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Whether it’s our boss when we missed a deadline, our kids when we have to say “no,” our significant other when we make a mistake, or our parents when our dreams and interests turn out to be different from what they had in mind, feeling like a disappointment sucks.
If you’re an empath, it’s not only the weight of your own guilt and shame, but you also feel their disappointment just as much. It’s a double whammy.
I was asked recently how to stop being a disappointment, especially to our loved ones.
The challenge is that we can’t. Not because we don’t want to, but because it’s not our job to. If anything, it’s our job to learn how to discern when to feel bad about disappointing someone versus when to simply feel compassion for them and allow it to be theirs to deal with.
Generally speaking, disappointment of all kinds stems from the same thing: an expectation that wasn’t lived up to.
Solution 1: eliminate disappointment by never having any expectations.
Let’s get real. First, we’re human. Second, expectations serve a purpose. They’re called standards and boundaries. We need them in order to live a healthy life. It’s also called anticipation, especially when it’s something fun like a vacation or special occasion. We’ll never get rid of expectations, and I don’t believe that we should.
Solution 2: be more conscious and discerning about the expectations we live by.
What they are, why they exist, and whether or not it’s even appropriate for us to try to live up to them.
If it’s our job and we know we have a deadline that we’ve agreed to meet, it’s an expectation we need to live up to. If we don’t, our boss’ disappointment, our coworker’s disappointment, and even our disappointment in ourselves are all appropriate. We also know that if we miss too many deadlines, or miss even a few for bad reasons, we’ll lose our job.
However, if it’s our parents who are telling us they expect us to get straight A’s, go to college, and become a doctor or a lawyer, when our heart is steering us into the arts, that’s an expectation that is not ours to live up to.
We want to. We’re biologically programmed as part of our survival instinct to try to make our parents happy, so that they’ll continue to take care of us, feed us, and house us, but it’s not an agreement we’ve made. It’s not an expectation that is ours to live up to, but theirs to let go of.
Whether an expectation is healthy or not is really about whether or not we’ve agreed to it, and whether or not it’s appropriate for us to agree to.
Sometimes, the disappointment comes in when we realize we’ve agreed to a set of expectations and now need to back out of them. This is a tough one, and there are healthy and unhealthy ways of going about it.
The unhealthy version looks like avoidance, procrastination, lying, and other forms of self-sabotage. After all, if we don’t live up to others’ expectations often enough, either those expectations will be lowered to our current level of life, or the people with those higher expectations will leave our life.
The healthy version looks like admitting that something has changed, having a mature conversation around what that is, and renegotiating the expectations. Sometimes, that renegotiation means ending a situation or relationship, but quite often, it can actually mean improving it to a higher level of satisfaction for everyone involved.
The healthy version takes courage. We can’t control the outcome. We can only show up and be honest about what’s true for us and allow the other person to decide what’s true for them given this new information.
At work, this might look like going to our boss and letting her know that we’re struggling to meet the deadlines or expectations. At home, this might look like sitting down with our partner and letting them know we need to quit our job for our sanity’s sake.
We have to have the courage to own our truth first, be willing to allow others to have their views, and yet, still be able to stand in our truth and ask for what we need. It may not change all at once, but plans can be made to start moving in a direction that works better for everyone involved.
Letting others down isn’t always a bad thing.
It depends on whether or not we’ve agreed to the expectations, as well as whether or not those expectations are even appropriate in the first place. How well we handle things when we recognize we’re not living up to expectations—ours or others’—goes a long way toward either building that relationship or dismantling it.
So, how do we stop being a disappointment to others?
We can’t. We’re human. We make mistakes. We grow. We change. Life happens. The best we can do is be honest, upfront, and as clear as possible about what’s really true for us.
As we do, we naturally surround ourselves with people who respect who we are, support who we are, and encourage us to keep trying.