Things don’t always turn out as we hope, and people sometimes aren’t what they appear to be. Ironically, sometimes things turn out exactly as we want, but fulfilling a life-long dream brings sadness in its wake because it doesn’t give us what we thought it would. Say you start attending a new church.Perhaps it’s nothing like the last church you attended. The people are friendly, the music is crisp and well done, and the pastor is wise and exudes warmth. You find yourself making friendships and serving easily, and pretty soon this new community becomes your spiritual home.
A few weeks or months later, you begin noticing a few things – the service starts a little late, sometimes the pastor preaches a bit long, and the friendliness of your fellow congregants starts to feel a little saccharine and fake. You start to wonder whether this community is right for you, and you catch yourself thinking about leaving. That’s an example of feeling disillusioned.
Or say you meet a new person who makes your life brighter; they may be a friend, a romantic interest, or a roommate in your college dorm. They make you laugh, expose you to new and exciting experiences, and you tend to feel good about having them in your life.
Perhaps you notice after a while that they don’t always keep their promises, sometimes they spill your secrets inadvertently, they chew a little loud, or they’re a bit messy and tend to let you pick up the check when you go out. You begin to wonder why you never saw these things before, and you feel let down by them.
Or perhaps you start a new job. You love it, it’s everything you’ve ever wanted – it’s challenging, you get to meet interesting people, and you grow enormously as a person and in your chosen career. But after a while, your work begins to feel a bit flat. There isn’t anything wrong; you just don’t feel the same level of excitement as before, and it all feels mundane. This too is an example of disillusionment.
The pain of (un)realized expectations
Disillusionment is a feeling of disappointment that can stem from finding out that something isn’t as good as you thought it to be, or the low that can develop after a mountaintop experience. It is a part of life, because no experience, no matter how good, is without diminishing returns and perfectly fulfills us every time.
Though the feeling of disillusionment is a part of everyday life, what you do with it matters, because it’s possible to let disillusionment rob you of all joy and the desire to try new things that enrich your life. How then can we deal with disillusionment in a way that recognizes its presence but also allows us to keep moving forward?
What to Do When You’re Feeling Disillusioned
That’s just the way it is. Accept that it’s normal to hype experiences and have elevated expectations from the outset, only to find the reality different from your expectations, or to feel a let down after something big. Life is made up of valleys and mountain top experiences. Some things don’t live up to the hype, and that can be a downer.
However, even if something lives up to your hopes and expectations, after a high, a low (even a return to your normal feels like a low in comparison) will follow. But the next situation may bring a new “high” that you can look forward to, and so it goes. Accepting that life just works that way will help you deal with disillusionment because you’ll know to expect it and won’t think there’s something terribly wrong.
Upon feeling disillusionment, many people will think it means they aren’t where they’re supposed to be, so they will leave that relationship, find a new roommate, search for a new church community, and so on, all with the hope that the next thing will provide a high they’ll never come down from. Accepting the reality that a bit of disillusionment is par for the course will prevent a lot of unnecessary heartaches.
Appreciate the experience for what it was. The wonderful things we enjoyed about situations or people at first blush are experiences we can continue to cherish for what they were. If you’re coming down from the high of having done a great piece of work, you can still take a moment to appreciate that you did a good job.You can look back on your first meeting with your friend or loved one and recall the joy of finding a kindred spirit. You can take a moment to relish the joy of finding a community of people that was willing to embrace and welcome you, making you one of their own.
Disillusionment threatens to cast a pall over the whole experience, but to deal with it effectively, you must resist that impulse and choose to dwell on the things that you found worthwhile in that experience or relationship.
Address your disappointment. It does you no good to pretend as though you’re not feeling some disappointment. Instead of trying to either numb those feelings of disappointment or avoid them by finding a new high to replace what you feel you’ve lost, be deliberate about sitting with your low feelings of disillusionment.
Don’t rush to make new plans and get new highs to make up for the unsatisfying experience, or pretend that you aren’t feeling what you feel. Sitting with the feelings of disillusionment allows us to come to terms with the finitude of experiences and their capacity to bring us joy, but it also creates space for us to wrestle with our expectations and the reality that life doesn’t always pan out as hoped.
If we don’t take a moment to pause, we can rush toward the next thing in the hopes that surely that next high will stick, and when that doesn’t happen, we move on, and on, and on. There is a lot to be gained by sticking it out after disillusionment sets in because in that relationship, friendship, work situation, or church, depth and growth come through riding out the highs and lows together. A rootless or “rolling stone” approach can leave us shallow and lacking resilience.
Keep on moving. Disillusionment is a part of life, and it shouldn’t stop you from enjoying all that life has to offer. Instead of bowing out of situations because of disillusionment, sometimes the best thing to do is reassess your expectations and keep on moving. At times we feel disillusioned because our expectations were unrealistically high and facing reality while moving on is the best thing we can do.
In some situations, we may have gauged our expectations exactly right – it’s just that we can’t remain on the mountaintop even if we wanted to. After Jesus and his three closest disciples spent a night on the mountain during which Moses and Elijah visited, and Jesus’s glory was revealed, even they had to come down that mountain and deal with the messiness of the unbelieving crowds down below (Mark 9).
What goes up must come down, and the highs that you experience are followed by lows because that’s just how it is, physiologically and otherwise. When you feel the thrill of a championship-winning goal, that high doesn’t always last, as the brain chemicals involved in that will quickly leave your system.
Looking back appreciatively and moving forward through the mundane is often the best that we can do. The possibility that another mountaintop experience is around the corner keeps us awake to the many possibilities that life has to offer, and it allows us to try new things.
For most people, the feeling of highs and lows is a reality that marks their existence. The lows aren’t crippling, and new highs appear that relieve the feelings that typically follow disillusionment. However, for others, the low periods are more punctuated, extended, prevalent, and harder to emerge from.
Sometimes, mood disorders like depression can do that, so it’s important to seek the help of a mental health professional who can perform a range of tests that will confirm if what you’re going through are the typical feelings of disillusionment, or if something else is at play.
Feeling disillusioned is a part of everyday life; rather than being something that hampers our enjoyment of life, when we take it in stride and embrace it in helpful ways, it can help us appreciate what we have while keeping our eyes fixed on Him who is our ultimate and unending joy.
“Cheers”, Courtesy of Pavel Danilyuk, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Birthday Alone”, Courtesy of cottonbro, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Forehead Slap”, Courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Frustrated”, Courtesy of Nicola Barts, Pexels.com, CC0 License