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Column: The dangers of disappointment turning toxic

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Feeling disappointed is okay, what you do with that disappointment might not be.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oral Roberts at Ohio State Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

Emotions are not one size fits all sorts of things; they come in a never ending variety of sizes, shapes, tastes, colors, and shades. Some are big and engulf you in either the warmth or pain of what it is that you’re feeling, while some are small and can either sit on your shoulder and reassure you, or gnaw at you bit by bit from the inside.

It seems like over the past 12 months, we’ve experienced just about every emotion imaginable, both individually and collectively. But the one that comes to mind most for me as I look back at the past year is disappointment.

Like all emotions, there is no one uniform cause, intensity, or sensation of disappointment. It varies from person to person, instance to instance, but undoubtedly, we’ve all experienced a range of disappointments this past year.

But it’s important to recognize that the disappointment of losing a job is different than the disappointment of losing a loved one. The disappointment of losing an opportunity is different than the disappointment of losing an entire year of your life. All are valid, but all are unique.

Another type of disappointment that we have felt, especially as the Ohio State fans that we are, is in losing games. Whether that means losing entire seasons last spring, the women’s basketball players losing a postseason as punishment for the misdeeds of a former coach, or the football and men’s basketball teams losing in embarrassing fashion in their respective postseasons, it’s all disappointing.

Even though it can hurt, there is nothing wrong with feeling disappointed. In fact, it can be healthy. Understanding what our goals and hopes are is an incredibly valuable skill to have while navigating this confusing world that we live in, and having the emotional intelligence to recognize when someone or something (including ourselves) falls short of those hopes can only help inform our goals moving forward.

But when embracing our disappointment can become an issue is when it latches onto one of its sister emotions, like anger or sadness or desperation or depression. When we let our emotions get all mixed up together, they can go from being about the thing that caused the initial disappointment in the first place to being a big messy ball that has no focus or specific cause and can end up reaping damage in places that it has no business being.

I certainly have no desire to tell anyone how they should feel about the emotions they deal with on a daily basis. I want everyone to feel the feelings that come with each and every twist and turn of their lives; it’s just important that we know what we’re feeling, and why we’re feeling it. Because, it can be easy to let the disappointment in a loss from a team that we love get mixed up with our anger from something completely unrelated, and for that new complex, hybrid emotion to lead to really bad decisions that don’t truly have anything to do with the original root of what we’re feeling.

On Friday, Ohio State basketball star E.J. Liddell was beset with vitriol, slurs, and even death threats following the Buckeyes’ shocking first round loss in the NCAA Tournament. Now, I obviously don’t know “Jèfe” or “dakroacko,” but I’m old enough to have seen this before. I feel confident in saying that these individuals are disappointed in the loss, but the emotions that lead someone to send messages like this to another human being, regardless of the context, almost certainly stem from far more than just the disappointment of a basketball game.

It’s ok to be sad that your favorite team didn’t quite accomplish the goals it set for itself. But it’s also important to live with the emotions that makes you feel; to walk around in them understanding what they are and why they’re there. Your favorite team losing a big game can hurt, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way for a while afterwards. What there is something wrong with is when you allow that emotion to get mixed up with the resentment that you are feeling in your personal life, or the frustration that you are going through in your professional life, or the despair that you feel from everything else going on in the world around you.

When these individually siloed emotions bubble over and start to interact, they can spontaneously combust, almost always resulting in dangerous, destructive decisions. There’s no excuse for sending messages like those to any human being, let alone a 20-year-old college student. But we know that these types of disparate emotional combinations can have, and have had, far more violent outcomes than saying stupid stuff on social media. That’s why having the emotional maturity to recognize what we’re feeling, and why we’re feeling it can have profoundly positive impacts, not only on ourselves, but on the people around us.

The thing that’s true about sports that isn’t true about life is that there is always a next season in sports. This past year, we’ve seen far too many people lose their chance at a metaphorical next season. Whether that was due to an uncontrolled global pandemic, systemic racism, individual hatred, misguided anger, untreated mental health crises, or so much more; that can all be scary, maddening, and — yes — disappointing.

We’ve lost a lot this past year, as individuals, as a society, and as a fanbase. So, having a wide array of emotions makes sense, but context matters. That’s why it’s important that we check in with ourselves to make sure that what we’re feeling lines up with its corresponding cause. Taking out our frustrations over an entire year of broken dreams, lost loved ones, financial strain, and crippling isolation on a college basketball player isn’t healthy or fair.

Burn your bracket, take up boxing, lay flowers at a grave, see a therapist, do whatever you need to do to find a cathartic way to deal with the emotions brought on by this myriad of disappointments. Just make sure that you aren’t allowing the culmination of all of your emotions to manifest in some toxic way that just adds to the losses that we’ve already experienced.