The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Dog owners know a lot about disappointment.

Charles Darwin had a large Labrador called Bob, who, like all dogs, loved to be taken out walking. Whenever Darwin set off into the gardens of Down House, Bob eagerly accompanied him, showing “his pleasure by trotting gravely before me with high steps, head much raised.” Bob expected to be going for a long march around the grounds, but sometimes Darwin intended only to visit his experimental plants. When they got to the door of the hothouse, Bob would be overcome with a “great disappointment.” The head drooped, the whole body sank, the ears fell, “the tail was by no means wagged.” The family nicknamed the pitiful look Bob’s “hothouse face.” Darwin himself confessed it could soften his heart, hinting that the dog’s defeated appearance was often enough to make him abandon his hothouse and set off on the hoped-for walk instead.

Disappointment means to be “deprived of an appointment,” to be “dispossessed.” It’s there when the beliefs and trappings we’ve arranged about us like a well-appointed house are suddenly upturned. Or some anticipated rise in status, or hoped-for new identity (“I’m getting my PhD!/Becoming Head of Sales!/Almost certainly passing my driving test this time!”) is snatched away. Disappointment may be overwhelmingly a feeling of loss or defeat, but there are other feelings there too that give disappointment its slightly restless, tremulous edge. For Darwin, Bob’s disappointment was mostly confusion: “He did not know whether I should continue my walk.” Sometimes a feeling of disbelief recurs, as when we can’t help wondering if this morning’s rejection letter was sent to the wrong address, or some mistake has been made.

Disappointments, then, do not only leave traces of SADNESS. BEWILDERMENT is felt too, raising the exhausting prospect that life must, once again, be reshaped.

Disappointment has a long history of making trouble. Among eighteenth-century doctors, disappointments, especially thwarted romantic affairs, were thought to spark off bouts of insanity (in the medical jargon of the time, disappointment was a “moral”—i.e., nonphysical—cause of mental disturbance). A century later the emotional effects of having ones hopes dashed in love were still being taken seriously. In 1865 Mary Harris went on trial in Washington DC for murdering Adoniram Burroughs after he married another woman. Since she was known to be usually a meek and god-fearing woman, Harris’s lawyers argued she had succumbed to a temporary but violent madness. Her defense was “double insanity,” partly caused by a strange physical complaint known at the time as “irritability of the uterus,” and partly caused by an emotional one: “disappointed affection.” Harris went free.

In the early twentieth century some psychologists began to argue that disappointment could be useful. Some went so far as to suggest it was crucial for healthy mental development. Among them, Sigmund Freud stands out as the period’s great theorist of disappointment. He spoke of “narcissistic wounds” or injuries, the painful assaults on our sense of identity when the fantasies we are told, or tell ourselves, are punctured. For Freud, the loss of an idealized family image hurt the ego hardest. He coined the phrase “the family romance” to describe those stories that are told to us as we grow up, and that give a dramatic importance to our arrival in the world, leaving us with the mistaken belief that we are important above all others: a “royal child.” Of course, such fantasies can’t last, and according to Freud it was vital they didn’t. Only by being dis-appointed of our status in this way can we start to engage with life as it really is. As the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein put it, in order to move forward and develop authentic relationships, everyone has to come to the aching realization that “no really ideal part of the self exists.”

The psychoanalytic story of disappointment is ultimately optimistic. It makes sense of the misery of being deprived of our mistaken beliefs about ourselves, casting it as the inevitable pain that comes when reality breaks through the myths like new teeth. Yet, though this view may ultimately be enriching, it doesn’t quite capture this emotion’s pervasive sense of everything having gone wrong. When we suffer the painful loss of an idealized self-image, what’s left—at least immediately—isn’t necessarily “the truth” but emptiness and confusion. It’s a terrible slump. Or, as Wordsworth put it in The Prelude, “a sense of treachery and desertion in the place / The holiest that I knew of—my own soul.”