Hold It Tight, But Hold It Light

Hold It Tight, But Hold It Light

Just the other day, I found myself disappointed. I had received an email about a national wellness committee that I mistakenly assumed I was being asked to lead. The committee's work is an important and meaningful topic for me, but in all candor, I did not want to lead the committee. I had found it time-consuming and it chewed up time that I would rather spend on other work. When I "agreed" (mind you, my agreement was only in my head based on a mistaken assumption!) to continue to lead the committee, I felt a great deal of ambivalence in my decision and even considered turning it down after the fact. Then came the email that made it clear that I had not even been chosen to lead it! and boom - I realized the assumption error I had made (after all, assumptions are the mother of all f&*^ ups), yet, despite being off the hook, I found myself - yes, get ready - disappointed!

Nuts! I really did not want it, yet when I didn't get it, I was disappointed. I felt the sting in my gut as it tensed up. Thanks to my meditation practice, I have finally learned how to stop and interrogate what is going on inside when I experience a strong emotion like disappointment, instead of reacting.

Before continuing, it is important to clarify the difference between emotions and feelings. An emotion is a subconsciously derived physical sensation triggered by an external stimulus, whereas a feeling comes from our cognitive appraisal and our assignment of personal meaning to the emotion. In other words, feelings surface from how we think about and interpret the emotion and the triggering stimulus. Note that our thinking and interpretation of the emotion can be spot-on accurate or a completely inaccurate story that verges on outright hallucination.

In my little drama, the emotion showed up as tightening in my gut and shallow breathing. The feeling generated by my thinking was anger at myself for misreading the original email and irritation that I had not been chosen to lead the committee, despite the fact that I really didn't want to!

As I thought about it, it seemed that my disappointment was simply that they didn't want me! Rejection. Boo hoo...It is embarrassing to admit, but there it is. My ego was wounded. However, with further reflection, I realized that the personal meaning of my pseudo fantasy appointment to lead the committee was particularly strong, since 12 years ago, I walked out of Hazelden treatment center after 3 months of "incarceration" for prescription narcotic addiction, and leading the committee was a massively significant accomplishment given my past.

But now, acknowledging this fact, out loud to myself in the car (expressing one's feelings out loud and saying what is bothering you out loud lowers amygdala activation compared to rumination, which just keeps the fire burning) by saying, "I am disappointed that the powers that be did not want me to lead the committee" and also saying out loud that "I am relieved not to have to lead it" - it allowed the wave of the disappointment emotion to come to shore and dissipate.

By following the steps above, I stepped away from being a victim of disappointment. I escaped the drama triangle and became my own coach. In just a few minutes, I had regrouped. I called the new chair of the committee, congratulated him, and offered my help in any way he saw fit.


Disappointment is a complex emotion that can generate several different feelings - usually a combination of sadness, loss, anger, and frustration (depending on the meaning you attach to the emotion) and it rears its emotional head when we:

  1. Don't get something we want, or
  2. When we get something we do not want.

The degree of disappointment is directly proportional to the degree of psychological attachment we have to what we wanted (e.g. not getting a promotion, a paper published, a job interview, a raise, or a social prize like my committee), or to the degree of aversion we have to what we did not want (getting demoted, fired, divorced, resentment or anger directed at us by a loved one). The degree of attachment or aversion is, therefore, a lever that can be used preemptively to temper the intensity of disappointment.

Managing one's attachments and aversion to things is a crucial skill for living. Riding the see-saw of attachment and aversion driven by our unruly brains leads to unnecessary suffering. Most of us are unaware of how prevalent this see-saw is in our lives and of the profoundly negative impact it can have on our mental well-being. When we become overly attached to things or outcomes, or when we try to avoid things like negative emotions and outcomes, we suffer. There is no absolute solution to this state of affairs, but we can absolutely tamp down the impact by doing what I call Hold It Tight, but Hold It Light.

Hold it tight refers to being fully engaged and committed to something—whether pursuing a job, writing a manuscript, or anything that you care deeply about. The challenge here is separating your full-on engagement and commitment from the outcome of your efforts. For it is the thickness of the layer of mental attachment glue you have pasted all over the outcome you so desire that will f%#* you up mentally when the outcome you so desire is ripped off of your mind, leaving a raw and injured surface that will take longer to heal.

The key is not to plaster on a thick layer of mental attachment glue to the outcome. This is what I mean by hold it light. Give it your all, then stand back and let the outcome happen. And if you don't get the outcome you want, you then accept, adapt, and problem solve.

