My 18 year old just graduated from high school, but because of the pandemic, her Senior prom had been cancelled. Her classmates organized a make-up Senior prom, and though unofficial, entailed all the pomp and circumstance of high school prom–hair, makeup, dress shopping, the whole nine yards. Miriam looked stunning.
Not too long after arriving at ‘the prom’, I began to receive text messages. The affair, looked forward to with such anticipation, was a bit of a disappointment. Add to that, Miriam was getting a headache, and she just kind of wanted to go home. (Who hasn’t been there?!) I asked her what was stopping her, and she explained that she didn’t want to be a buzzkill. In essence, she didn’t want to disappoint her friends by leaving early. I assured her she wasn’t a buzzkill; after all, she wasn’t asking anyone to leave with her.
So, she left. Ultimately, she decided she didn’t want to disappoint herself more than she didn’t want to potentially disappoint other people. Proud Mom moment!
Do you know how many events, parties, and gatherings I’ve stayed at far past the moment I felt like going home? Honestly, I couldn’t begin to count the number. It’s something I’ve worked on, and now I have a bit of a reputation for Irish goodbyes.
About an hour after going home, Miriam was feeling much better after loosening the tied-too-tight red halter dress she’d been wearing. She received a text from her friend, who earlier in the evening, shared the same feelings of dissatisfaction that Miriam felt.
S: Where are you?
S: You are an icon.
Isn’t it funny? All the things we have done, places we have stayed far longer than we wanted to, all in the name of not disappointing others. Clearly, many of those situations would not have disappointed a single soul. Even if it did, would it really matter in the big scheme of things? It turns out the only one disappointed was me.
On the flip side of that coin, there are countless situations in life where what we do or don’t do genuinely has the power to disappoint other people. I and many, many other people like me dislike letting other people down, and I have stretched the limits of my time, body, and sanity to try to not disappoint anyone.
It begs the question, does that mean that one of my core beliefs is: it is my job to not disappoint anyone.
No! So why do so many of us live like it’s our job to make sure nobody else is disappointed? It’s an impossible, unrealistic, and unhealthy belief and one that shouldn’t be allowed to stand.
Yet, we agree that:
1) It is awful to disappoint people
2) It is awful to overextend ourselves to avoid disappointing people
Those two beliefs, equally held, are in direct contradiction to each other. So, what is the answer?
Disappointing people is okay? I love the idea of being completely comfortable with disappointing people. Yet, and here comes the other side of the same coin, I am a little uncomfortable with feeling like I’ve disappointed anyone.
As I was researching this topic, I found that one of the most common things that people with depression say is that they feel like they’ve disappointed everyone in their lives. WOW. While I am sure that this is not an accurate statement, after all, depression causes us to see through only the darkest of lenses, it really drives home how deeply we internalize the pain of disappointing others.
Merriam Webster defines disappointment as: “unhappiness from the failure of something hoped for or expected to happen.” That sounds like an unmet expectation, but the good news is that we can manage expectations.
Be clear in advance about what you are willing to take on, with precise language. If you agree to help plan a surprise party specify in great detail which tasks you will be responsible for. Other times we are expected to do something because we have been doing it regularly. If your partner expects a Friday night dinner, but you won’t be home until late Friday night, give them a heads up earlier in the week. Hunger and disappointment will be averted, and you always feel more disappointed when you are really hungry. If your mother is expecting a home-baked Mother’s Day cake decorated to perfection, just as you’ve done in years past, but you stopped enjoying making them long ago, tell her in advance that you are going to pick up her favorite cake from a bakery she likes. That is far better than the other alternatives:
A) stay up all night baking and spend the whole day exhausted and feeling resentment for doing something you really didn’t want to do
B) show up with a bakery bought cake and wait for Mom’s disappointed comment
Following through on our commitments is inherent to our character and integrity. But what about the more insidious cases of colleagues, partners, or friends setting their own expectations of us simply because that’s what they want out of the relationship. It’s being set up for failure. How can we possibly fulfill their expectations when we didn’t even know what they were? Those moments are opportunities to break out of the cycle of feeling like we somehow didn’t measure up, that we let someone down. Disappoint them. Just let their unrealistic expectations and presuppositions about you crumble. You didn’t sign up for this.
Then, do yourself a huge favor and stop making commitments you can’t or don’t want to fulfill.
There are times you will have to disappoint someone. But you can choose to disappoint them a little right away by saying no, or you can disappoint them greatly down the road by agreeing to take on more than you can realistically handle.
I need to pause here and clarify that I do and always will show up for my friends, family, and colleagues in ways big and small. Sometimes that requires me to push myself to do more than is comfortable for me that day, and I will continue to do that. Relationships are important, and they require care, attention, and thoughtfulness. Be mindful of where and how you are showing up powerfully, fully present, with the intention of sharing and not just showing up to meet expectations or avoid disappointment. Basically, if you’re at the party, be at the party fully for the right reasons.
I prefer to disappoint someone a little initially by never signing up for the responsibility in the first place. Don’t want to spend the weekend with your siblings in a one-room cabin in the mountains? Say no. Prefer not to bake 8 dozen double chocolate chunk peanut butter crunch cookies for your kid’s bake sale fundraiser? Say no. Don’t want to attend the party/conference/dinner you’ve been invited to. Just say no. It’s uncomfortable at first, but like a muscle, the more you use it, the more natural it becomes. Decline kindly and firmly. Thank them for thinking of you. You don’t even have to explain why you are declining; in fact, it’s better if you don’t.
Being honest about your capabilities, refusing to accept expectations you never agreed to, and managing the expectations of others is a great way to stay in the good graces of others, but more importantly, it is a way in which we honor ourselves by avoiding unnecessary stress and sleepless nights. It’s how we stop disappointing ourselves.