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Don’t let me down: how to get over a fear of disappointing others

September 21, 2022 - 15 min read

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Why do we fear disappointing others?

Overachievers and underachievers: two sides of the same coin

Why it’s hard to let go

How to get over a fear of disappointing others

The only opinion that matters is yours

“I’m not mad; I’m disappointed.” 

This is one of the most devastating things you could hear from someone you love. Disappointment is somehow worse than outright anger. If someone is disappointed, it means they believe in you. And when you fail to live up to that standard, you’re not only failing them — you’re falling short of a better version of yourself.

Fear of disappointment isn’t always a bad thing. After all, you’re a functioning member of society with emotional intelligence. You don’t want to let people down.

You’ve probably been taught this from a young age. And studies show that kids with overcontrolling parents often grow up to be less assertive, independent, and autonomous in their adult relationships.

Parents who don’t let you fail do you a disservice, but so do parents with unreasonably high expectations. Both can often hold people back from reaching their full potential at work and in life.

But letting go of people’s expectations is essential to living happily. We know you’re doing your best, so here’s some guidance to help overcome your fear of disappointing others.

 

Why do we fear disappointing others?

A lot of people with low self-esteem tie their sense of self to external factors. High-achieving students might tie their self-esteem to grades and employees with imposter syndrome seek external validation from their boss due to low self-worth and insecurity. In the same vein, people who fear disappointment tie their well-being to other people’s opinions.

Caring about what others think isn’t inherently bad. Your society is built on norms and values, some of which are essential to maintaining harmony among diverse groups of people. 

Here are some reasons you’d fear disappointing others:

  • You’re anxious that people will be mad at you for saying no 
  • You feel they need your help to succeed
  • You don’t want to be viewed as unreliable 
  • You think you need to be in control of all situations 
  • You’re not being honest with yourself about how much you can handle 
  • You haven’t set effective boundaries 
  • You’re terrified of making mistakes

If you, for no reason at all, cut in line at Starbucks or refuse to give up your bus seat to someone disabled, other people would (rightfully) have a negative opinion of you. And you would be right to change your behaviors accordingly.

But, at some point in your early life, you may have been reprimanded for setting otherwise healthy boundaries. This can lead to a fear of self-advocacy in adulthood, which can manifest through people-pleaser behaviors and a fear of disappointing your loved ones.

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Overachievers and underachievers: two sides of the same coin

When it comes to your work life, the fear of letting people down manifests as overachievement or underachievement.

Atelophobia and overachievement

Overachievers are people who fear settling for anything less than the best. They’ll push themselves to the brink — often to the detriment of their own physical and mental health — in pursuit of unrealistic standards. 

A person who overachieves isn’t always concerned about disappointing others, but overachievement is a common symptom of atelophobia — an anxiety disorder characterized by an obsessive fear of imperfection and disappointment. 

If they fail to meet their ambitious goals, they easily fall into a spiral of self-doubt and self-criticism. This puts them at an increased risk of depression and anxiety. 

And the pressure to consistently perform at a high level can lead to chronic stress, which has its own set of physical health risks — such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.

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Underachievers and avoidance

Underachievers are people who don’t put much effort into setting and pursuing goals. 

More often than not, you would be wrong to attribute this condition to laziness. It usually stems from being under-challenged or over-challenged in childhood, leading to unfair expectations about how well they should perform. 

Let’s consider a child who shows promise in math. In one scenario, a family member tells them to “stop being a know-it-all” because it makes their siblings feel bad. In this case, the child learns to hide their skills and underachieve for fear of upsetting others. They might develop a fear of success because it creates uncomfortable situations.

An extreme reaction in the other direction would yield a no better result. The child’s parent excitedly registers the child for a national math competition. This would put a lot of stress and pressure on the young one, leading to atychiphobia — an extreme fear of failure. This negative personal experience teaches the child that high achievement isn’t worth it. 

Both of these examples incentivize avoidance and create a fear of setting goals and achieving them. After all, why would you use your skills if they brought negative outcomes?

