The Fear of Disappointing

disappointmentI‘ve written before about the greatest fear I have left in my life — the fear of letting people down:

To me happiness is not wanting anything, and ridding yourself of the chores and obligations that you hate, and taking on just the right amount of things that they can all be done well, comfortably and joyfully.

So it was interesting that, on his final day on the campaign trail, that was also what President Obama was telling his closest advisors — his concern that expectations were so high and the challenges so great that he was bound to disappoint. And the morning after his victory, Garrison Keillor, in his advice to Obama, wrote that he would inevitably disappoint his supporters, and not to let it get him down. The pathological Bush was a self-declared master at lowering expectations, though somehow he still managed to disappoint us all, again and again.

I wonder to what extent this fear of disappointing drives me, and others. My desire to live simply, without responsibilities or possessions, to practice instead of intending and aspiring, my interest in polyamorism — are these all ways to hedge my bets if I fail to live up to others’ expectations, and my own?

The new way of damning a subordinate in the workplace, instead of calling them a fuck-up, is to tell them (and others) they disappointed you. On the surface it seems politer, but it’s really a nasty and cowardly way of trying to make them feel guilty and keeping them in wage slavery. I’ve never told anyone I was disappointed with them, though I’ve been tempted.

Same thing in many people’s “second job” as a family member, or as a team member in a recreational activity. Tell a mate they “let you down”, or give ’em that sigh and disappointed look, and it gets them to do what you want far more effectively than yelling, arguing, or even crying.

What is it about us that we are always rising to others’ expectations? Is some of our anxiety because we think they expect more of us than they really do? Is it really our own unreasonable expectations we’re trying to live up to?

Or is it just society’s way of getting us to conform, to obey, to do what others want, to make us everybody-else?

I’ve noticed, in many people who communicate in writing (IM, e-mail, Second Life text, and even real letters) a great anxiety about meeting in person (if they haven’t previously), and an even greater anxiety about speaking on the telephone (or VoIP). As writers, do we set a standard of communication we can’t hope to live up to in real-time? Is that space, that silence on the line, just too unbearable to contemplate, an admission of not really knowing what to say?

As I’ve aged I’ve become a bit ornery about others’ expectations of me, and of others (“the government”, business “leaders”, “society”). We should know better than to expect much of people and institutions. Most of us really are doing the best we can, even we slackers. Most people don’t have the skills, the capacities, the resources or the time to do better than they do now, every day. Most people are ignorant, and distracted by personal challenges and sorrows, and unimaginative, and incompetent, and under these circumstances it’s remarkable that they do for us, and for themselves, as much as they do.

My hope for others, now, is that they will simply be more authentically themselves. That’s hard, and a lifetime challenge, but it’s possible for everyone and, I think, a worthy pursuit. I do not expect it of them; I just do my best to help them get started on that journey, and wish them well. I do expect this of myself, but I have the good fortune to have learned, at last, who I am, so becoming nobody-but-myself is now just a matter of practice. If people expect me to be something more, or different, they will be disappointed. That is their business, not mine.

This is, of course, easy to say. The look, and the expression, of disappointment, of having let someone down, yet again, is still hard for me to take. But I’m learning to recognize it for what it is, and I try, now, to tell people I cannot and will not live up to others’ expectations of me, and I refuse to feel badly when others are disappointed in me or feel I have let them down. I usually pave the way for this by being brutally honest with people, from the moment I meet them, and declaring what I will and will not do, for them or for their cause, whatever it may be.

Learning to say no may be the most important, and liberating, lesson of our lives.

It is in our nature to seek attention and appreciation, and the quid quo pro for that is usually offering something to others in return, and raising their expectations in the process. So many people are looking for someone to lead them out of their particular situation of anguish, hopelessness, despair, loneliness, or constant struggle. The best we can do for them, and ourselves, is to help them to help themselves, and to realize that they have to help themselves. That is the ultimate generosity, and it can be given with no strings attached.

So if you feel, dear readers, friends, colleagues, loved ones, that I have disappointed you, let you down, failed to live up to your expectations, then I apologize — not for that failure, but for having given you somehow the impression that I had accepted or could ever offer to do more than share my thoughts, ideas, knowledge, love, and, most precious, time with you.

I am, after all, just the space through which stuff passes, a part of the unfathomably complex dance of all-life-on-Earth, learning to improvise which of that passing-through stuff to touch, and which to just let go. “Ah, I know how I can make this better, or clearer, or more interesting, or more useful, or more innovative, or more fun — there!” Just being the space, and touchingthe right stuff in just the right way as it passes through.

I hope some of that stuff is yours.

Category: Let-Self-Change

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4 Responses to The Fear of Disappointing

  1. Nathan says:

    I am but a reader who enjoys your writing – the only expectation I have is that I will find something intelligent and thought-provoking, but then this is something you just offer freely.I certainly find that if you have unrealistic expectations of people you are going to be disappointed. The worst thing is when people end up in a situation when they have to give more than they have. It’s no use saying that people should be able to “cope” when they are under unreasonable demands to take whatever is thrown at them. I know from having children that the demands of this in addition to work really leave little for yourself, especially if you aren’t particularly stimulated by your work.I think that whenever you have discussed polyamorism, and the possibility of distributing parenting, I have thought that it’s more likely children will get what they need, because I know that I can’t really provide everything. Children also seem more likely to get close to a larger number of people to satisfy their emotional needs. They seem naturally inclined to love more freely.Well you see, when you write you make me think, and this is something you happen to do while essentially writing for yourself, just by being open and thoughtful. I’d like to be able to do the same thing at some point…

  2. DaveExpect nothing, accept everything.

  3. I expect and demand that you write correctly, or else I’ll be disappointed: that would be “quid pro quo”. ;-)

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