science of us

How to Move On When Something Doesn’t Work Out

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If you’ve ever looked back with shame on months or entire years in which you handled losing something you thought you wanted with something other than grace, acceptance, and composure — I feel you.

In Psychology Today, Toni Bernhard, J.D., gets at this uncomfortable feeling in an essay about feeling let down when a friend of hers fell in love.

It “was wonderful for her,” she writes. “And yet, from my perspective, she’d ‘gone missing,’ both physically and emotionally.” Also: “I didn’t want things to be different for her, but at the same time, I longed for things to be the way they’d once been between us.”

I related to this, and to the rest of the piece, which advises on practical ways to handle disappointment. I almost don’t want to admit how much I related to it. (In fact, I started writing this last week but then put it away because it felt as if my soul were blushing.) It can be embarrassingly hard to be happy when good things happen to people we love if we also feel left behind. It’s also ugly to admit.

Before she gets to her actionable advice, Bernhard lists some common “unhelpful responses” that people have when confronting disappointment. Among them: anger, fear, and self-blame. After that, she lists helpful responses, none of which are summarized quite as easily, but all of which, to my mind at least, can be grouped under “letting go.” Letting go of the idea that everything stays the same, letting go of the idea that the stories we tell ourselves are strictly true. Clutching dreams less sweatily.

I especially liked this line: “When I’m able to recognize that desires are ever-present but are often unfulfilled, I’m better able to free myself from the prison of desires and make peace with my life as it is.”

Lately I’ve been thinking of a sci-fi book I read a couple years ago, The Only Ones, in which the main character, Inez, keeps moving through various horrible, dystopian situations. There’s cloning, and body parts are sold, but ultimately she keeps going because she wants to “see what happens.” The novel itself is maybe an extreme example, but I like the idea of that — of cultivating primarily a desire to see what happens, and then trying to let the rest go.

How to Move On When Something Doesn’t Work Out