I grew up a people-pleaser, thinking that if I could take care of everyone else, then I would be granted total life success. This was partially true; people-pleasing has really helped me. I’ve always been a great student and have excelled professionally. I’ve even been called charming. Still, being overly accommodating has also hurt me professionally. My fear of disappointing others has made me sacrifice my own honest opinions in order to be likeable. I’ve gotten so worried about coming o well in a meeting that I’ve overlooked important details in projects. And when I’m not expressing myself fully, I become increasingly passive-aggressive, which can block progress and hurt professional relationships.
It has taken me years of rigorous self-examination, but I’ve learned that disappointing others is often an essential step to success in my career. This doesn’t make it easy. Each time I have to disappoint someone or challenge a majority opinion, I need a big internal pep talk. But I do it in order to thrive as a professional — and as a human being. Here are my five strategies to help you wisely disappoint others.
“It’s up to all of us to create a world in which people are allowed to rest and recover.”
1 — REALIZE THAT YOU’RE NOT “TOO NEEDY”
I’ve always tried to keep my needs as quiet as possible. I used to throw myself into projects and dutifully work extra hours. But my needs would eventually surface, usually accompanied by a full-on crying breakdown in a bathroom stall. Sound familiar?
I’ve realized that it’s not my actual needs that cause problems. Rather, my Herculean efforts to suppress those natural human requirements for basic self-care are what create strain. When I take on too much and allow tensions to build up inside of me, the eventual eruption is not pretty.
The kindest thing I can do for my work environment, myself, and everyone around me is set boundaries that give me true work–life balance. It always surprises me how easily I can find smart compromises or extra support when I voice my honest desires and ask for what I truly need.
2 — FIGURE OUT YOUR “F.O.M.O.”
For years, I’ve suffered from the affliction of FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. It makes sense: belonging is an important human need, and our tribal ancestors had to stay connected to the group in order to survive. Today, this translates into FOMO.
In the past, when a new client approached me, or someone offered me an opportunity to teach a workshop, my lizard brain flashed and a “yes” tumbled out before I could even think. As a result, I spent years chronically overcommitted, sometimes even consciously double-booking myself in my effort to stay connected to everything and everybody. Worse, I projected my own FOMO onto other people. I convinced myself that the person asking me wouldn’t be able to handle the rejection my saying no would ostensibly represent. Yet when I said yes out of FOMO, I would often arrive late or cancel at the last minute, disappointing other people even more in the process. Really, the kindest thing I could have done was say no when I couldn’t show up rest- ed and positive to a meeting or event.
Like any addiction, there’s a cure for FOMO: self-awareness. The more I can notice my own natural need for belonging, the easier it is to discern what I truly want from my time and energy. I commit to what I need and want to do. Then I kindly decline all other offers. This makes life so much easier for everyone.
3 — PRACTICE THE MANTRA “WHAT’S GOOD FOR ME IS GOOD FOR EVERYBODY”
Does this sound incredibly selfish to you? Try suspending your disbelief and begin practicing this principle. I say it to myself almost every day, and I’m always amazed to see it work- ing — like when I have to change a meeting time and find that it’s actually much better for my client. Following a thread of thought that interests me or asking a nagging question in a group can often unlock the solution to a problem that has been puzzling everyone.
This mantra becomes even more important during negotiations. If I try to be too accommodating and ask for less time, money, or support than I need, I’m doing a disservice not just to myself but to the common good. When I began my coaching practice, I knew from years of being chronically underpaid that I had to set my prices higher than made me comfortable if the venture was going to be sustainable. Even so, every time I got ready to reveal my price to a prospective client I would start sweat- ing. Especially in the beginning, I received a few incredulous rejections. But I didn’t back down, and kept asking. And I’ve found that the clients who don’t hesitate at the price are the superstars of my program. Because they invest so heavily, they show up fully and make amazing breakthroughs. With their success, they prove that I set my prices correctly. Plus, those coaching fees give me the time and energy I need to show up fully for their success. In order to create this win-win situation, I have to stay strong and remember that what is good for me is good for everybody.
4 — LEARN TO CALL IN SICK
Calling in sick has always been one of my least-favorite tasks of all time. As soon I realize I probably ought to, I begin mucking through an unending river of guilt, and that mean voice in my head calls me lazy and tells me that I’m probably just faking it.
Last year, I interviewed Kansas City-based pastor Jessi Marcus for my podcast. We talked about my fear of calling in sick, and she told me she used to feel the same way until she reframed the issue in terms of social justice. She said she realized that if she didn’t call in sick, she was upholding a culture where no one gets to rest. The decision may seem personal, but our distaste for rest affects people at the bottom of the economic food chain who are doing low-paid labor and who can’t afford to take a day off, even when they desperately need one. It’s up to all of us to create a world in which people are allowed to rest and recover. That means staring down our guilt, dialing our bosses, and advocating for a world where we are all allowed to take sick days. Since I learned to frame the issue that way, I’ve been amazed at how easily I can rearrange my schedule just by saying the magic words: “I can’t come in today.”
5 — REALIZE YOU’RE LEADING BY EXAMPLE
Every season, I lead a group of overworked professional women through a 10-week self- care and habit-changing process. I’ve watched more than 100 women go through this pro- cess, and am always amazed by how much one person’s self-care can affect a greater system. Often, the partners and children of my clients will begin to change their own habits just be- cause they are inspired by their wives and mothers. I get referrals from coworkers and bosses who are impressed by the increased radiance of my clients and their ability to respond calmly in stressful situations.
If we want to be effective in our lives, we have to let go of the image that we can be perfect and make everyone happy. If we really want to take care of the people around us, we need to start with ourselves. What doesn’t work is trying to be perfect and expecting others to do the same. It’s way too stressful to live that way, and nobody can live up to such high standards.
With time and practice, you can learn to disappoint others in order to take care of yourself. You’ll see that you’re allowed to be a living, breathing human being who risks conflict in order to gain intimacy and integrity. By advocating for yourself, you will help others more than you will ever know. It will take courage, but you can do it. You’ll be ungraceful the first few times you say no and set real boundaries, but those boundaries will still work. Your life and your relationships will get better and better and you will feel like yourself again. You’ll finally realize that saying no to others is actually saying a big yes to your own great and powerful life.