Disappointment, Expectations, and Results

I was inspired to write by a few things, firstly NZ Paralympian Sophie Pascoe and her Tokyo 2020 swims, her rollercoaster of emotions from bronze medal in her backstroke, to collapsing from exhaustion on the poolside after her 200 IM gold, to finishing a finalist in the 100m Fly. A phenomenal swimmer, a beautiful person inside and out, who my 9yr old daughter looks up to and considers a friend. My heart went out to Sophie as images of her raw emotion and unbridled disappointment at that first bronze were beamed around the world. The star that she is, she composed herself for her medal ceremony and the press, but watching this along with what I was reading took me back to long forgotten struggles with disappointment in results those around me were celebrating.

I was reading Brené Brown’s book, Rising Strong. More specifically this segment: Rumbling with Disappointment, Expectations, and Resentment. Like a light bulb turning on, I suddenly recalled vivid memories of my biggest disappointment, the reactions of those closest to me and the shame I felt about it all.

Summer 1995, I was 18 years old and the long awaited results of our A-levels would be available today. The hopes and dreams of the rest of our lives, lay in those envelopes awaiting us at school, we would find out if we’d met the grades for our university places. It was a ‘sliding doors’ moment for all of us, determining which direction we were heading, literally dispersing us around the country onto differing career paths. The final judgement on our schooling, hinging on 3 results. I was nervous but confident, I felt I’d done well enough. Despite that doubts still lingered, I tried to push down that anxiety by thinking back on last major exam results, near straight A’s. Predictions for these exams were 2 A’s and a B, more than enough for studying dentistry at Bristol, they wanted 3 B’s, Liverpool had only wanted 2 B’s and a C. Expectations were high all around, this would be a great day, a day of celebrating with family and friends.

I headed in to school, passing a class mate who’d exceeded expectations and got into Birmingham to study medicine. Excited for him and thinking that to be a good omen, I nervously took my results, reading and rereading them: B’s and a C. I couldn’t think, I kept looking for an A. I couldn’t get my head to move past thoughts of failure, I couldn’t understand what went wrong, I was confused, disappointed, then overwhelmed with grief and shame. If I wasn’t the straight A student then who was I? How could I face everyone? How could I go home and tell my parents? How could I even think of celebrating later with my friends?

I left school quietly, avoiding seeing anyone else. When I got home, I saw the hope and excitement leave my parents faces as I sobbed, delivering the news through tears. They couldn’t understand my grief. I’d done it, I was going to Liverpool, I was going to be a dentist, I should be celebrating.

I’ll never forget that disappointment, the world may not have ended but the one where I was an A grade student had, the confidence that had come with that label was gone, the arrogance that I hadn’t even realised I’d held with that identity was swapped in an instant to humility and shame with the judgement that fell with the inevitable comparison of grades with my peers. I could only see failure, failure to meet the expectations of my parents, of my teachers, of myself.

My disappointment wasn’t well received, I was told to be grateful, to get over it, which only served to reinforce my shame. I did get there though but took time and space to grieve what I had lost before I could celebrate what I had achieved rather than what I hadn’t.

When I saw Sophie Pascoe in that moment, realising that bronze, I felt her disappointment, desolation and grief. I can’t claim to know what she was going through, only that it deeply resonated with me.

So back tracking to why Brené Brown’s words resonated :

“Disappointment is unmet expectations, and the more significant expectations, the more significant the disappointment.”

I had massive expectations around those A-Level results, but with time I’ve come to realise the magnitude of those expectations were mine alone, not my parents, not my teachers, not my peers and it was that mismatch that put my reaction and experience at such and opposite to theirs. They couldn’t understand my disappointment because they weren’t disappointed to the same degree.

I look back on this and ask were my expectations realistic? Probably but the problem comes with hanging so much on outcomes that aren’t entirely within our control. Yes I could control how well I’d studied but I couldn’t control the questions being set or how the grading works amongst other things.

I’m still at odds recalling the raw emotion of that disappointment, should I have been happy and just flipped a switch? I don’t think so, I had to sit with that emotion, acknowledge it, learn from it and move on. I probably sat with it too long and probably didn’t give myself the self compassion I needed at the time. What I do have is empathy for those I see this struggle in, those that feel the weight of their world on their shoulders and suffer the hardest at the hands of their own judgement. It’s ok to fall short of the mark, it’s ok to be upset but be kind to yourselves. In line with Brené Brown’s teachings, “If we are brave enough, often enough, we will fall”, we do need to pick ourselves up of the arena floor and acknowledge what it took to just be there in the first place regardless of our thoughts about the result.

To Sophie, in your own words:
“I hope my legacy overall is something that people will look up to and be inspired by.”
Gosh you have been my daughter’s hero since she met you at her very first swim meet, where she came last in the have a go event. She still has your signed poster on her wall and the photo of you and her proudly on show. Swimming is the hi light of her week, and she might not pursue career in swimming but having you show that the way is possible is enough. I watch their junior parafed swim session and I see your legacy in their smiles and commitment every week.

• Brené Brown, PhD, MSW, Rising Strong.