You are not responsible for other people’s reactions to your choices.
It sounds harsh. But this is a life-giving acknowledgement. When we choose to act in a way that satisfies our own needs, we reclaim our sovereignty, which is especially important when achieving better 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 us choose the course of action that we deem suitable for ourselves, even within the larger context of our social roles. Many of us have been socially conditioned to confuse choosing what is ideal 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 that we cannot afford to disappoint (verb) others because it means we are a disappointment (noun) and 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 how others react to our choices 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 she answered during our live-online community 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 the solutions; they were nevertheless stuck on 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 tend to bypass, ignore, and capitulate our own needs 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 behaviour that amounts to approval seeking to ensure survival.
In other words, when confronted with stressors such as conflicts or abusive people, the person who fawns uses a coping strategy that they feel will give them the best chances of survival. If they can earn the approval of an abuser or give up their interests in a conflict, they will feel more secure. Like the freeze, fight, and flight responses, fawning is done by the body to decrease, end, or evade danger and return to a calm state.
Like the instincts to freeze, fight, or run away, fawning applies only to the extent to which it suits the situation or threat. For instance, someone may resort to fawning when fighting, fleeing, or freezing is not an option for escaping a stressor. They may try to diffuse the situation or concede their own needs or interests to feel more secure in a conflictual relationship. This is why fawn responses are most often seen in individuals who grew up in abusive families or lived in abusive situations.
However, fawning, like other acute stress responses, can become a maladaptive coping strategy when used outside 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 health and well-being. It may not be a story of physical abuse, but it would have something to do with experiences of repeatedly not having their own needs met or being in situations that make them feel insecure.
Changing Our Self-Story Patterns
Kristy's advice for changing the pattern of thinking, "what if this person... (insert undesirable response here)," is to begin conversations with them by stating our decision, not by asking a question. Instead of asking for accommodation or permission, we must lead with our intended outcomes. Understandably, this goes against some profoundly ingrained social, cultural, and gender conditions we all face. Still, it is possible and even easy to do when we begin to pay attention to how 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). Chrissy joined us in the Untold Stories Studio to talk about comparisons and why we need to change our self-stories 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 ensure “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 suitable for you with being a disappointment (noun) to others.
You engage in important self-care activities when you articulate and stand by your self-care needs. You are setting boundaries, using your wisdom and intuition, acting within your values, and being authentic. 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. It is messy and dirty. But that is what self-care is – dirty work that leaves us snot-crying and waking up every day asking ourselves if we did the right thing. It is the kind of messiness we need to endure so that we can one day open our eyes and answer 'did I do the right thing?' 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 worry about letting others down when you choose 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 do what feels right for you, do not ask for permission. Let the people who are part of your story know that you are respectfully inviting them into a conversation about how your relationship with them will evolve due to your choices to improve your mental and emotional well-being. When you do this, you are setting and maintaining healthy boundaries while giving the other person complete sovereignty over their actions. You might teach them something about investing in one's wellness and resilience. No one can complain that that's a disappointment.