How to overcome the dreaded anti-climax

Victoria Stokes 21 April 2022

Dealing with "anti-climax"? Here's how to handle the unexpected deflating downside of achieving your goals

Picture the scene: you’ve spent years working towards a very specific goal. You’ve put in countless hours of work and made many sacrifices along the way, but now that you’ve got there it doesn’t feel quite like you imagined.

Instead of celebration, elation, and pride, you feel emptiness, confusion, and doubt.

Welcome to the anti-climax. The often-experienced but seldom-discussed downside of achieving life’s biggest milestones. Many of us work tirelessly towards our goals. We may spend our lives dreaming of the day we get married, publish our first book or purchase our first home. However, oftentimes, when we achieve these things it doesn't feel quite as expected. In fact, the achievement of these goals feel anti-climatic, or a bit of a letdown. 

So why do we often experience an anti-climax with big goals, even though we're happy to achieve them? “An anti-climax can be an unexpected by-product of a milestone achievement. Usually, the more significant the milestone, the greater the anti-climax may be,” says Rachel Vora, psychotherapist and founder of CYP Wellbeing.  

“The journey to achieving a milestone can be exciting and all-consuming in addition to giving us a robust sense of purpose and focus. Therefore, when this disappears overnight, we can often feel lost and confused, despite feeling proud of our achievement.”

"The journey to achieving a milestone can be exciting and all-consuming in addition to giving us a robust sense of purpose and focus"

When this happens it can prompt a cocktail of complicated emotions. “Clients often present [to me] with an overwhelming sense of 'is this it?' and 'what now?',” says Vora. “These feelings of confusion and disappointment, if left unacknowledged, have the potential to cause clients to develop symptoms of depression and low mood.”

Vora points out that the intensity and nature of an anti-climax is often reliant on our preconceived ideas and expectations of what this achievement may mean for us. We often falsely believe that we’ll feel drastically different afterwards or that our feelings of low self-worth will disappear, but this is rarely the case.

You have arrived at your destination

In psychology, the belief that we’ll be happier when we achieve our goals even has a fancy scientific name. Psychologists call it "arrival fallacy" and it plays a big part in those feelings of emptiness that can follow achieving a goal.

“The term describes how fulfilling our goals and achieving our ambitions doesn’t lead to a happily ever after,” surmises psychologist Lee Chambers. “We hold this vision and expectation that attaining the outcome we are chasing will grant us a lasting feeling of happiness, fulfilment and contentment. And when we do arrive at the destination, beyond the moment of celebration, there is often a void, a feeling of aimlessness, or a whole new longing for something more,” he explains.

It’s a feeling that’s all too familiar for Katie Ford, a veterinary surgeon who studied for nearly three years for an extra qualification, only to feel deflated, lost, and disillusioned when she passed. “The path to this qualification meant two and a half years of study, alongside a busy job and on-call rota. It was also a significant financial investment,” Ford recalls.

"The term describes how fulfilling our goals and achieving our ambitions doesn’t lead to a happily ever after"

“Gaining this qualification felt like it should be an armoury, proof that I was indeed a good veterinary surgeon, but when the final result came through, I felt nothing. My expectations of confidence and belonging were sadly absent. Rather than celebrating, my thoughts shifted to wondering what was wrong with me, and I felt short-changed and lost.”

Ford thinks the anti-climactic feeling was partly a result of failing to recognise her progress along the way. “I think the feeling of anti-climax for me came from never acknowledging how far I’d already come, discounting every achievement, and failing to see that I was indeed the person who’d legitimately walked this path. I had pinned an internal feeling on an external change.”
 
How To Handle An Anti-Climax

If you find yourself in a similar situation to Ford or are currently working toward something big that you suspect may feel like a bit of a letdown when you reach the finish line, there are steps you can take to manage and even prevent the feeling of anti-climax.

Enjoy the journey

It may feel like a bit of a cliché but appreciating the progress you’re making along the way instead of fixating on the end result can be freeing. It’s an approach Ford has adapted. “I now focus on the process much more than the outcome; I take time to celebrate and acknowledge the smaller steps and choose a kinder narrative,” she says.  

“I get clear on my motivators and my ‘why’ and check in with myself as to how I’m feeling along the way, rather than being swept into a narrative of proving something to someone else. I feel I'm much more self-aware, and kinder in my self-talk.”

Chambers says enjoying the journey can be difficult in a world that has become increasingly outcome-obsessed, but assures there are many ways we can foster this approach in our lives. “The first one requires slowing down a little and realising that joy comes from the doing, not the completing. So instead of rushing for it to be done, take a moment to enjoy the doing, and remember that lots of things in our lives are never truly done, but constantly evolve just like we do,” he muses.

"Joy comes from the doing, not the completing"

Another vital step is acknowledging the small wins. “Have lots of stepping stones to a big goal to pause on,” Chambers advises. “Celebrate each new stone, look back and celebrate how far you've come from the first one, and look forward to the many stones in front.”
 
Anticipate the comedown

Vora believes expecting and anticipating anti-climaxes in the lead up to big milestones can lessen their impact. “Anti-climaxes are just as common as post-holiday blues,” she points out. “If we normalise and plan for feeling this way, we can limit the impact on our mental health.”

If you are aware of a potential upcoming anti-climax, Vora recommends scheduling an activity to look forward to soon after the event has finished. Think planning some time with friends and family, attending a concert or even a cooking class. Vora says, “This can act as a reminder that other aspects of life can be just as fulfilling.”

Normalise the experience

Experiencing an anti-climax can be a pretty isolating time. Vora points out that there is an increased social pressure to hit social milestones. Our culture depicts these achievements as the be-all and end-all, and because of how these moments are portrayed by others, we expect to feel a certain way. When we don’t feel as we expected it can be confusing and feed into feelings of comparison.

Vora says the key is to “normalise feelings of low mood, confusion, and self-doubt around anti-climaxes.” They are something many people experience and connecting with others may be beneficial. “It can help to engage with friends and influencers online who share similar experiences to feel less isolated with your own emotions,” Vora suggests.

Ford believes practising self-compassion can also be helpful at this time. “It’s important to be gentle with ourselves at this time, to try to avoid the comparison trap, and see where we can start to reflect on the small steps and victories that we might not have acknowledged along the way,” she says.

Focus on sustained progress

“We have to remember that from an evolutionary perspective, our brains are wired to keep us alive and evolving, not happy and content,” Chambers points out. “For the majority of our existence, we were prey, and this means we are not always deliberate in celebrating even the biggest achievements.”

The solution, Chambers believes, is to cherish each moment. “Instead of downplaying what we have achieved or moving straight to the next item on the list, mindfully cherish the moment and properly reflect on the gain you've made,” he advises.

“Reward yourself in a positive way and recognise your progress. That way, you won't fall into the fallacy of having ‘made it’. Instead, you’ll see that you are happily ‘making it’ along the journey that is an entire lifetime.”

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