Why Someone's Disappointment Hurts Us More Than Their Anger

Why is it so painful to hear "I'm disappointed in you"?

We’ve all made mistakes—forgotten an anniversary, broken someone’s precious heirloom, or been caught betraying a friend’s confidence. (If there’s something more significant weighing on your conscience, insert your own example here.) 

When we know we’ve done wrong and been found out, we expect an angry response. Few of us enjoy making other people angry, but sometimes we know we deserve a tongue-lashing.

Sometimes, we escape what we deserve because our friends and family gift us their forgiveness. Or perhaps it turns out not to have been such a big deal after all—the anniversary wasn’t a special one, the heirloom can be fixed, or your friend has already posted her secret on Facebook. We can breath a sigh of relief and move on.

In contrast, the dreaded words "I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed" can wound us more deeply than many more heated retorts. While they assure us of a chilly calm, they do not offer the relief of forgiveness, nor the reassurance of discovering the event didn’t really matter.

There is something depersonalizing, diminishing, and deflating about receiving disappointment rather than anger from our friends: It’s something we expect a parent or teacher to say to a wayward child. And that’s a clue to what’s going on here. As adults, we want our friends and (ideally) our family to treat us as adults and peers, for better or for worse. Getting angry when things are worse is the opposite of offering lovegratitude, and enthusiasm when things are going well. 

The philosopher P.F. Strawson (link is external) connected so-called reactive attitudes such as anger and resentment with respect for others. This can seem perverse: We usually don't think of anger as a respectful emotion. But reflecting on the way in which disappointment reduces us to child-like status can help us appreciate Strawson’s insight. When friends get angry with us, it shows that they are fully engaged with us, and holding us fully accountable for our actions. 

Disappointment, however, can strike a fatal blow to friendship if it is not quickly overcome. True friends respect one another, and if that mutual respect and accountability cannot be recovered, then neither can the relationship.

And yet disappointment can be a loving, nurturing response to a child’s transgressions. Instant forgiveness or regular brushing-off of significance can prevent a child from maturing morally. And anger—in addition to being frightening—can prematurely treat a child as mature and overly-accountable for her behavior.  (Admittedly, it would be a saintlike parent who never expressed anger towards his or her children!)

Relationships with a boss, coach, or mentor are a fascinating middle ground between friendships and parent-child relationships. Such connections are typically not peer-to-peer, for lots of good reasons. Yet adult employees, athletes, and mentees are also not children—we are accountable for our actions and deserve respect. Like children, we often learn and mature into our roles best when we receive neither outright anger nor instant forgiveness. In healthy environments, disappointment is accompanied by encouragement to do better next time, along with guidance about how to achieve such success.

So, do we prefer anger, or disappointment? It depends who’s offering it.