A very prickly sculpture by Dale Chihuly

Fear of letting people down

Have you ever been in a situation when you know you have to say no to something but the fear of letting someone down is overwhelming? Do you put yourself first or do you do what is wrong for you out of fear of damaging a relationship?

In a powerful chapter in Untamed by Glennon Doyle when she describes trying to figure out how to leave her marriage, daunted by the tragic repercussions for her children, she realizes what kind of mother she would be if she stayed. She would be setting the wrong example.

She says it is better to disappoint someone else than disappoint yourself.

“Every time you’re given a choice between disappointing someone else and disappointing yourself, your duty is to disappoint that someone else. Your job, throughout your entire life, is to disappoint as many people as it takes to avoid disappointing yourself.”       

Glennon Doyle 

Boundaries are important, they draw a line in the sand between what is ok and what is not ok. But while settling boundaries is essential we also need to teach people how to listen and hear them. It is a skill set we can learn- how to have conversations around boundaries, how to challenge a boundary, and how to ask for what we want.

Melissa Urban gives clear tips for how to have those conversations.

She says we must communicate clearly and kindly and be prepared to navigate the negative pushback. An example might be: “This is the right thing to do for me and for the health of our relationship.”

How people choose to respond is not your responsibility.

If the request to honour your boundary is reasonable then they are being unreasonable not to honour it.

Phrasing your boundary as a clear request can be helpful. This is you showing a green light. Only if the boundary is crossed or not honoured do you bring out the big red light and turn up with consequences.

This is all helpful but it is academic and in practice, feelings get hurt and there is a strong fear of letting people down. With boundaries, it feels like you always lose: you set your boundary and say no and then you disappoint someone, you fear losing trust and friendship.

I had a client with this very issue: in our session, she discussed setting firm boundaries with a close friend but when she returned for her next session she still hadn’t set her line in the sand and felt awful about telling her friend her decision that she feared would lead to upset and hurt. Her decision was made, and firm but she had yet to say it out loud.

These are some outcomes of our conversation and she left the session feeling stronger. She had given herself permission to let go of her fear of letting someone down.

  1. The first step is done. You said no and now you are feeling the pit in your stomach. Yes, you feel the discomfort and guilt. But you didn’t do the thing, you said no. You set the boundary, you did what was right for you.
  2. How you let them down matters. Do it in a gentle way with love.
  3. You cannot control how another person sees the world. (if they don’t like your boundary even after saying it gently, this is not something you can control. At this point you have to let it go.)

Boundaries are healthy and when set with respect are very kind. Let’s open up the conversation with the people in our lives. Here is an idea:

Discuss the idea of boundaries with your children, families, students, and friends. Talk about it over a meal. Let your children know that they can also have boundaries and ask them to express their own. Teach young people to express their personal boundaries now. Ask your friends how easy it is for them to maintain their boundaries. Let’s start a conversation.

Hold your boundaries with tenderness, they are keeping you safe and healthy.

Thanks for reading. If you liked this and you know someone who might also enjoy it, please pass it on. And subscribe so you never miss a post 🙂

Thanks, Sam xx

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