Chapter 22: Giving permission to disappoint
The myth of the perfect romantic relationship has inflicted a lot of damage. We see it primarily in its most common manifestation: the myth of “one true love.” It tells us to spend our early lives looking and waiting for “the one.” We hear it in movies all the time: “Could she be the one?” or “I’ve finally found Mr. Right!” The myth says that “the one” will drop into your life and be perfect for you. The two of you will fit together like puzzle pieces and live happily ever after. All your problems will be solved now that you and your soul mate have finally found each other, because you’re perfect for each other.
This is utter nonsense! People are not anything like puzzle pieces. We each have rough, irregular edges, and even the most compatible friends or partners in the world won’t fit seamlessly. There will be conflict, difficulty, and friction throughout the entire duration of even the healthiest relationships.
That’s not a bad thing. It’s part of what’s wonderful about relationships. There’s always something to understand more clearly, rough edges to smooth out, problems to solve, and adventures to share.
In any relationship there will be times when someone feels disappointed or hurt by someone else’s action, inaction, or words. When this happens, we have a choice of how to deal with it: we can continue to insist that it’s just not supposed to happen, or we can actively allow for it in our lives. We can give permission to disappoint each other.
This works for relationships of all types. How amazing would it be if your boss recognized the fact that there was going to be some friction in your working relationship, and explicitly gave you permission to disappoint him? Giving permission to disappoint works for any relationship where the people involved are on the same team and occasionally even when you’re not.
When we disappoint each other, we lose our ability to solve the problem at hand because we get caught up in how we feel about the disappointment. We may feel ashamed to disappoint our partner or afraid of admitting our own limitations and needs. Or, if we’ve been disappointed, we may feel conflict between our perfect concept of our partner (stemming from the perfection myth) and the reality of the disappointment. We may paint the other person as somehow lacking because they didn’t live up to our mythical expectations.
With all those distractions, it’s a wonder we manage to solve any problems at all! If instead we give each other permission to disappoint, we can move beyond the distracting issues and deal with what’s really going on. Giving permission to disappoint takes the sting from it, and helps us focus on the actual cause of the disappointment.
Here’s a suggestion: get together with one person you trust and explicitly give them permission to disappoint you. If you feel they would be open to it, ask if they wish to give you permission to disappoint them as well. Imagine how that would feel if they accepted. How would that change your future interactions with them? How would it feel the next time you let them down? If it works well, give it a try with others too!
Pace’s Story: Playing Video Games
A few years ago, a situation that often came up in my day-to-day life was that I would feel like playing video games but Sera (my ex) would prefer to do something together. Whenever I chose to play video games, I felt like I was disappointing Sera with my choice, and I felt like that wasn’t okay. After this situation occurred many times, and I built up a lot of stress and worry about it, we had some good meta-communication. During the meta-conversation, Sera gave me permission to disappoint her. It was incredible! I never even considered the possibility that this was something for which permission could be given! I never even considered the possibility that it was okay to disappoint anyone! It was amazing!
A few days later, I was playing a video game for a long time, and Sera got impatient and frustrated. At first, I reacted with dismay that I had disappointed her. But then I remembered that it was okay — she had given me permission! After that, instead of flipping out about me disappointing her, we had a fruitful conversation about how we could each get what we need.
You can give yourself permission to disappoint others, too! We’re often hard on ourselves when we disappoint people, especially those we care about. We feel like it’s not okay, like we’re bad, like we’re failures for disappointing them, but it is okay, as long as we’re being genuine. (Don’t, however, take this too far and give yourself permission to be cruel.) Everyone disappoints others sometimes, everyone makes mistakes, and feeling bad about it isn’t going to do you — or them — any good. Giving yourself permission to disappoint is giving yourself permission to be human, to be flawed, and to be yourself.