Though we tend to think of disappointment with the big events of life, disappointment is a daily occurrence and is part and parcel of this deal we call living. It happens every day on a smaller scale. We want something, and we don't get it: the store is out of the hamburger we need for dinner, our spouse is tired and bails on the prearranged date night, the machine at the gym you always use is being used for what appears to be 3 straight hours by one goon, or the coffee shop is out of chocolate croissants. Or we don't want something, and yet we still get it: a broken lock on the garage door (just yesterday for me), a flat tire, a lunatic honking over a minuscule driving infraction, an injury that keeps you from running for 3 weeks.

The list of these "small" disappointments goes on and on, and they bubble up from the vicissitudes of life day after day. One can become like a dog on a leash, in a trance, with your brain's disappointment emotions dragging you around day after day, which can be, well, a real drag. Hold it tight, but hold it light is the middle ground between being in a mental trance and controlled by life's disappointments and the endless cycle of craving and aversion, and its opposite - saying the hell with it, nothing matters, it's better to be indifferent so I don't have to deal with this shit.

Hold it tight, but hold it light is being awake and fully engaged with living while accepting change and disappointment as part of life, like it or not. It is a thin layer of just enough mental glue that allows easy removal of the attachment to outcomes which gives you greater emotional freedom while still remaining fully engaged and committed.

Training Preemptively for Life's Inevitable Big Disappointments

Imagine being able to take life in stride, unruffled by the daily bumps in the road of life, and even when the disappointment shit hits the fan, to be able to handle it with equanimity and poise. It is possible, by training your mind.

Training Exercise #1: Memento Mori and Impermanence

In the 1970s, the modern-day spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti was giving a talk to a large crowd in California. Partway through, Krishnamurti suddenly paused, leaned forward, and said, almost conspiratorially, "Do you want to know what my secret is?" The crowd sat up, almost as if they were one body; they leaned forward, ears straining, their mouths slightly parted in hushed anticipation. Then Krishnamurti said, in a soft, almost shy voice, "You see, I don’t mind what happens."

I don't mind what happens. This phrase gets straight to the heart of the matter: whether you mind what happens or not, what happens is still going to happen. In other words, reality is reality, so you might as well accept it fully and move forward.

Reality hammers us every day. Children move out. The trim on the windows of the house erodes and needs sanding and repainting. There are stacks of art and schoolwork from children we don't know what to do with. We retire, and our attachment to our identity as thoracic surgeons wreaks havoc. The division, department, or practice you put sweat, blood, and tears into building dissolves overnight under a new leader. Seasons change, metal rusts, our hair turns grey, our pets die. On average, we each have only 4,000 weeks to live. They go fast, especially if you try to outrun them.

Change and impermanence are the only constants in life, yet we often try to live as if things are fixed and unchanging. We avoid talking about or contemplating our inevitable death until, like me now at 69 years old; the reality of reality bears down on you, like it or not.

The Latin phrase Memento Mori means "remember, you have to die." The Greek and Roman Stoics of classical antiquity practiced the discipline of keeping death front and center in their minds. The letters of Seneca, the Roman philosopher, are full of injunctions to meditate on death. The Stoic Epictetus admonished his students to, when kissing their child, brother, or friend, remind themselves that they are mortal, curbing their pleasure (attachment), as do "those who stand behind men in their triumphs and remind them that they are mortal."

Memento mori is not a morbid focus on death. Rather, it is a daily reminder to embrace life fully - to hold it tight - and to simultaneously hold it with a light and gentle mental touch. This is another form of the Buddhist principle of avoiding deep attachment or aversion (the two sparks that light the fire of disappointment) to the events of our lives, as these fraternal mental twins are the root cause of most of our suffering.

By training ourselves to "not mind what happens" and embracing the practice of Memento Mori, we can train ourselves to live fully while at the same time accepting whatever life and reality dumps on our doorstep with full acceptance and a light hand without taking things or life too seriously. Acceptance does not mean being a doormat to the challenges of life. It means creating a mental space of acceptance of reality as it is without resistance, which prevents suffering and allows us to deal with reality as it is with a clear-minded presence.

Training Exercise #2: Train With Small Disappointments

As they say in the military, when in battle, you fall to the level of your training. We can train ourselves for the battle of big disappointments by training our minds to accept, adapt, and problem-solve with the constant smaller disappointments we all face day in and day out (however, I want you to remember those three words for good, for they apply to all challenges, big and small!).

