How to Stop Being Afraid of Disappointing Others

Most of us care, to varying degrees, about what other people think of us. We generally don’t want to disappoint people. This can be psychologically healthy; we’re social creatures who desire belonging, harmony, and acceptance. It’s normal to care.

The Dangers of FODO

Sometimes the desire to achieve belonging and harmony can result in what I refer to as FODO, or the fear of disappointing others. Similar to the concept of FOMO, we might be inclined to sacrifice our own needs and well-being when it comes to social occasions or interactions. But I’m willing to bet what most of us fear is not actually missing out. I think our biggest fear is disappointing others.

In many ways, FODO is more than just people-pleasing tendencies. Those who think of themselves as people-pleasers tend to engage in more proximal behaviors like signing up for tasks that others suggest, staying quiet to keep the peace, or letting someone else call the shots.

While these tendencies can certainly lead to unhealthy patterns and distress, many people-pleasers, according to personality psychologists, score highly in trait agreeableness and can fare fine in the world provided they learn how to say no.

Things become more challenging, however, if a chronic fear of disappointing others is what lies beneath these people-pleasing patterns. When we begin to trust others’ expectations and desires for us (whether it’s our boss, coworker, parent, partner, or best friend) more than we trust ourselves, this can have catastrophic effects on our well-being.

The bad news is when we succumb to FODO, we sacrifice our inner wisdom. We stay in jobs, programs, or relationships that no longer serve us. And where we are no longer serving in an authentic, fulfilling way. We abandon our integrity in the pursuit of approval. We live by the standards set by others and lose ourselves in the process.

The good news? It doesn’t have to be this way.

Learning to Overcome FODO

Glennon Doyle, the author of Untamed, writes: “I have learned that if I want to rise, I have to sink first. I have to search for and depend upon the voice of inner wisdom instead of voices of outer approval. This saves me from living someone else’s life.”

The reality is that none of us can make everyone happy. If we think we can, it’s likely at the cost of our own happiness. And more importantly, fear is simply a state of anxious anticipation for an unpredictable outcome. It’s rarely representative of reality.

When I made the decision to withdraw from my Ph.D. program, I knew it was the right choice. I knew I would feel happier, freer, and at peace. But I put off the official decision for weeks.

Why? I was terrified of disappointing people. So, I succumbed to the fear by playing out all the potential scenarios and reactions in my head. And you know what happened when I finally told my advisor and colleagues? Acceptance. Respect. Kindness.

I understand this type of response isn’t always a guarantee, but it’s far more likely than we think. The fear dissipated when I learned no one was upset with me. Quite the opposite.

Since then, a helpful technique I’ve learned is to write down the phrase: “If I say __________ or do __________, I believe that __________.” And fill in the blanks.

For example, I could have written: “If I say my decision is to leave the doctoral program, my colleagues will judge me and think I’m not smart enough, and my advisor will be disappointed I’m not who he thought I was.”

Pretty harsh self-talk, right? The important thing is to acknowledge our fear of the worst possible outcome while understanding that 99% of the time, people will show us grace and compassion. Which is exactly what happened to me.

And that 1% of the time when you do face disappointment or criticism, which is inevitable, take pride in knowing you honored yourself, listened to your inner wisdom, and refused to operate from a place of fear.

Those are likely not going to be the people whose opinions matter. Giving yourself permission to risk criticism in the pursuit of doing what’s right has another benefit: it gives others permission to do the same.

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