Learn how to set appropriate goals with BetterUp. With one of our coaches, you can divide your milestones into small, achievable steps. With every win, we’ll be right here celebrating with you.

Why it’s hard to let go

Letting go of your fear of disappointment doesn’t mean letting people down left and right. 

Rather, it’s about stopping people-pleasing behaviors that hurt you — even if that means disappointing people sometimes.

These behaviors can be difficult to recognize, mostly because it can be difficult to distinguish between altruistic and self-protective reasons for serving others.

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Altruistic reasons stem from your desire to help people you care about. These people support you when you need them, so you’re willing to return the favor. For example:

  • You made a commitment. You promised your sister you would babysit your nephew this weekend so she can spend quality time with her partner. You want to cancel, but this would ruin her plans. If your sister is a positive presence in your life, it might not be worth straining the relationship by breaking your promise.
  • You started something, so you have to finish it. Knowing when to quit is a skill in itself. But if you promised a friend you’d complete an exercise class with them, it might be better to follow through. Your friend may depend on you for moral support.

Self-protective reasons stem from your fear of disappointing others — and they usually harm you more than they protect

  • You’re avoiding conflict. A difficult co-worker won’t stop speaking over you in a meeting. Instead of confronting them afterward, you choose to keep it to yourself because you don’t want to upset them. In the long run, this only deprives you of the opportunity to show off your skills and add value to your team.
  • You say what you think people want to hear. You said “yes” to an extra project because you thought that’s what your boss wanted from you. But you already have a list a mile long. Now you’re working too much and risking burnout because you couldn’t say no.

It’s difficult to parse which reasons drive your actions. Perhaps you couldn't say no to your boss because you genuinely respect them, even though you’re harming yourself in the process.

Or you can’t babysit your nephew because you have a cold and need rest, but you go through with it anyway because your sister needs you. Now you risk getting her nephew sick and worsening your own condition. 

To a degree, disappointing others is inevitable. You need to learn to let go of that fear to better put yourself first. The people who love you will understand that sometimes, you just can’t handle everything by yourself. And that’s OK. 

Learning how to say no is a strength, and you should be proud of your ability to set healthy boundaries and prioritize tasks on your to-do list. You can’t please everyone.

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How to get over a fear of disappointing others

Getting over your fear of disappointing others will take some effort. But these tips can point you in the right direction:

1. Give others permission to feel

People have agency over their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. You can’t control them, nor do you have the right to.

Let them feel their emotions because they have nothing to do with you. Their disappointment is their business — they’re free to process it as they see fit.

2. Consider the costs of your fear

Every time you make a decision, you must evaluate your needs in relation to the moment’s needs. If your colleague asks for a favor but you’re already swamped, you might need to say no. But if your best friend needs help moving and you have free time, your decision might be different. Be mindful in your daily life.

3. Flip the script with reverse empathy

If you asked your friend for a favor, but they said no because they’re sick, you probably wouldn’t give it a second thought. In fact, you may even be happy they’re taking time to rest.

Why wouldn’t they extend the same compassion to you? Don’t let your fear make you assume the worst in people — they can be more understanding than you think.

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4. Start slow

You don’t need to master your fear all at once. Instead of jumping into big decisions that affect another person, you can start by practicing in lower-stake situations. Try giving constructive feedback to a colleague, even if you wouldn’t normally. This will help you work out your “anti-disappointment” muscle. 

5. Consider psychotherapy

Your desire to please others might come from places you’re unaware of. Whether you experienced unfair expectations in childhood or suffered from an abusive relationship, a mental health professional can help you work through these feelings to let go of your fear.

The only opinion that matters is yours

You have your own dreams, goals, and aspirations. Don’t let your fear of disappointing others deprive you of living your best life. 

This is easier said than done. Fear is a complex emotion that can be difficult to untangle. But, as you learn more about your own behaviors, you’ll soon be able to break toxic patterns. 

Every day, you should only worry about disappointing yourself. Then you can live by your own rules, free from the shackles of others’ expectations.

BetterUp can help you on your journey. Our coaches can help you set goals and develop skills that will lead you to success. Together, we can ensure you’re living life by your core values.

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Published September 21, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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