I don’t know how about you, but every now and then I can get quite disappointed in myself. Sometimes it’s small things, sometimes it’ll be a bigger thing. For example, recently I had to ask for an extension for a deadline, for submission of my first scientific article. It happens, right? Sometimes things take longer than expected, and it’s best to communicate that and ask for more time. But see, personally I think time management isn’t my strongest asset. Historically I’ve been really bad at that: just ask my mother or one of my friends about my preparations for exams during my student days. Many a night I was studying until 4:00 in the morning, for an exam that would start 6 hours later.
However, given the fact that I’m in the final stages of my PhD, I think it’s safe to conclude I’ve improved my time management skills. I can plan my work, decide on priorities, and commit to working towards meeting my goals. Nobody’s keeping me accountable, because it’s my project, so I’m the person ultimately responsible. And yet, sometimes that feeling of disappointment creeps in again. For example, when I have to ask for an extension. I feel like I didn’t plan my time well, and that it’s all my fault that I didn’t succeed to meet this deadline.
Etymology is the study of origin of words (which, as a biologist, I always confuse with entomology, the study of invertebrates). If we look at the origin of the word disappointment, we see that the word is made up out of two parts: ‘dis’ and ‘appoint’. Let’s see what it means to appoint someone. You appoint someone for a task if you have trust in her and think a person has the appropriate skills. To disappoint is the reverse of that. It is thought to originate from the Old French désappointer, which means to ‘undo the appointment, remove from office’.
Of course, these days, disappointment generally has a different meaning. We mostly use it to describe our feeling of frustration regarding our expectations or desires, usually because our expectations or desires didn’t or won’t come true. But if we look at the literal Old French meaning, aren’t we doing ourselves a disservice if we’re disappointed by ourselves? I interpret the etymology like this: if we’re disappointed by ourselves, we’re removing ourselves from our appointed position. We were for example hired for a job, or invited into a relationship, or part of a group of friends, where we have our unique position. Then something happens and we disappoint ourselves, which might stem from a fear of disappointing others. It’s easy to get the two confused, but often it’s actually us who’s disappointed, not the other.* We feel like we let someone down, or that a situation didn’t achieve the outcome we had hoped for.
So let me repeat that: by being disappointed in ourselves, we’re removing ourselves from our appointed position. We’re extracting ourselves from a situation where we were meant to be or where we had a role to play. That means we’re not giving all of our talents to the people around them, without judgement, overflowing from an abundance of love. I know this sounds a bit woolly, but I do believe this. By allowing ourselves to be disappointed in ourselves, we’re turning inwards, focusing on ourselves. We stop looking to the people around us or the tasks at hand. It’s a slippery slope into self-pity and passiveness. Instead, it’s more useful to reflect on what happened, learn from the situation, and make steps towards change.
Back to my disappointed feeling when I didn’t meet my deadline. It crept up on me because in the past, it often was the case that missing a deadline was my own fault. Now, however, I know that meeting a deadline isn’t only about doing your part of the job. Sometimes life happens and things delay a project. There’s not always something we can do about it. In cases like that, disappointment serves us no purpose. It removes ourselves from our given position and distracts us from our goals. So, we can choose to exchange our feelings of disappointment for the truth that we’re doing our best and the knowledge that we’re worthy and loved, no matter what.
* If you do find yourself around people who seem to only verbalise their disappointment about you instead of finding a healthy balance between kind words and constructive criticism, it might be time to confront them about it, or change the people you hang out with.