For example, I have lifted weights for nearly 50 years, and when I go to the gym, I like to have a plan of what body parts and exercises I will do and in what order. My plans are routinely foiled by someone using the machines or weights that I want. This used to be very frustrating. When I read the story about Krishnamurti and "I don't mind what happens," I memorized the line and repeated it to myself repeatedly during the day to get it filed in my brain. It worked.

Now, when I go to the gym and the machine I want is not available, I don't even have to repeat the phrase - my reaction is automatic - I accept and adapt (move on to a different body part or machine). Exercising one's disappointment relief muscle on a smaller scale creates a built-in response to the larger disappointments. But it also has huge side benefits. My days are much better. I avoid the negative feelings of frustration and irritation when I don't get the machine I want. When you roll up this smoother way of dealing with disappointing events over a full day, it really does help one to be their best self more of the time, despite the inevitable daily disappointments.

This works for any number of issues: someone does not respond to an email you have been waiting for, a dropped glass that shatters, a driver cuts you off, someone honks at you, the grocery store bagger did not offer to carry out your 4 bags of groceries. The list of the little daily disappointments can be huge, and unless managed well, can build up stress and frustration over the day that can then seep out and infect others in your orbit, like your family.

Training Exercise #3: Meditation

Meditation is an invaluable practice for training the mind for many things, including disappointment. I started meditating soon after I was released from my three-month stint at Hazelden. Like all expert strivers, I bought the massive bible of mindfulness, Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zin, read it several times, and sat in the chair for 45 to 60 minutes every morning. It did not go well.

I tried, and tried, and tried to keep my mind focused on my breath. But for most of the 45 to 60 minutes, I just thought about an endless array of shit, from what to have for dinner, to finances, to whatever bubbled up from the subconscious cauldron of my brain. I would get SO mad and frustrated with myself for my seeming complete lack of ability to concentrate and focus on my breath for even one straight minute! I grew to dread meditation.

Then I found the Waking Up app by Sam Harris. Through a series of guided meditations and short lectures, and meditating for only 10 minutes a day, I learned that my striving and trying too damn hard to meditate and stay focused on my breath was the entire problem. It is this very thing - relaxing, not striving, and just letting things be - thoughts, emotions, all of it - just accepting them without reacting and gently bringing my attention back to my breath - that finally liberated me from the clutches of my mind.

Meditation is the training ground for learning how to identify, accept, and allow challenging emotions and thoughts without clinging or aversion (the two central triggers for disappointment). This is why it is such a tremendous tool for decreasing one's attachment to things in general and for decreasing the strong tendency we all have to avoid unpleasant emotions and thoughts.

Training one's mind for disappointments with Memento Mori, Small Disappointments, and Meditation will, I promise, not only massively enhance your skills to weather big disappointments, but it will also massively improve the quality of your mind in general, since the quality of your mind determines the quality of your life.

When A Big Disappointment Hits You On the Road of Life

You didn't get what you wanted: the raise, promotion, job, or trip you had been dreaming of for years. Or you got something you did not want: you've been fired or demoted, you retire from leading your division and watch all that you built over so many years disintegrate, or your spouse had an affair.

Big disappointments and potentially big impact. Hopefully, you have been training for this day because even with training, the challenge of dealing with major disappointments never goes away unless you simply don't care at all. The solution in a nutshell: Accept, adapt, & problem-solve.


Full acceptance of what caused the disappointment is the critical first step, which is the scaffolding upon which adaptation and problem-solving are built.

Acceptance is not being a doormat to what happens. Nor does it mean that you have to like what happened. Acceptance is a simple acceptance of reality. By sailing the smooth, calm waters of acceptance, you avoid the mental storm created by blaming others, justifying, making excuses, or projecting your failures or shortcomings onto others, things that may, like a drug, make you feel better in the short term, but will only make it worse. It is simply accepting reality, as it is. Acceptance of reality and what has happened without resistance is critical to prevent unnecessary suffering, since:

Pain X Resistance = Suffering.

With disappointment or any form of pain, be it emotional or physical, resistance turns pain into suffering. Before I had my hip replaced 14 years ago, I was constantly frustrated by the pain and my limited mobility and function - and even though I never complained out loud to others, I did, at times, and often, feel sorry for myself. The frustration and feeling sorry for myself are forms of resistance that turned the physical pain into mental suffering.

In other words, I had a shitty relationship with my pain. Once I realized that it was my thinking about my pain that led to more pain and suffering, my relationship to my pain softened and relaxed. My hip pain was less, and the mental grip it had on me was broken. I was mentally free, despite the pain.

