Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Do You Have the Courage to Be Disappointing?

Breaking our people-pleasing habit is the key to recovering our vitality.

Kinga Cichewicz
Kinga Cichewicz

Women of all ages are burned out and exhausted these days. We are depleted—emotionally, physically, and mentally. But, like good girls, we push through, day after day, often without admitting to our deep fatigue, forever trying to be who everyone needs us to be.

From a very early age, we’re taught to be nice, selfless, helpful, generous, and most of all, to take good care of other people. If we’re pleasing then we’re valued, respected, and loved. We quickly learn that being liked is the surest way to not be rejected and therefore, to be emotionally safe.

Consequently (and some would say wisely), we devote a great deal of our attention and energy to making ourselves likable. In service to our likability, we are constantly managing ourselves—adjusting, controlling, sweetening, quieting, and what we imagine to be improving ourselves.

But we’re not just focused on managing ourselves, we spend even more attention and energy on managing everyone else’s experience—of us. We not only have to make sure we’re pleasing, but we also have to make sure that other people experience us as pleasing, and they’re not the same thing. Managing the way we’re being perceived, and what each person wants from us, is its own full-time job. The result is that we’ve got multiple objectives and tasks to accomplish in every moment, all of which kidnap our attention from the present moment and make it impossible for us to be where we are as who we are.

The energy we expend on the management of other people’s experience and perception of us; the attention that goes into preventing other people’s disappointment or disapproval, and fixing it if we slip up and it happens, is the biggest hole in our bucket, and the real drain on our emotional vitality. In short, it’s why we’re burned out.

So then, what can be done to break this learned habit of managing and controlling other people’s perception of you, which has probably become so ingrained as to be a seamless (and effective) part of your personality?

The first step is to go looking for yourself; make yourself a destination and find out what you actually think and feel. Start to pay attention to what’s actually true for you in any situation, before that truth gets shape-shifted to achieve a certain end. You may have become so accustomed to pre-empting, ignoring, and adjusting what you think and feel, already anticipating what other people want from you, that you don’t even notice or make space for your authentic experience. Before it’s allowed to even exist, your truth has already been distorted to fit what you’ve decided will please another. That said, the first step in recovery is simply to investigate and acknowledge your own experience, what’s true for you separate from and absent the response or reaction it may evoke.

Breaking our deeply ingrained people-pleasing habit requires more than just self-awareness, however, it demands that you start practicing the simple (but not easy) task of telling the truth—out loud, of finding the courage to be honest, even when you know your honesty will not be pleasing and will not make you likable. Expressing yourself authentically—without editing, altering, deactivating, or apologizing for your truth—is how you break free from the likability cage and end your days as an exhausted and depleted people-pleaser.

Speaking your truth when you know it won’t be pleasing is really hard and scary, and sometimes even risky; other people often don’t like your truth (or you when you say it), but you practice saying it anyway, and practice taking the risk that being authentic demands. You practice until it’s not so scary, until you can trust yourself and the truth as your real strength and stability—your real emotional safety. (And even then, you keep practicing).

What you’re really learning as you break the people-pleasing habit is how to let other people be not okay. Contrary to everything we’ve been socialized to be as females, and counter-intuitive to our emotional survival instinct, staying still emotionally and physically, and not rushing to fix another person’s disappointment or distress is the key practice in our recovery from people-pleasing. To feel what it’s like to allow someone to be disappointed or displeased with you, wow, it’s the big shift that needs to happen. Imagine being able to tolerate someone not getting what they want from you and setting them free to find their own solutions and be the masters of their own lives.

Freedom comes when you’re able to understand and care about another person’s experience, but without having to be responsible for making it what you think it should be. When you stand in your own truth and claim it, but without taking responsibility or ownership for the response—your vitality will return and your exhaustion will be replenished.

We don’t become people-pleasers overnight and don’t break this survival habit overnight. It’s a daily practice and a process to choose authenticity over likability. It happens in baby steps, by taking small risks. Sometimes, it’s easiest to start with people who aren’t that important to you, allowing yourself to be disappointing when the stakes are low. Practice with the flight attendant or coffee barista, try consciously not trying to make them want to be friends with you, or not being that person who brings a bright spot to their day. Practice by saying less, offering just what’s true in a situation, and then closing your mouth. Practice staying silent in those moments when in the past you might have started apologizing, altering, or backing out of your truth so as to make it work for the other person and make the other person happy with you. You might have to tell yourself a hundred times in that silence that you’re not responsible for the other person’s experience, or for that matter, for taking care of them. That’s on them.

Ultimately, breaking this habit requires a shift in identity: being willing to let go of the you who gives everyone what they want and is so agreeable. It’s about daring to step into your life for real, which may mean not giving someone what they want or the version of you they want—even when you know exactly who that is and could so easily be that for them. Furthermore, it’s about being willing to give up some of the emotional cash and prizes that come from being liked in order to discover new gifts and riches that come from being who you are, and trading in being liked for liking yourself.

When you take responsibility for your part (and only your part) in any interaction, but surrender control of the results, you immediately regain the energy and vitality that was being poured into managing your reality. Furthermore, when you stop manipulating and crafting a desired outcome, you can then be present—in the actual moment, as it unfolds in its own spontaneous and unexpected ways. What opens up then is the real treat, namely, real empathy and genuine caring; when you are not trying to be perceived as pleasing, you are free to actually listen, understand, and care for others in ways far more profound.

More from Nancy Colier LCSW, Rev.
More from Psychology Today
More from Nancy Colier LCSW, Rev.
More from Psychology Today