How do you cope with crushing disappointment? Is it better or worse if everyone’s feeling it at the same time? Should you allow yourself those flights of fancy – where your mind disappears into a different outcome – even if you have to come crashing back to real life? These questions, by the way, are about the emotion of disappointment, not just about the football. Because, as Arj Thiruchelvam, a coach and lecturer in performance psychology, says, with a clear-eyed sense that few of us are feeling at the moment: “Put it in perspective. Flip the mentality. We’ve got back-to-back semi-final and final appearances in the last three tournaments, 2018, 2019 and last night.” In other words, life, or this green corner of it, at least, has never been more amazing.
So maybe this isn’t about football or any other sporting event, or indeed any particular event. Let’s just pretend you woke up feeling disappointed and you don’t even know why. What should you do?
First, it’s important not to suppress the feeling. Therapists often talk about “living in” or “sitting with” a negative emotion, and it sounds both sensible and obscure – an instruction of which you can see the benefit but have no idea how to enact. Annalisa Barbieri, the Guardian’s agony aunt, however, explains clearly why it can be so powerful not to always look on the bright side. “When I first became a mum and was finding it very overwhelming, I read something about what to do if you think you’re being followed. If there’s nothing you can do to get away from them, turn around and face your attacker. Then at least they lose the element of surprise. It struck me as so brave, and I’ve tried to do it with negative emotions. It can be really uncomfortable for 24 hours, but if you suppress the feelings, that will take a lot longer.”
Psychology with an accent on performance – sports psychology, mainly – tends to take a different tack, emphasising the need to banish negative thoughts and critical self-talk. Nonetheless, for Thiruchelvam, that still begins with “honest self-reflection”, without which you “give power to your weaknesses”.
Once you have sat with your negative feelings for what you have decided is long enough, there are small acts of mental health hygiene that will foster a more positive outlook, helpfully collated by Myndup, an online platform of mental health practitioners. Start the day reading something inspiring or meaningful – it doesn’t have to be cheerful, you just need to escape the trammels of doom-scrolling or doom-listening-to-the-radio. Better to choose it the night before, otherwise your day will start with your being unable to find inspiration, and that will make matters worse.
Find a positive statement and stick it where you’ll repeatedly see it. Don’t just pull it off Instagram. I don’t get a lot from “Every morning is a revolution against the darkness”, even though I can see that is technically true, and I like a revolution as much as the next man. In fact, I cannot immediately think of a positive statement that is meaningful for me, but I’m sure you can figure this out. Gratitude diaries, exercise, expressive writing, getting excellent sleep and music are all good for mood enhancement, even – or perhaps especially – if your low mood is down to a particular event.
Feelings of solidarity never harmed anyone, but they almost need to be spoken aloud before you can experience them as togetherness. Otherwise it’s just a load of people walking around making sad eyes at each other. What you need, ideally, is a poet on the case. In fact, there are few situations where a poet is more of a key worker. Ian McMillan, Barnsley FC’s poet in residence: “I always think in geological terms, when something terrible happens; you’re disappointed in the moment, but as soon as you think, well, in 50,000 years … Think like a glacier.”
And if that doesn’t work: “Try and imagine it’s a piece of fiction, so you’re in a cartoon, or an opera. I was doing a poetry gig once, and this fella stood up and said: ‘I’m going to the toilet now, if you say something funny while I’m out, let me know.’ At the time, I was cut to the quick, but if I fictionalised it by putting myself in the third person … I could become a woman, or I could become detective inspector Ian McMillan. McMillan of the Yard is off to do his next case. He doesn’t care what that fella said.”
Without trying to minimise your feelings, you could consider whether or not your disappointment is so keen because you were loading too much on to the event. Let’s be honest, this is about the football: even people who were not that interested in football, people so indifferent that they had rarely watched a match all the way through, were nevertheless hugely invested in Sunday’s final because the event seemed to represent such an important moment in the wider culture. In so many ways, from the whole team taking the knee, to Marcus Rashford’s work on child poverty, to Raheem Sterling’s fight against racism, to Harry Kane’s Pride armband, to Gareth Southgate’s progressive patriotism, they were saying, as the campaigner Shaista Aziz – one of the #threehijabis behind this petition to ban racists for life from football matches – puts it: “We are equals, we demand equality and we stand for equality.”
There was a symbiotic snowball effect between the team’s behaviour and the nation’s powerfully emotional response to it that made it feel as if change was coming. So, clearly, we wanted them to win, but I didn’t care so much whether they won against Italy; I wanted them to win so that good could triumph. And if they had won (against Italy, I mean) the racism surrounding them – from fans booing when they took the knee, to the despicable abuse Sterling, Saka and Rashford received on social media after the match – would have been “completely glossed over”, Aziz says. “At no point should anyone have ever thought that England winning was going to wipe out racism; we were at risk of the government trying to spin it into some narrative of their own glory.”
Instead, we have to confront the reality. Aziz continues: “There’s something very wrong in a country where two hours before kick-off, we’re being told to get behind our boys, and then the minute it ends, they’re suddenly no longer our boys.” This is an inflection point, “an opportunity to advance a conversation about tackling racism and hate”, Aziz concludes. They didn’t have to win to force that moment; it was enough for them to exist as the people they are. Indeed, it wouldn’t even have helped, though winning would have been wonderful for them.
McMillan, incidentally, has already written a poem about this week’s signal disappointment; he went to sleep with his ideas swirling, and woke up to find social media a cesspit of racist abuse, and “the poem in the end compares the fellas to Icarus. They fly too close to the sun, and then we catch them. I tried to make it into a collective act of transcendence.”
To return to the unadorned emotion of disappointment, another way to look at the way you have been feeling since Sunday night’s result, Barbieri explains, is that allowing yourself to feel your disappointment deeply is important because if you numb one of your emotions, you numb all of them. “It’s not like a fuse box, where you can switch off sadness, but still be happy.”
She makes an analogy with music: you can have a favourite bit of a song, but if you tried to replace the song with a medley of all your favourite bits of all songs, well, that would sound bad. Likewise, you cannot exist only in your most euphoric moments. You need feelings of disappointment, sadness, loss, thwartedness; that’s what anchors times of elation or contentedness into a story. Plus, if you “sit with disappointment and face it, you’ll dilute it eventually”.
But there is a paradox here. If you reconcile yourself to feeling sad, and allow yourself to feel it fully, because the texture of the emotional life, the vividness of its contrasts and undulations, make that worthwhile, it amounts to far more than putting a positive spin on things. The key difference between accepting pain and enforced, superficial positivity is that the one is rooted in where you are now; the other is about where you want to be, but can’t be there yet. However, you will be. Disappointment does end, honest.