One of the most powerful forms of therapy is ACT: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Here, the first step is Acceptance, which is followed by a Commitment to act and move forward based on your values and what gives you meaning in life, regardless of how you feel. Note—regardless of how you feel. That is the commitment (to yourself) part.

And therein is the challenge. Being in battle is much harder than being in training, so major disappointments are hard. They will still elicit strong emotions and feelings that can dramatically interfere with your ability to move forward in life. But move forward, you must, at the right moment.

Whenever we hit a major bump in the road of life, such as a major disappointment, the emotional turmoil and disruption can be so significant that it can take time, sometimes months or longer, for the emotional and mental dust to settle, especially if you have not trained. For this reason, William Bridges, a world expert on human transitions in times of trouble, recommends that we enter the Neutral Zone.

The Neutral Zone is the time and space we give ourselves (and others) to let the emotional and mental dust settle. Once it does settle, we are then much better prepared to have a clear mind and better emotions to be able to make rational decisions about how to problem-solve after a major disappointment. The length of time one needs to spend in the Neutral Zone depends on several factors, including one's personality, prior mental training, the amount of support from others, the intensity of the disappointment, and one's ability to accept reality without resistance.

The Neutral Zone is necessary. Avoiding it can lead to misguided decisions and actions that may not serve one well in the future. Like all things, the feelings of disappointment will not last, but it does take what I call Muscular Patience to tolerate the time it can take without caving into our typical surgeon's urge to do something to try and fix things. Holding off on acting is crucial in the Neutral Zone.


Adapt means to, as rapidly as possible, deal with reality and the situation at hand.

A simple example. You drop a glass on your tile floor, and it shatters, spewing shards of glass all over the place. Instantly accept it - it is, after all, just broken glass - and adapt by taking a deep breath and calmly getting the damn vacuum cleaner out while regulating your response.

In my little gym analogy, this means adapting rapidly to the fact that the machine I wanted is not available by either changing body parts or going on to another machine for the same body part. Acceptance and flexibility are key to being able to adapt rapidly and with ease. In the case of my committee issue, I accepted the reality that I was not chosen to be the lead and then adapted by calling the new chair, congratulating him, and offering my help.


The last step is to consider the future. How can you learn and grow from disappointment, and how can you prevent problems in the future?

In the case of the broken glass, the only thing to learn and do in the future is to be more mindful and not distracted when grabbing a glass out of the cupboard with my mind pinballing around on 10 different topics, not of my choosing.

In the gym, this may mean changing the time of day for my workout so that the machines are less busy, hiring a trainer to handle the whole situation, or even, if necessary, switching gyms if the problem is chronic.

For the bigger disappointments like divorce, being fired, not hitting your hoped-for time in running a marathon, or failing at anything - when the emotions and stakes are higher - the problem-solving always begins with the question: In what way are you complicit with the outcome you did not want?

This is VERY hard. It requires a great deal of ego strength and humility, and if you don't have these features in spades, it is a good opportunity to train them in yourself for your personal benefit, and for the benefit of others in your orbit. In my little committee drama, my immediate reaction was to bitch in my head about the powers that be and on and on...but I snapped out of it and soon realized it was my fault for making the assumption and for not having the courage to say no and resign from the running at the outset.

It is crucial to remember that when you are strapped in the seat of a disappointment airplane, and the emotional turbulence is greatest, the overwhelming urge is to project the failure or disappointment onto the external world. This urges us to lash out and do things we may later regret like sending emails, making calls, and blaming people in conversations with others.

The key is to stop, do nothing, go into the neutral zone, wait for the turbulence to die down, then unbuckle, get up, take careful stock of the entire situation, and then figure out what role you played, and then examine what were the forces of the external circumstance that played a role. Even here, there may be much to learn: could you have predicted or been more proactive in dealing with the external circumstances that played a role in the disappointment?

Though there may be real and valid external reasons that played a role in the event, it does not absolve one's responsibility to stop the madness of projection, which only leads to two outcomes:

1) the creation of stories of injustice about the event that can become embedded in one's mind and stay there, creating a recurrent emotional storm for you and others in your orbit whenever the story is triggered to surface to consciousness again.

2) it prevents you from learning and growing from failure or disappointment.

This is not healthy. For you. Or for others in your orbit.

There you have it, so to speak. The challenge, as always? Reading and understanding how to train and deal with disappointment is one thing, but practicing and preparing is another. Like all things in life, there are no shortcuts, and like all things in life, the value and growth that comes from doing the work is monumental.


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