You are not responsible for other people’s reactions to your choices.
It sounds harsh, doesn't it? But this is a life-giving acknowledgement. When we choose to act in a way that satisfies our own needs, we reclaim our sovereignty, and this is especially important when it comes to achieving better states of mental and emotional health.
I am not saying we should live by a code of ‘my sovereignty above all.’ That kind of thinking is unhelpful in a society where people need to feel confident that they can rely on others to do their part to keep society working. This includes following rules, caring for others, showing up for work, paying what’s due, and so forth.
By sovereignty here, I am talking about the self-governing and self-directed freedom that lets each of us choose the course of action that we deem to be right for ourselves, even within that larger context of the social roles that we play. Many of us have been socially conditioned to confuse choosing what is right for ourselves with doing what works for everyone else. In many ways, this is a learned practice of giving away our power with the expectation that something or someone external to us will fulfil our needs and make us happy. Thus, the idea of disappointing others frequently gets turned inwards, and we tell ourselves the story that we cannot afford to disappoint (verb) others because it means we are a disappointment (noun) and we will be punished for it.
“If I do what’s best for me…”
“We have to be willing to disappoint others. We are not responsible for the way other people react to the choices we make in order to live as the best version of ourselves.” This was one of the gems that came out of a recent community coffee and Q & A event with Counselor-in-Training, Advice Columnist, and Hot Beverage-maker Extraordinaire, Kristy Hourd (www.hotcuppaconnections.com).
Kristy noticed a trend in the questions that she answered during the Untold Stories Studio live-online event. It was not that the people asking the questions did not know what to do, Kristy pointed out. The questions suggested that those asking already knew what the solutions were; they were nevertheless feeling stuck by the idea that "if I do what's best for me, other people will be upset/put out/disappointed/made uncomfortable."
In other words, we have a tendency to bypass, ignore, and capitulate our own needs in order to please others.
Who are you pleasing?
People pleasing, or fawning, is a complicated form of trauma response where, unlike the fight (fight against or repel a threat), flight (flee and seek safety), or freeze (become immobile) responses, the fawn response results in behavior that amounts to approval seeking in order to ensure survival.
In other words, when confronted with stressors such as conflicts or abusive people, the person who fawns is using a coping strategy that they feel will give them the best chances of survival. If they can earn the approval of an abuser or simply give up their interests in a conflict, they will feel more secure. Like freeze, fight, and flight, fawn is done by the body in order to decrease, end, or evade danger and return to a state of calm.
Fawning, just like the response to freeze, fight, or run away, is useful only to the extent to which it suits the situation or threat. For instance, someone may resort to fawning when fighting, fleeing, or freezing are not options for escaping a stressor. They may try to diffuse the situation or concede their own needs or interests in order to feel more secure in a relationship. This is why fawn responses are most often seen in individuals who grew up in abusive families or live in abusive situations.
However fawning, just like the other acute stress responses, can become a maladaptive coping strategy when it is used outside of the appropriate environment or situation. When we experience disruptions in our typical coping development sequences due to overwhelming stress, poor treatment, or emotional invalidation, we tend to take the coping strategy with us, and we apply it to nearly every circumstance that feels the same way in our lived bodies, even though in reality they are not the same.
There is little wonder then what kind of lived experiences the person who is stuck on "if I do what's best for me, other people will be upset/put out/disappointed/made uncomfortable," is also bringing into their questions about how they can or should act to better support their own health and well-being. It may not be a story of physical abuse, but it would surely have something to do with experiences of repeatedly not having your own needs met or being in situations that make you feel insecure.
Changing Our Self-Story Patterns
Kristy's advice for finding a way to change the pattern of thinking "what if this person... (insert undesirable response here)," is to begin our conversations with them by stating our decision, not by asking a question. Instead of asking for accommodation or permission, we need to lead with our intended outcomes. Doing this involves changing our communication patterns. Understandably, this goes against some of the deeply ingrained social, cultural, and gender conditionings we all face, but it is possible and even easy to do when we begin to pay attention to the way that we absorb and regenerate our self-stories.
Chrissy Cordingley is a Certified Health and Safety Professional, Nutrition and Lifestyle Coach, Podcaster, and Blogger (www.girlwithaflare.com). She is also the co-facilitator of the upcoming Untold Stories Studio program called The Journey. Chrissy joined us recently in the Untold Stories Studio to talk about comparisons and why it is important for us to change our self-stories in order to live a healthy and meaningful life.
In this blog post created after her Mindful Lunch session with us, Chrissy illustrates the problems that come from trying to make sure “that people are comfortable with the way you tackle your life.” One of her tips for getting out from under that shadow of feeling the need to do things someone else’s way, is to ask yourself: “How can you feed yourself and feel good about where you are in your journey?” Sometimes, this means being willing to disappoint (verb). It also means learning not to equate doing what is right for you with being a disappointment (noun) to others.
When you articulate and stand by your own needs, you are engaging in important self-care activities. You are setting boundaries, you are using your own wisdom and intuition, you are acting within your own values, and you are being true to your authentic self. You are also teaching those around you what it means to engage in good self-care. And you are demonstrating personal sovereignty and autonomy to others that may need to learn it.
None of this is simple or easy work. In fact, it is messy and dirty. But that is what self-care is – dirty work that leaves us snot-crying and waking up everyday asking ourselves if we did the right thing. It is the kind of messiness that we need to endure so that we can one day open our eyes and answer that daily question with a resounding, “Yes.”
The Bottom Line
Do not shy away from choices that are right for you because you worry about disappointing others. If you find yourself worrying about letting others down when you make a choice to take care of your own needs, ask yourself where that story is coming from. What drives your need to please others more than yourself?
And when you are ready to take that step into doing what feels right for you, do not ask for permission. Let those that are part of your story know that what you are doing is respectfully inviting them into a conversation about how your relationship with them will evolve as a result of the choices you are making to improve your own mental and emotional health. When you do this, you are setting and maintaining healthy boundaries, while giving the other person complete sovereignty over their own actions. Who knows, you might end up teaching them a thing or two about what it means to walk a path of sustainable mental health. No one can complain that that's a disappointment.