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Reblogged:Saying No to Future Disappointment

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Over at Jewish World Review is a thought-provoking column by Gina Barreca, in which she poses the question of whether it hurts more, psychologically, to disappoint someone else or be disappointed by someone else.

She gets close to the answer I would have given, saying in part:

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Image by Michael Dziedzic, via Unsplash, license.
Hara Estroff Marano, editor-at-large of Psychology Today, explains, "Letting someone else down stings doubly, because you also disappoint yourself as well as the other, and you have that visceral knowledge and experience. Being let down is no fun either, but you only feel your own pain."

Echoing this point is my friend Brett Shanaman's observation that "Letting someone else down is worse than being disappointed by somebody else, because it's within our control." [format edits]
I differ with Marano a bit on the matter of pain. In both cases, the pain is all yours, but likely has a much different cause in the case of the other person not fulfilling an obligation.

An experience Barreca brings up of having disappointed an editor reminded me of a similar experience from when I was younger. Barreca had done lots of work on a project, but found herself unable to create the final product she had promised. On top of that, she handled her difficulty poorly. She ended up letting her editor down.

Part of my experience that may or may not be similar to Barreca's was that I did not really want to do the project in question. The cardinal failing on my part was not asserting myself by turning it down. Only years later did I realize that that was where the cascade started that led me to disappoint that editor: He proposed a project I was not interested in, and I accepted it anyway. I remember being bothered about the request, and feeling lukewarm when I took on the project. I should have asked for more time to consider doing it, and figuring out what it was that bothered me. At worst, I still wouldn't have written an article -- but I wouldn't have harmed that relationship, wasted my time, or undermined my own confidence as a writer.

I bring this up because the first thing I noticed on reading the piece is that I thought it could make a stronger case for keeping commitments by arguing from an egoistic base, such as by noting the importance of the virtue of integrity, and the personal consequences of the strength of one's reputation.

That's true, but remembering my own similar experience caused me to realize that such a focus also yields superior insight. This is because, during introspection, one is focused on how one can improve one's own life. Focusing merely on not letting others down might indeed cause one to be more circumspect about making commitments to others, but one might not see the fact that those are also commitments to oneself -- or to end up being truly able to prioritize commitments well.

For example, in my case, I ended up realizing that taking on unwanted commitments was hindering me in my writing and in other areas of my life. Yes, being more careful about taking an assignment is a good idea, but the more general lesson is obviously more powerful.

I have noted before that being able to say no is very powerful: It can be the key to being able to have priorities at all. And I realize now that some other advice -- "Fuck Yes" or No -- applies just as much to questions one asks of oneself as it does to those people ask of each other. Yes, it's wrong to leave the rational expectations of others unfulfilled, but knowing that incompletely can yield only so much intellectual capacity or motivation to understand what really happened.

The greater psychological pain of letting someone down is highly relevant, but to learn the most, one must understand why that is the case. Being the one in control is a hint. But knowing that self-interest is moral makes one more likely to know why, and that is because to fail others, one must fail oneself first.

-- CAV

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