Ask Dr. Amy: How to Get Used to Disappointing People

Sometimes it’s necessary to disappoint others as we prioritize our attention according to our values

Dr. Amy Athey


“I just don’t know how she does it,” I’ve heard people say about me over the years.

I used to think to myself in response, “yeah, me neither.” Yet, that’s not true. I do know how I do it — by disappointing people.

Wow. Harsh? Maybe, but hear me out.

I’m not down on myself. I take pride in being a national leader in sport and performance psychology and crisis intervention. I‘ve consulted with Tier-1, or elite, performers in sport, business, and tactical performance at the highest of levels.

And yet, if you look behind the curtain at what makes my work possible, you’ll find a single mom who’s never had just one job. I’m the consummate athlete with a “Find a Way” mentality. I‘ve come to believe that it is beyond a value; I am hard wired to find a way.

But along this journey, the challenges have been fierce. For a driven, goal-oriented person, I’ve excelled at meeting the professional challenges of a tight deadline, helped an Olympian fighting to come back from injury with his contract year on the line, and counseled a suicidal student-athlete sitting on top of a parking garage with confidence that we could help them. I believe in my training and skills to help and execute at the highest level.

The fiercest of challenges, however, has come in the moments when I can’t be there. When I had to walk into Coach’s office and tell him I couldn’t travel in the postseason with the team, or tell my kids that I couldn’t volunteer on their school field trip. In those moments, and many others, the heartache of knowing I let someone down has been piercing.

And these are just the highlight moments of disappointing others; the micro-moments occur on a daily basis when my email inbox is a swamp of late responses, or I realize that I’ve sent my kid to their game in the wrong jersey.

Below, I answer a few more questions around the topic of disappointing people as we prioritize our time and attention according to our values. Thank you for being vulnerable with me!

Why does it feel like every decision I make is guaranteed to let someone down?

Because…you are! I’ve learned to quit fighting the risk of disappointing people and rather embracing the ride. This means prioritizing.

My kids come first; hence, the walk and talk with Coach when I knew I needed to be with my girls at their theater production instead of the postseason game. Or another time prioritizing has meant being at the field and team room for twelve hours rather than the school volunteer event, because my skills at work are more specialized and needed than my representation at school.

I’m anchored in my values of love of family and service, and assess (often quickly) where I need to be. As a result, I not only rotate the love, but also disappointment. Some days, my kids are disappointed. Other days, my boss or the organization bears the brunt of it.

At the end of the day, I debrief asking myself if I did the best I could and if not, what I will do differently tomorrow. You won’t be able to stop disappointing everyone, but you can prioritize to minimize disappointing those who matter the most as much as possible.

"You won’t be able to stop disappointing everyone, but you can prioritize to minimize disappointing those who matter the most as much as possible."

As a people pleaser, I hate the feeling that I’ve dropped the ball or made things more difficult for someone else. How can I deal with these emotions?

As a pleaser myself, this journey is a tough one. Gut wrenching, at times even.

Grounding myself in considering my personal growth goals helps me cope; it sets more realistic expectations. Can I reasonably be expected to be two places at once? No. But can I take a more careful look at my calendar prior to committing to things, to make a good faith effort to do something? Yes, I can make that a priority in my development.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t share my amazing team of friends and family who support me when I feel overwhelmed. Sometimes it’s as simple as a text message reminding me that it will pass. Or the preschool teacher affirming that I’m serving as a good role model for my girls. If you support others with empathy in their moments of “dropping the ball,” you’ll likely be surprised and grateful that they extend that empathy back to you when needed.

My takeaways, as a pleaser always trying to improve, are: to set myself up for growth, not defeat, with realistic expectations; embrace the ever-changing nature of life; and rely on my support system for strength helps me get through those disappointing times.

"Grounding myself in considering my personal growth goals helps me cope; it sets more realistic expectations."

How can I connect to my values to help me make decisions that I know are right, even as I feel the disappointment?

Luckily, there are tools to help us through this process. Working with a values-based decision framework is a way to start to develop strength when it comes time to make decisions and (invariably) disappoint someone. Most of these frameworks share a common five-step approach, and I’ll go through it with my example from earlier in this piece:

  1. Identify the key question (my daughter’s musical is the same day as the travel play-off game for a team I’ve been working with — which should I attend?)
  2. Develop a shared understanding of the facts (there’s only one performance of the musical; if I miss the play-off game and they win, I won’t travel to the championship with them)
  3. Determine the values relevant to the decision and decide which is more important (Work: Serving others; contributing to a mission greater than myself; being dependable, seeing actions through to the end; Home: supporting my daughter in her performance by my presence and emotional backing; celebrating dedication, perseverance, and work ethic with my girls; demonstrating that when there’s a big occasion, Mom shows up.)
  4. Brainstorm possible options in response to the question (Could I be available over the phone and video during the day to the team? Will my daughter’s performance be recorded?)
  5. Decide which option best delivers on the values that matter most, all things considered in this situation (this is a big moment on the journey for Coach and the players, but it’s also a big, culminating moment for my daughter. Given that there is only once chance to be there for her at this moment, for this event, and there will be other chances to show up at big moments in my work, I decided to be with her)

"Working with a values-based decision framework is a way to start to develop strength when it comes time to make decisions and (invariably) disappoint someone."

A values-based framework for disappointing people
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Wrapping up!

“How do you do it?” Yeah, I still hate that question. I do it by making choices that reflect my values, and by finding ways to cope with the inevitable disappointment that ensues.

Our current culture often highlights only success — we rarely see the trail of broken promises, dropped emails, or upset faces that represent the decisions we weren’t able to prioritize. While this will never feel “good,” values-based decision making can help us stand in the choices we make and trust our process.

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