainties of going after something new that you really care about. Having Complex PTSD usually comes with trust issues which make it very difficult to engage in new relationships or even trust existing ones. Looking forward to receiving something as simple as a parcel in the mail can be a catastrophe if it doesn’t arrive. The negative tape begins to play if it doesn’t arrive and we personalise the situation as we do so many things that happen. This personalisation of everything that happens to be our fault or only happening to us is a feature of PTSD. 

When trauma survivors take direct action to cope with their stress reactions, they put themselves in a position of power. Active coping with the trauma makes you begin to feel less helpless.

Active coping means accepting the impact of trauma on your life and taking direct action to improve things.

Active coping occurs even when there is no crisis. Active coping is a way of responding to everyday life. It is a habit that must be made stronger.

Know that recovery is a process

Following exposure to a trauma most people experience stress reactions. Understand that recovering from the trauma is a process and takes time. Knowing this will help you feel more in control.

Having an ongoing response to the trauma is normal.

Recovery is an ongoing, daily process. It happens little by little. It is not a matter of being cured all of a sudden.

Healing doesn’t mean forgetting traumatic events. It doesn’t mean you will have no pain or bad feelings when thinking about them.

Healing may mean fewer symptoms and symptoms that bother you less.

Healing means more confidence that you will be able to cope with your memories and symptoms. You will be better able to manage your feelings.

Positive coping actions

Certain actions can help to reduce your distressing symptoms and make things better. Plus, these actions can result in changes that last into the future. Here are some positive coping methods:

Learn about trauma and PTSD

It is useful for trauma survivors to learn more about common reactions to trauma and about PTSD. Find out what is normal. Find out what the signs are that you may need assistance from others. When you learn that the symptoms of PTSD are common, you realize that you are not alone, weak, or crazy. It helps to know your problems are shared by hundreds of thousands of others. When you seek treatment and begin to understand your response to trauma, you will be better able to cope with the symptoms of PTSD.

Talk to others for support

When survivors talk about their problems with others, something helpful often results. It is important not to isolate yourself. Instead, make efforts to be with others. Of course, you must choose your support people with care. You must also ask them clearly for what you need. With support from others, you may feel less alone and more understood. You may also get concrete help with a problem you have.

Having a regular meditation practice, – a time to sit with ourselves and let go of striving toward our goals — can help build tolerance for feeling our emotions and create openness for new possibilities.  Try sitting for 10 minutes with the intention of letting go of your expectations about something you’re trying to create in your life. Simply observe how your mind reflexively searches for reasons, plans, and schemes of action. As these thoughts arise, intentionally (and gently) let go of them, and simply allow yourself be without needing to do or get anything.  After 10 minutes of letting go of expectations, you might feel refreshed and may be able to see things differently.

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