Disappointing others is unavoidable. We like to think that we can avoid saying “no” to others, or having to make decisions for ourselves that may inconvenience them, but such avoidance often just ends up creating its own set of problems. It’s important that we start realizing that disappointing others is not necessarily synonymous with selfishness; it’s really all dependent upon how we deliver disappointment.

Some of us are better at compassionate disappointment than others as such a skill requires 4 major components: Self and other awareness, communicating/drawing boundaries, showing empathy/patience, and offering alternatives. This well-balanced combination has the power to save our relationships from the potential disconnect of “no” and turn it into a deeper connection; one even more intimate than the result of a people-pleasing- conflict-avoiding “yes” ever could.

Self and Other Awareness: The first step in compassionately disappointing others is awareness of our need to disappoint. It is important that we get clear on our daily needs and goals in a way that will allow us to understand (and even possibly foresee to a reasonable extent) how such needs may impact the day and those around us. This of course requires being in tune with and accounting for the known needs/preferences of those around us too. For example, realizing/accepting/honoring your need to exercise before leaving for work may require you to neglect household responsibilities for the time-being that may inconvenience your spouse (Internal voice: If I exercise before work, I won’t have time to clean up the dirty dishes in the sink. This might cause a fight).

Drawing Boundaries: Once realizing your need to disappoint and how this may affect others, it is time to communicate this limitation with others and work on setting a boundary—“I realize I’m not going to have time to take care of both exercising and cleaning up the dirty dishes before work and I really feel like I have to make exercise the bigger priority today.” Now, be sure to note that communicating our boundaries does not END with a statement like this and that instead, such a statement is the START of the boundary-making process. It is important to expect and prepare for a disgruntled response from those our boundaries inconvenience and to be willing to further discuss if needed.

Empathy/Patience: It can be very frustrating that sharing our needs with others isn’t always enough to result in their immediate acceptance. Because it is often already so difficult for us as flawed beings to hold strong to taking care of our needs and goals (especially a goal of exercise) it is easy to become impatient and even irate with those standing in our way and creating an extra obstacle (“Just leave me alone and let me do what I have to do!”). This, however, is never a way to set ourselves up for success as most of us feel pretty shitty and distracted from whatever our goals are after fighting with/barking at those we love; with this method, nobody ends up getting what they want and the attempt at drawing a boundary just becomes a big waste.

Take a moment and say the following out loud to yourself 3 times: Empathy and patience is worth it. It may take a few minutes longer, but allowing your partner room to express their confusion/disapproval in regard to your boundary and to take their shot at getting you to reconsider will make all the difference in the end. Consider following up your stated need with this genuine comment–“I know how much you hate a messy kitchen and how it interferes with your day. I wish I could change it but, I really hope you can understand that the time just got away from me today.” Please note that statements like this work best when they are not already part of a relationship’s repeated disappointment-history and when the incident is not a frequently-occurring one.

Offering Alternatives: As with any relationship, compromise is key. It is quite likely that this part of compassionate disappointment is the most crucial and yet most often forgotten. When we can’t satisfy others’ requests of us it is not only important to explain why, but it is just as important to explain whatever it is we can do to meet them in the middle. For example, in addition to an empathetic statement about your awareness of and displeasure in having disappointed your spouse, you might say, “I’m going to make sure that I work on improving my time-management so that we don’t have the same issue in the future, but for now, if you can help me out with the dishes, I can take care of the laundry when I get home tonight.” Such an offer shows responsibility and much consideration for your spouse, while still keeping your current boundary intact. Your spouse may or may not take you up on your first alternative offer and if they don’t, just be sure to ask what else might work better for them.

In following these steps, we allow ourselves the opportunity for healthier and happy relationships without the unrealistic pressure to constantly please those we love in all the ways they prefer/request. In fact, the idea is that learning to compassionately disappoint others can end up being MORE satisfying to ourselves and our loved ones as we work with them and not against them to reach a mutual understanding. Whether we want to believe it or not, others can pick up on when we are constantly “yes-ing” them for the sake of conflict avoidance and simply because it seems like the path of least resistance… and most often this just leaves them feeling hurt and offended, while leaving us resentful and frustrated. As odd as it may seem, healthy and happy relationships are not maintained by how successful people are at pleasing one another; they are actually maintained by how compassionately they can disappoint one another.