A month or so ago I got a rejection letter from the publishing company to whom I sent my book proposal. To be fair, “rejection” is too harsh. It was more of a “suggestion” letter: recommended next steps, etc. But to say I was not disappointed would be too “light” and dismissive.

In the throes of all my emotions, I remembered a year-plus ago when I was still in my corporate position. I taught a program on confrontation. As part of the in-classroom experience, participants wrote out a statement using a particular framework and then read it (in simulation) to the person they were confronting. One part of that “script” was naming their feelings about the situation, the offense, the issue at hand. For example, “When you lied to me, I felt angry (or betrayed or sad or frustrated, etc.)” As I walked around the room and listened in, I’d inevitably hear someone say, “When you ______, I felt disappointed.” That was my cue to interrupt the process for a few minutes, head back to the front of the room, and offer the following:

“I forgot to mention: ‘disappointed’ is not an emotion. It’s your (unmet) expectations; not what you’re actually feeling. When we tell someone we are disappointed in them it evokes their shame, which isn’t going to get us any closer to resolution. What do you really feel?”

And that memory? Right. Got it.

Disappointment is real, but it’s not a feeling — not like grief, joy, anger, or fear. It’s a circumstance or state-of-things. It only shows up when my expectations are not met — which feels important to name. And it is only ever present because of me: my thoughts, my hopes, my beliefs (even if misguided).

So what do I really feel? Sad. A tiny bit angry. Frustrated. And clear…there is more work to be done.

Yes, of course: I am disappointed, too. It would have been lovely to receive an enthusiastic “yes.” But underneath that, further up and further in, when I was willing to look closely, I was able to return to some things that feel more important and more true:

  • When disappointment arrives (which, of course it does and will again), we would be well served to ask how its presence might serve us. How it might remind and reinforce exactly what we care about, why we’re doing what we’re doing, that it matters? For me, the rejection, though a sting, actually compels me to be even more committed to what I’m writing, to stay the course, to remember why it matters and just how much.
  • Look closely at what is actually happening, actually being said, actually true. This took me a hot minute, believe me. I had to read through the email a couple more times before I could find the suggestion instead of the rejection; the affirmation of the overall concept, my writing, and its importance; the encouragement to finish the manuscript and circle back. Right, that.
  • Acknowledge that disappointment has to do with our own unmet expectations, no one else, nothing else. Maybe those need to be looked at more closely and recalibrated. And maybe, just maybe, that means I need to look most closely at me not “them.” I still have agency and choice, even (and maybe especially) when it feels like it’s been taken away.

Even in writing this piece, in openly admitting that I didn’t get an effusive and immediate “yes,” I can feel the disappointment resurface. Natural. Normal. And not where I want to stay…

There’s more writing to be done!