Stomach-turning, ego-crushing, tear-jerking disappointment.
It certainly isn’t the most pleasant part of life, but it’s a part we can all relate to and learn from.
Like anything, disappointment is measured in degrees and I want to be clear that the purpose of this article isn’t to dwell on the lesser forms. When your favorite team loses a playoff game or your favorite TV show gets cancelled, disappointment is fleeting and easily recovered from. When your friend forgets your birthday or your parents miss a soccer game, you can bounce back on the car ride home. I’m talking about the times when you’re the disappointment. When you’re cut from the football team, fail a test, or lose your job. Or, maybe you’ve gained 30 lbs since high school and can’t handle walking past a mirror. Nothing compares to the anguish you feel when you’re disappointed in yourself—you’re exposed, vulnerable, face to face with your own failures, and it stings.
While overwhelming at times, we have to remember that disappointment is nothing more than an emotion. It’s something we feel, not something we do. The pain, loathing, and regret that are symptomatic of our worst failures are not results of the weight we gained or the job we lost, but are our reactions to those conditions. In reality they say more about our problem solving skills than they do about our general self-worth. I submit that if we’re willing to face them honestly, failures can actually be a very useful and positive tool. I’m not saying it’s easy—when you’re truly disappointed it’s hard to think at all let alone think straight. But practice makes perfect, and training offers ample opportunity for rehearsal.
I’ll share a personal example. It’s the CrossFit Games, Northern California Regional 2012. If you’re unfamiliar with this event, it’s a 6-stage competition held over three days. Each of the 6 events is equally weighted and designed to test different aptitudes along the fitness spectrum. After 4 events I was sitting in 3rd place and I was entering a stage I was extremely confident in—the snatch ladder. For this task each athlete had to complete 20 double unders then perform a snatch in 50 seconds. Each minute the bar increased by 10 lbs, with your heaviest successful lift marking your score. Having snatched 244 lbs two weeks prior, I had my sights set on the 235 lb bar as my goal, but I knew that even a lift of 225 lbs would most likely secure my spot at the CrossFit Games.
I approached the 215# bar in the same manner I’d approached all of the bars that preceded it: ready and relaxed. This was merely a means to an end. I pulled the bar from the ground to overhead and felt my legs buckle a little as I tried to squat to full depth. My feet compensated by splitting too wide and I ducked into a half-squat, half power snatch. As I stood to lock it out I felt my momentum carrying me backwards. I staggered back with the bar a few steps, then descended off the platform and lost the lift behind.
“No rep,” called my judge. “You have 20 seconds, Blair.”
I hurriedly rolled the bar back on the platform and got in position to make the lift.
Big breath, smooth takeaway. As the bar is moving upward I can feel it’s too far in front of me, but before I can adjust it’s crashing back to the ground.
“Time. Best lift: 205#.”
The surreal quality of a moment like this is indescribable. I had just thrown away my chance at CrossFit’s biggest stage, yet I wasn’t sad. I had just underperformed by almost 40# on a lift I practice all the time, but I wasn’t angry. Roughly a year’s worth of preparation, dedication, and sacrifice had gone into that weekend but I felt blank, numb, nothing. I instinctively moved my hands to my head to check that I wasn’t dreaming, but I felt like I was touching myself without someone else’s hands. Nothing about it felt real.
If you’ve ever been disappointed like this you know the feeling. You’re trapped somewhere between shock and denial and your mind placidly idles on the outskirts of reality. We feel the same way when a relationship ends suddenly or when a family member’s been admitted to the hospital. It’s like our brain dulls our senses to protect us from the full pain of the moment. We walk around like zombies until the weight of what happened slowly sinks in.
When it finally does, most people react in one of two ways:
1) We rage against reality and search for reasons to discount the enjoyment we were feeling before our disappointment.
This can manifest itself through outward anger—imagine the person who is visibly pissed off, uncomfortable to be around, and in all ways bitter about his/her outcome. This type of individual will choose to hate that which has caused him pain and attempt to avoid it at all costs in the future. In Little League we call him the “bad loser.”
It can also manifest itself through internalized pain—imagine the person who claims not to care or to never have cared when they obviously do or did. This type of individual will begin to fear that which has caused him pain and attempt to protect himself from it in the future by pretending it doesn’t exist. This person is the self-described “non-competitor.”
2) We acknowledge reality and search for reasons to validate the enjoyment we were feeling before our disappointment.
Picture the individual who admits they’re emotionally crushed but at the same time isn’t consumed by it. This type of person will determine whether that which caused him pain holds value beyond the outcome, and whether that value was worth his current state of disappointment. If it was, he will continue throwing his hat in the ring with no regard for failure or consequence. If it wasn’t, he will move on to another challenge without bitterness or remorse. This person is what we call “mature.”
What are the consequences of these types of reactions?
