Our lives are often shaped by a need not to disappoint
Too many lives have been sacrificed on the altar of ‘the family’s’ expectations
Our children have expectations for care, emotional support and love that it’s good to meet.
My father wanted to be a carpenter, but coming from a family that had money and status he felt he couldn’t say so.
He had already disappointed his family by leaving Knockbeg, the diocesan college in Carlow, to which they had sent him in the hope he might become a priest.
To then say he wanted to be a carpenter would have been a disappointment too far. Instead, he became a farmer which had a suitable status attaching to it at the time.
Thinking about this the other day I began to wonder about the role of disappointment in our lives. Specifically, I began to wonder about the extent to which our lives are shaped by the desire not to disappoint other people. And I wondered when this desire is justified but when it isn’t.
Of course, sometimes the desire not to disappoint is entirely justified. Many people have legitimate expectations of us that we ought to try to honour.
But sometimes we really need to be willing to disappoint people for our own sakes. And very often these people are family or “the family”.
For instance, if the family assumes without question that you will be the one who will take care of infirm parents and expects you to sacrifice your life to that end then maybe you should be open to the idea of disappointing them. Too many lives have been sacrificed on that altar.
Or maybe you are expected to join the family business and you really, really don’t want to. But what if it feels unthinkable to disappoint them? Well, maybe disappointing them is exactly what you should consider doing instead of burying yourself for years.
Or your parents might want you to become a doctor or an engineer because you got the points in the Leaving Cert. But you want to be a musician and maybe to teach music. You are going to have to disappoint them or abandon your dream.
So far I’m talking about living members of the family. What about ghosts? Do you feel bad because you think you have let down people who are no longer alive?
If the values that are passed on to you by an earlier generation are good and helpful values, perhaps you are right to feel bad about disappointing them.
But suppose you feel bad because you think you never really did as well as your now-dead parents wanted you to do? Remember, you can’t disappoint or gratify them any longer so it may be time to liberate yourself.
Then there is the issue of being disappointed in yourself. That’s quite legitimate when you act against your own values and do things you know are wrong.
But sometimes the disappointment stems from the overinflated demands we put on ourselves as to who and what we should be. When we turn out to be normal human beings after all we feel disappointed.
You mightn’t be the life and soul of the party, you mightn’t be a multimillionaire, you mightn’t have achieved incredible success with the opposite – or same, depending – sex and so you are disappointed in yourself. But living up to inflated expectations makes no sense because these expectations are probably irrational ideas you picked up in childhood. Indeed, fulfilling them would not necessarily bring satisfaction. So you need to allow yourself to get over the disappointment and live your life.
The fear of disappointing others – and ourselves – can be both good and bad. For instance our children have expectations for care, emotional support and love that it’s good to meet. But if they have an expectation that you will, for instance, let them do whatever they like whenever they like, you will have to learn to disappoint them.
The idea that I really mustn’t ever disappoint people is a bad one. A better idea is: sometimes I should try hard not to disappoint people and sometimes I should go ahead and disappoint them anyway.
Maybe part of the skill of living well is to figure out which is which.
– Padraig O’Morain (firstname.lastname@example.org, @PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.