There are all sorts of reasons why we fear disappointing another.
“What if I tell my boss I do not want to take on this new project… will they pass me over for promotion?”
“What if I tell the waiter the white wine they just served me is warm… Will he get mad at me and think I’m too spoiled?”
Often, disappointing another, letting them down, telling them a truth they most likely would rather not hear can feel so uncomfortable we’d rather not do it at all. And so, instead, we sulk.
We end up not saying anything, even while we feel frankly trespassed.
What’s actually stopping you from saying “no”
Last month, in preparation for a wedding, I wanted to buy new make-up. It should have been a straightforward affair, a five-minute exchange amidst the flashy aisles of El Corte Inglés.
It was not to be so. I ran into an all too eager shopping assistant who volunteered to do my make-up for free.
“I really would like to end up with a natural look,” I told her, “you know, almost as if I wasn’t actually wearing make-up.” This happened seconds after I’d nudged myself into the experience, telling myself, Why not?
“Of course. We’ll do something very light!” she said, emphasis on light, like she had really heard me.
But, it turned out, it was as though we were speaking two different languages.
I saw her grab three kinds of face cream, foundation and cream powder, a contouring kit (The only thing I truly wanted), mascara, several eye pencils, and more products than I could name.
“How’s your routine?” she enquired amidst the layers.
“I usually put on coconut oil at night,” I said.
And as the nightmare client I was trying to be, when she suggested perfume, I said, with as much candor as I could muster: “No, thank you. I have had the same perfume since I was 11 years old. It’s out of the market, you know? I just keep it for special occasions…”
The thing is: I wanted to stop her; I wanted to say no. But my fear of disappointing her took the best of me. So I didn’t. Instead, I tried to say “no” by making her feel bad about her make-up excesses and lack of appreciation for truly natural products (Of the kind you eat, not simply smear on your face.)
Fifteen layers of make-up later, I looked at the mirror and saw a caricature. “Eww!” I thought. Not me! A voice inside me screamed.
“Oh, I see you’re wearing make-up today! You look nice!” my friend told me enthusiastically the next day, as we met at 9 a.m. over video call.
The catch: that was the make-up that was left after I’d tried everything to wash my eyes clean after the previous night’s do.
Unsuccessfully, I guess.
And so we got to talk… What had been so difficult the previous night about “communicating me”? Why couldn’t I tell the shopping assistant that I did not want the mascara, the eye pencil, or so much cream?
I couldn’t, I realised, because to “do me,” I would have had to disappoint her: the shopping assistant. And that just felt wrong. I would not face my fear of disappointing her, especially as she was doing her best to help me “just” to stick to what felt right to me instead.
And yet, is it right to allow others to cross our boundaries just because they are so well-intentioned? Is it right for me to ignore my needs—yes, even when it comes down to something as superficial as make-up—not to let another down?
I don’t know about you but, talking to my friend, it dawned on me how often I do this. How often I just try to whisk away the sense that I’m letting someone else walk all over my boundaries, just so they won’t feel bad.
The truth is: what we’re afraid of is not saying “no,” but all of the feelings which will bubble up to the surface if we do.
The consequence of letting your fear of disappointing others take over your life
The lesson here is that there’s a harsh truth to keep in mind: when I am reluctant to hurt the shopping assistant, I’m afraid of hurting everyone in my life, from my boss to my yoga teacher, from my mum to my in-laws.
And this is how I end up saying “yes” to commitments I don’t want to make and push myself too far in whatever way someone else expects of me.
The fear of disappointing others has seen me, throughout the years, pull an all-nighter for someone else’s business—I still have doubts whether they’d do that themselves—or push myself too deep into a bridge pose I knew fully well I wasn’t ready for.
And as I tend to whisk away the feeling that my boundary has been crossed, so do I try to whisk away the consequences of letting that boundary be violated, just this one time.
And don’t we all, to a certain extent?
After all, this is what society has told us to do: we must always be “on,” available all the time to everybody else’s messages, work emergencies, and feelings. If there’s something that’s seldom discussed about the polarisation we see on social media is that it is based on the normalisation of emotions-dumping.
We think it’s ok to tweet our anger, sadness, and contempt, unaware as we are that we are sharing without consent. And so we all agree, when checking our feeds, to take on everyone else’s feelings because, hey, what’s the harm?
The unintended harm that arises from not honouring our “Nos“
It turns out that the harm is there. Gabor Maté, for example, has written extensively about the links between an inability to say “no” and autoimmune diseases. And that might be one reason why children learn to say “no” before they even learn to say their name. Saying “no” is one of the very first ways we express our personality and will.
Fundamentally, “saying no” is an act of self-care.
Here’s Audre Lorde, American writer, activist, and feminist, in the 1980s:
Why don’t we do it, then? Why not say no?
What is often at play is an assumption: the other will get hurt, and they can’t take it.
This, of course, is a projection—one that could go all the way back to our early childhood, and to that time we realised mum (or dad) couldn’t take it anymore, and so we decided, out of love, that our “no” wasn’t as important.
But is this the dance we want to be stuck in for the rest of our life? Isn’t the fear that every one of our “nos” will convey a lack of love keeping us from being authentic with our “yeses”?
What if we could see our “nos” as a step to deeper love?
Wouldn’t our “yeses” get stronger, then? More heartfelt? More authentic?