What to do when you let someone down

Last month, i wrote a piece for elephant journal about not being in control.

I want to take that a step deeper in regards to controlling other people.

You probably already know this - you cannot control how other people feel. Not even the people who are closest to you and whose feelings and actions effect you most.

This is particularly hard when you are trying to be more true to yourself, to set more boundaries, and to cultivate what nourishes you. It takes a good deal of vulnerability, especially when other people's feelings and actions come into conflict with your own.

And it's inevitable that they will.

We all have our own lived experiences and insecurities that often have nothing to do with the person that's in front of us, but that interact with and are triggered by them anyway.


Recently, a close friend told me that his wife felt I was being hostile toward her.

She felt that I was closed off and angry with her for no discernible reason; and this hurt her.

If you know me, coming across as hostile and making someone feel unloved is possibly my worst nightmare.

But I knew why my friend's wife felt that way. I had been distant - not out of dislike, but actually out of a desire to be close and insecurity around trying to get closer to her. How could she have known? My calming of my feeling of awkwardness had inadvertently made her feel disliked.

I was devastated by this news. Like cried-in-the-bathroom-at-work for 20 minutes devastated.

But this happens. It has to happen because we are in relationship with humans every day and each of us has our inner story that we understand the world through. Sometimes those stories come into conflict and even cause hurt in one another.

And, more complicatedly, in this moment of confrontation with my friend, I felt misunderstood, too. I felt that anyone who knew me well would never use the word "hostile" to describe my actions.


So what do you do when your actions have made someone you care about feel sadness, disappointment, or anger?

How do you react, take responsibility for what you can control, and let go of what you can't control at the same time?

How do you tend to their needs without sacrificing the intentional self-care you've worked hard to build up?

I want to share with you the framework that I try to use so that I can both be the caring person I am and take care of my own needs.

Let's divide the approach into three parts - what to do in the moment, what to do on your own, and what to do to change the dynamic for the future.

Some things need to be addressed in the moment (you can't just walk away, right?) and yet it's important that some things are left for later, both for your own sake and for the sake of the person who was let down.


In the moment

First - listen.

Listen with the plan to digest, react, and process later. It's too hard to attend to the extent of someone else's needs and your needs at the same time.

Express gratitude.

This is a perfect moment to call upon gratitude, if possible. Thank them for telling you instead of letting it fester. For showing you something you didn't see. And maybe for giving you an opportunity to change something (if you want to) or to set clearer expectations and understandings for the future.

This is not to say that you have to actually be thankful for this moment of confrontation. But expressing gratitude is a great way to make someone feel heard and to give yourself some perspective instead of spiraling out.

Give yourself (and them) space.

Do what's needed for right now. Don't try to fix everything at this very moment of conversation. It's okay to pause and come back, saying, "I need to think about what you've told me. Let's talk more in a little bit."


on your own

Share with someone who knows you.

Someone who really knows you. One of the hardest things about upsetting someone else, especially if you were just trying to look out for or be yourself, is that their reaction can make you feel unseen.

It can feel like if they truly knew you, they would know that you were doing the best you can (we all are). 

So go to someone who sees all of you and take a moment to be understood by them.

It's okay to be angry.

It's okay to angry that this person is reacting negatively to you being yourself.

It's also okay to know that they are reacting because of what they've perceived, which may or may not actually have to do with you. You can have anger and compassion at the same time.


If you're like me, these instances can take a little while to bounce back from.

Give yourself space and give yourself comfort. (Read the blog post on self-soothing techniques here.)

Decide what you want.

Before you go back to them, you'll need to decide what, if anything, needs to change.

Are you going to change your behavior? Are you going to ask them for more understanding? Is there something you need from them to be able to give them what they need in return?

Remember, you can't control how other people feel! The fact that you let someone down does not mean that you necessarily did anything wrong. We are all just doing the best we can.


to change the dynamic

Make amends with self-compassion.

When you go back to your friend/lover/relative, you may want to apologize.

Apologizing acknowledges that you impacted them in a way you did not intend.

At the same time, you can maintain self-compassion and explain (to them, or at least have in your mind) why you did what you did.

In my case, I was holding back from getting close to my friend's wife because I didn't know how to and that made me afraid. I was certainly sorry that that made her feel disliked, but I also know that I was operating with my own set of needs and feelings.

Share what you will change.

If you plan to change anything about your behavior moving forward, share that.

I shared with my friend that I would remember that my awkwardness came off as hostility and try to reach out to his wife in spite of my fear.

Set boundaries.

Share with this person what you need from them. (Read the blog post on how to set boundaries/ask for what you need here.)

Yes, they are the one's who were disappointed. But relationships are a two-way street and it's okay for you to ask for their help in trying to change the dynamic at hand.

I needed for my friend and his wife to understand that I am socially self-conscious and if I seem distant it is because of awkwardness, not hostility.

I needed for his wife to reach out to me, too, not just me to her.

Express gratitude.

You can call upon gratitude again to close out this (scary!) conversation.

This confrontation allowed you to establish your needs more concretely, to see the humanity in yourself and in another, and to grow as a person.

Maybe we wish none of these moments would ever happen, but it is part of the human experience to be affected by one another.

We can be grateful for that, too, because within that struggle is the beauty of human relationships.



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