When Is Depression Not Depression? Part 3

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.'” John Greenleaf Whittier

Depression is often described as a feeling of sadness, but sometimes people mistake other feelings for depression. Depression is not depression when it’s disappointment.

Disappointment is loss and grief and sadness all at once. You may be disappointed to lose something you have, but it may well be loss over something you never had. When you lose something that was not in your grasp, it may be hard to acknowledge how deep and sharp the pain is. It may be even harder to describe to others how upsetting it is.

How can you put into words all that you have lost when it is what you hoped for but did not have in your grasp? When people are looking forward to having something, they feel excitement, anticipation, and even euphoria. If you are anticipating something good, you are jazzed that you are about to win, gain, come into some wonderful experience. Maybe you may be on a team with a winning streak and about to win a tournament. Maybe you are one of two people about to get hired or promoted into a dream job. That special someone you just met really could be ‘the one’. Maybe you are waiting for the test that says your pregnancy is really happening this time. And then it doesn’t happen. The let-down can be dramatic when you lose something that never happened.

Disappointment also causes pain because it could have been the best thing ever. Something waiting to happen is shiny and untarnished by reality. It is the perfect job in which we shine with success. It is the love that is forever full of attraction and admiration. It is the beautiful baby without the colic or middle-of-the-night crying. What you did not get was not just good, it was perfect.

But since you had not had a chance to have it, live it, experience it, the loss is also intangible. And as such, it is harder to let go. And disappointment feels especially bad when you lose hope along with it. If you follow the disappointment about the job, the love, the baby with losing hope that you will ever have it, that’s a lot like depression. And it is pretty typical to feel that way right after a disappointment. Pessimism thrives in the wake of disappointment.

This is when it seems as if disappointment is depression. It hangs on for a time and others cannot see why you are so sad. I cannot count how many times I hear people say, “What are you so disappointed about?” with a tone that suggests you should immediately stop being disappointed. In that a case, you can feel judged as well as sad and perhaps add some self-blame to the heap. “Maybe I should not have been so hopeful, and maybe I should never expect to have something good happen again.” Disappointment can feed a depression when you lose hope: hopeless feelings are a central feature of depression.

How is it possible to avoid triggering depression and come out of the disappointment? Here are some things to try:

1) Listen to self talk. Avoid the common pitfall of listening to or saying to yourself minimizing statements like “Close only counts in horseshoes.” “Get over it.” “You will have another chance.” “There’s always tomorrow.”

2) Acknowledge the loss, because there is no way around it: “I wanted this and I did not get it!” “I am sad! I am mad!” Sit with the loss as if you are mourning: Do not expect to get over it quickly. By tolerating and acknowledging, you move more quickly through the disappointment. A surprising thing happens when you feel something: the feeling passes. (When it is depression, this is not a true statement, but disappointment will pass.)

3) Assess what you still have. “I have lost the possibility of loving that a person, but I have 2 really close friends and my sister who really love me. That is worth a lot!” “I will have other options for a good job, and I still have a job that pays.” “I still may have a chance to have a baby, and if I don’t, I can find a way to handle that.”

4) Renew hope. Start out with something much smaller than what you lost, just so that hope is not scary. Ask yourself, ‘What would I hope for if I knew it would be possible?” And then try it out: hope for something and see how it feels to get it. E.g., “I hope that dinner with my friends will have a few laughs.” “I hope that when I see the kids for the weekend we will talk about fun things to do on summer vacation.” “I hope that I will get a better grade on the next exam.” Getting a small hope fulfilled may take a little bit of effort from you but pick things you know you can influence.

5) When you are ready, evaluate whether what you were striving for was realistic. Was it within your power to achieve it? If so, you can go for it again. If you can see it might have been beyond your ability, then you can realistically revise your plan. I worked with a young woman who wanted to become a professional make up artist, but she was 25 and had not worked in the field, nor did she have any certifications or degrees. Her disappointment not to get hired at a theater to do the make up was keen, but it was also a wake-up that her goal was unrealistic. She needed to make a plan that would fit her abilities or lead her to get more training.

As time passes, and fairly quickly, you will notice that you do not feel the sharp pang of disappointment constantly and that it diminishes like the wake of a boat washes over you – big at first, but in smaller and smaller waves, until soon you remember it but do not feel it. As the expression goes, you may be “sadder but wiser,” so perhaps more realistic. And if you have been renewing hope, your mood may once again be full of eagerness, excitement and even euphoria as you anticipate some new good thing coming into your life.