For the bad loser, disappointment is an accelerating downward spiral. Take the man who loses 3 pickup games in a row and starts playing the fourth as an angry hack. The mutual respect and satisfaction he could’ve gotten from winning is gone in the wake of cheap fouls, high tempers, and bitter opponents. He is branded a poor sport by his friends and begins to resent their judgments. Eventually he no longer competes because his anger has chased away anyone who would support him or play against him and he cannot physically handle the toll losing takes on him during the course of a game.
For the non-competitor, disappointment is more of a silent killer. Take the girl who isn’t asked to her high school prom and decides not to go as a result. If unchecked, the rejection of that event will birth an insecurity that will shadow her every time she goes on a date or looks in the mirror. She’ll begin to resent herself for not being pretty enough, thin enough, or fun enough for somebody else. Rather than risk that disappointment again, she’ll pretend she doesn’t need or want companionship and slowly remove herself from situations where there is a potential for rejection. Soon, she will have so insulated herself that it will take a pick-axe and dynamite to penetrate her shell.
These are extreme examples, perhaps, but they illustrate the potential we have for letting our emotions dictate our actions. In both cases, the consequences are so severe, not because the initial incident was overly devastating, but because the response was misguided. If the bad loser had played harder rather than dirtier, his reputation might have actually benefitted from losing rather than been tarnished. If the non-competitor had gone to the prom anyways, she might’ve discovered that she didn’t need a date to have fun instead of feeling ugly and unwanted. In both cases, the individuals were so fixated on the immediate outcome (winning/acceptance) that they were blind to the inherent value of the activity itself. This perspective is the definitive difference between a mature person and everybody else.
For the mature individual, failures are valuable and instructive. This is not to say that he never loses perspective, only that he has the capacity to correct it when needed. Often, this will happen in the midst of our disappointment. Our lowest moments are a lens through which things appear as they truly are; asking the right question in this instant will offer clarity and perspective that is lost when things are going well. If you recognize that basketball isn’t enjoyable unless you’re winning, you need to take a break from playing. If you need a date to establish self-esteem, you’re clearly not ready for dating. These disappointments are indicators of dysfunction to the honest eye, and having the courage to address them will show you the way through.
Following the snatch ladder I spent a lot of time thinking about how my failure had impacted me. At first all I could muster were the reasons to not go out and do the final event. Regardless of whether I could make up the points I had lost, it was the last thing I wanted to do. I was embarrassed and ashamed at having so publicly flopped and I hated the idea of having everyone’s eyes judging or pitying me.
After this initial wave of self-loathing, my mind wandered back over the event itself, straining to re-make what was already made. This was my brain again attempting to reject reality, but every time I went there it hurt a little more.
Finally, after an hour of mental badgering, I asked myself the right question: why was I so disappointed? What was it that I had lost? The answer was surprisingly direct and simple: nothing. Nothing about my life was physically different than it had been 60 minutes earlier, and nothing about it was going to change as a result of what had happened. I knew then that I was squeezing myself in an emotional torniquete but for some reason couldn’t release it.
Next I asked myself whether the weekend would hold any value if I didn’t qualify for the Games. If I wasn’t able to pull off a miracle in the final event and earn a spot in Carson, would all of it be for nothing? It was at this moment that the pressure began to ease and I could start to feel my sanity again. I realized that my conception of success and failure had been too heavily predicated on my placing in the event—just like the dateless teenager, I had allowed myself to fixate on a result rather than a principle. I realized how much value there was in the year of training that had preceded the Regionals; that I so absolutely loved what I had accomplished and done that I wouldn’t trade any of it for a place at the Games. I realized that the opportunity to compete was a gift in itself, offering the chance to test myself without reservations and without fear against any obstacle. Further, I realized that to seize this opportunity required courage and resolve and that those were qualities I wanted to foster. Finally, I realized that the only lasting disappointment I would take away from the weekend would be if I failed to finish the event with the effort and commitment it deserved.
So I competed. And lost. I took 4th in the final event, 5th in the Regional overall, and finished one spot short of qualifying for the Games. Driving away from the event I was flooded with texts and calls, some congratulating me on a great weekend, others consoling me on what I hadn’t quite done. I remember thinking how lucky I was to have failed that day, not because it would motivate me to come back harder and stronger the following year (striving to be the best at anything will never be a reliable, long-standing motivator because there is always somebody better), but because it reminded me of the true reason I love CrossFit: it forces you to embrace the total experience. It’s not all PR’s and pats on the back. It’s failure, progress, challenge, and grit. It’s affirming when you’re up and humbling when you’re down. The combinations are kaleidoscopic and immeasurable, and without disappointment we might never see them in full. To be fit, we must receive this range of possibilities without balking. We must admit when we’re misguided and recalibrate our compass. We must be ever on the margins, and comfortable there.