We all experience disappointment — but we don’t all deal with our disappointment. I’m grateful for my life, and for the redemption and beauty it’s held. But in the midst of incredible joy and blessing, I’ve also experienced a great deal of pain. I’m no stranger to disappointment — and I suspect neither are you.

It’s not the occurrence of disappointment that kills us – it’s the lack of process we’re willing to engage in when we are disappointed. And don’t be mistaken: it will kill you if you let it. It will destroy your life, end your relationships, and turn your heart to stone against the only person who has the answer to your pain — God.

Disappointment is not your friend, but it feels like it could be. For every sadness, humiliation, or anger circumstances give us, disappointment offers relief. It provides us with a different belief, a different God, a different relationship. Anything to relieve us of owning our mistake, experiencing embarrassment, or letting anyone know how truly messed up we are.

Disappointment has taught me to shut down my heart, keep God at arm’s length, and find reprieve in being judgmental toward others. In the past, it gave me partying and binging on TV shows late into the night. For every feeling or painful memory I wanted to run from, it offered me a belief or behavior that allowed me to ignore my pain and move on with my life. Or so I thought.

It’s impossible to downplay your disappointment. It’s impossible to experience trauma or pain and just “move on.” It doesn’t matter how many verses you memorize or how many shots you drink: until you deal with your disappointment, it will not resolve. I know, because I tried to shove mine down for years. No amount of whiskey, boyfriends, yoga classes, or juice cleanses ever gave me peace or healing from it.

I tried to keep moving, but my heart — it stopped. I wasn’t happy, and I had no peace. I was anxious and unable to sleep. I was also untrusting of others because as far as I was concerned, the painful events of my past were only going to replay time and again in every seemingly similar situation.

Unprocessed disappointment can look like a lot of things: fear of hoping, difficulty dreaming, insomnia, tense shoulders and clenched jaws, difficulty celebrating others, experiencing apathy, depression, escapism, sarcasm, and cynicism. Does any of this sound familiar?

It’s a slippery slope, and if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves slipping quickly into dark territory. Even minor disappointments left unchecked can grow into something ugly in our hearts.

Disappointment operates in a few key ways — and being aware is the first part of processing it.

First, it attacks identity. When we’re dealing with pain, we’re especially vulnerable to questioning everything about who we are. Disappointment about external things seems to turn inward quickly. If this happened, what does that say about me? If this happened, what does that say about God? Maybe I’m not strong, not capable, not enough. Maybe God is not good, not present, doesn’t care. It’s easier to lower our theology or perspective than cross the scary divide between our beliefs and our circumstances.

When we are at our lowest, angriest, or most heartbroken, that quiet voice will come, and the comfort it offers is seductive. Your disappointment will try to convince you that you aren’t everything God made you to be; God is not who He has said. And this will incapacitate you.

Second, it attacks connection. When we grapple with questions of “Why” and “How ” our ties to others and the Lord become vulnerable. We’re designed for connection and intimacy. Without them, we can’t thrive. After disappointment, shame is quick to follow. The last thing I want is to relive pain by explaining it to someone else. I don’t want to confront my fear that I failed, heard God wrong, or did something foolish.

When my husband and I went through a challenging season with finances, it was easy to hide. It was easy not to go out or initiate plans in the name of financial prudence (we’re just being wise, right?). Small choices to hide became giant choices to withdraw— giving our pain complete influence in our lives.

Disappointment makes us feel like we’re in control. But we aren’t in control, and we need connection with others, help from others. 

When we shared with others about what was happening, our circumstances became just that: circumstances, not identity. The pain became something we were dealing with, not something that controlled us. And we found we weren’t alone. With love and support, we could come up for air from a situation we were drowning in.

Ultimately, disappointment can do a lot of damage — but it can also do a lot of good.

I’ve seen many friends experience disappointment that never made their way back. It went unprocessed, and that sometimes small seed of sadness grew into a poisonous weed that took over their lives.

After walking through this most recent season with my husband, I’ve come away with a greater understanding of why people do this. There were times I’d wake up dreading having to endure another day. In the more challenging moments, I understood these were the moments when people decide to start turning from God. Sometimes it was hard to believe God was good and my life had purpose when so much around me screamed the opposite. I get the desperate desire to get away from the pain.

But we didn’t turn from God, or each other. I’ve wondered why it was different for us. When we were experiencing a life so opposite of what the Bible said we would have, why didn’t our marriage fall apart? Why were we so sure of God’s love when nothing in our life looked like He did?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some ideas… which you can read about in the second part of this series, out later this month.