On Being Disappointed in Oneself

We’ve all experienced disappointment in many forms. Disappointment is the feeling of displeasure when something doesn’t turn out as expected. Perhaps the most insidious form is self-disappointment. It’s insidious because it occurs within the privacy of our own minds, subject to our inner monologues, badgering us relentlessly. I find the notion of being disappointed in oneself fascinating. Are we not supposed to know ourselves better than anyone? How is it that our expectations can be so routinely misaligned with reality that we feel sad when we miss the mark? I believe the fundamental problem has to do with our overextending the concept of personal agency, or free will.

Everyone has said something that they regret. Often this happens during an emotionally charged exchange. Whatever was said probably came out within a fraction of a second of its preceding thought entering consciousness. There was literally no stopping it. If asked to explain why what was said was said, there truly is no satisfying answer. Feelings were hurt. Self-disappointment follows. The explanation, however, while unsatisfying to the recipient of the regretful utterance, is interesting to explore.

All things that we say or do are a product of our conditioning and present context. Our conditioning stems from our predisposition – genetics and human instinct – and all of our life’s experiences to date. Context is the present state of everything going on around us. Where conditioning meets context, actions ensue. If the context is such that there is no time for metacognition – thinking about what you’re thinking – then the role of personal agency is drastically diminished. We act on conditioning alone. This is the case for most spontaneous conversations, sports, driving, and so on.

If we mainly act on conditioning, then why should we be disappointed in ourselves for things we had no chance to plan? I don’t believe we should. The only possible internal conflict with a given outcome, then, would be its discordance with a deeper set of principles we ascribe to ourselves. To be kind, for example. Am I always kind? Of course not. Yet, there is nothing to be gained from being disappointed in myself when circumstances arise in which I am not kind. I did not fulfill my aspirational value in a given moment. What I got was a product of who I was in a specific context at a specific time. Principles, by their nature, are general. They may guide thinking and conduct in the general sense but cannot determine how we will act in any particular circumstance.

What, then, should we do when we feel that twinge of self-disappointment? Be aware of the feeling, but don’t stop there. Consider whether what occurred could have been anticipated and mitigated in the exact context within which it happened. Chances are it could not, especially since much of our context is beyond our control. Next, we should become curious about how to begin shaping our future conditioning, so as not to act the same way when presented with a similar context. Taking a future-oriented problem-solving approach, guided by our principles, should be a successful treatment for the disappointed self.

Be well.

Your problem is you don’t know what your problem is.

Life is full of problems. In fact, we spend most of our time solving problems; everything from deciding what to eat to figuring how much to save each month for an early retirement. In our pursuit to solve, two common glitches occur:

  1. We apply solutions in search of problems; OR
  2. We solve the wrong problems.

Both of these approaches get us nowhere.

Most people think that cleaning up their diet, signing up for the gym, or getting 30 minutes extra sleep will improve their health. While these seem like good ideas, they are examples of solutions in search of problems.

How can this be? After all, clever marketing would have us believe that we must do these things to be well. But marketing doesn’t know anything about you, other than your being as prone to irrational decision-making as anyone else.

You go ahead and sign up for a new gym membership. Then you attempt to insert this ‘solution’ into your already jammed schedule. Immediately, your quick fix has created conflicts with how you’ve designed your use of time. We know how this goes. You change things to accommodate, it works for a while, then things regress back to normal. You feel bad for letting yourself down, guilty for buying the membership, and so on. This could have been avoided by thinking more about what problem you really need to solve.

Here’s another example: if I just sleep better, everything would change. This is false reasoning. What is the ‘change’ I’m looking for? How would I measure it? What is the threshold for success? Unless I define these things, any sleep intervention would risk solving the wrong problem. But before I even define my outcomes and measurements, I need to dig deeper into the root problem.

I suggest a tool we often use in quality improvement research, called the ‘5 Whys’. Here’s how it works:

Why do I think my health is not optimal?

My sleep is poor.

Why is my sleep poor?

After I put the kids to bed, I have trouble winding down. So, I go to bed later than I should.

Why do I have trouble winding down?

I feel like I still have a million things to do before tomorrow.

Why do I feel I need to accomplish all of these things now?

If I don’t, then I will get behind at work.

Why am I feeling behind at work?

Well…let me count the ways…

In this example, it turns out that extra pressure at work (or self-imposed deadlines) are the actual problem. Fixing this problem will be far more likely to free up the evenings to then have the desired sleeping routine. The solution is certainly not, ‘I just need to sleep better’.

This line of questioning could have gone several ways, depending on the responses to the questions. This depends on the individual. What’s important is to ask the questions before we set ourselves up to fail by fixing the wrong problems or applying the wrong solutions.