How to Get Over Fear of Disappointing Others (FODO)

You’ve probably heard of FOMO, fear of missing out—but what about FODO, fear of disappointing others?

While it has less name recognition than its more popular sibling, fear of disappointing others is every bit as important to come to terms with because of its subtle but significant long-term consequences…

Often chronic stress, anxiety, overwhelm, and even burnout are driven primarily by FODO.

Quick example:

A lot of people who struggle with chronic stress and burnout at work have a hard time setting boundaries. If your CEO keeps piling on the work, but you can’t say no and set healthy boundaries, well, it’s not hard to see why you’re feeling constantly overwhelmed.

But why is it so hard to set boundaries and say no?

Well, part of the reason may be a lack of knowledge about what healthy boundary setting actually looks like. But if you’re honest, saying no isn’t that hard technically speaking. The real challenge is how you feel about it—or more specifically, how you’re afraid to feel about it.

See, when you imagine yourself having a conversation with your boss or CEO about your workload, what probably comes up is fear—and more than likely, fear that they will feel disappointed in you for saying no.

Now, this fear of disappointment might take different forms like fear that their pristine image of you as the hardest worker in the company will be shattered. Or that they’ll regret mentoring you when you were a new hire right out of college.

Whatever the case may be, the important thing to see is this:

You’re stressed out because you can’t say no. And you’re unwilling to say no because you’re afraid someone will feel disappointed with you.

This means that if you want to deal with your chronic stress (or anxiety, burnout, overwhelm, etc) you have to deal with the root cause, which in many cases is actually a hidden fear of disappointing others.

So how can I get rid of my fear of disappointing others? Is there a cure for FODO?

Like any excessive fear—from public speaking to arachnophobia—there’s only one way to get over it: You have to face it, repeatedly and willingly.

The only way to replace excessive fear with confidence is to prove to your brain that the thing it’s terrified of isn’t actually dangerous. And to do this, you have to willingly expose yourself to it and all the fear that comes along with it. Because it’s only by approaching things we’re afraid of, instead of avoiding them, that our brain learns to stop fearing them.

This means that if you want to get over your excessive fear of disappointing others, you have to be willing to do the thing that might lead to them feeling disappointed—explaining to your family you’re not going to host the Christmas party this year, for example—and tolerate the fear that comes with it.

Sounds good. But how do I actually do it?!

I have some thoughts 👇


How to Get Over Fear of Disappointing Others: 6 Tips

Here are a handful of tips to get you started working through your FODO.

1. Consider the costs of your FODO.

One effective way to boost your motivation to face your fear of disappointing others is to remind yourself of the costs and consequences of never saying no.

For example, if you’re struggling to end a relationship because of FODO, you might consider what costs you’re incurring by staying in the relationship:

  • It’s stressing you out that you know you want to break it off but haven’t done it yet.
  • All the time and energy you’re pouring into a relationship that isn’t right is time and energy you could be investing in a relationship that is right for you.
  • Similarly, all the emotional energy you’re spending worrying and stressing over this decision is energy that you now don’t have to be present and emotionally available for other important people in your life.

In other words, there are emotional opportunity costs to your fear of disappointing others and avoiding facing up to that fear. And painful as it may be, facing up to those costs can boost your motivation to change and do something different. Just make sure you approach them from a place of self-compassion, not self-criticism.

Learn More: 5 Habits for Greater Self-Compassion

2. Remember that you are not responsible for other people’s emotions.

You can’t be held responsible for things you can’t control. You wouldn’t blame someone for being short or having brown eyes, right? Of course not! And that’s because A) there’s nothing morally wrong with having brown eyes, and B) they have no control over it.

Similarly, whether someone else feels disappointed in you may be unfortunate, but it’s neither morally wrong nor something you have direct control over. How we feel is the result of how we think. Which means other people’s emotions are their responsibility, not yours.

Of course, you do have a responsibility to behave well—because your behavior is something you can control. But how another person interprets and feels about your behavior is not something you can control. And therefore, isn’t something you ought to judge as right or wrong, good or bad.

You are responsible for your actions, not other people’s feelings.

Learn More: How to Manage Other People’s Bad Moods Like a Pro

3. Reframe your fear as uncomfortable, not dangerous.

Remember that emotions like fear and anxiety are uncomfortable—painful even—but not themselves dangerous…

  • No matter how afraid you feel, your fear can’t hurt you.
  • No matter how nervous you feel, nervousness itself can’t hurt you.
  • Even panic, the most extreme form of anxiety, isn’t itself dangerous.

One of the reasons we have such a hard time facing our fears is because our tolerance for fear itself is so low. And it’s low because we mistakenly assume that because fear and anxiety feel bad, they are bad. And as a result, that we should avoid them.

If you’re going to get over your fear of disappointing others, you’re going to have to face that fear head on. Which means you’re going to have to willingly feel afraid and tolerate that feeling for a while.

So remember:

Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.

Reframe your fear as uncomfortable but not dangerous and you’ll be a little more likely to tolerate it instead of impulsively trying to avoid it.

Learn More: Helpful Tools for Anxiety and Worry

4. Use reverse empathy to build some initial confidence.

One of the ironic things about FODO is that you’ve probably got a double standard for it when it comes to you vs other people.

For example: If a good friend had something important to tell you but was afraid of disappointing you, you would want them to tell you, right? And more than likely if you even felt disappointed at all it would probably be way less than what they’re imagining, right?

So, your standard for other people is different than the one you have for yourself.

Well, if you want to get over your fear of disappointing others, one way to look at it is that you just have to apply the same standard you already apply to other people to yourself.

And one way to do this is through a little practice I call reverse empathy.

Typically, we build empathy by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes—imaging what life and the world must be like given their own viewpoint and experiences.

Reverse empathy means putting yourself in your own shoes when you’ve experienced something similar to what you’re afraid of someone else experiencing.

For example: If you’re afraid to give a good friend some difficult criticism or feedback and are afraid of disappointing them, think back on a time when a good friend had the courage to be honest with you.

Often this simple reframe of reverse empathy can give you an initial boost of confidence to take action.

Learn More: How to Have Difficult Conversations (Podcast)

5. Start with the 30% version and work your way up.

If you wanted to run a marathon, you probably wouldn’t just lace up your running shoes and go run 26.2 miles for the obvious reason that we need to work up to difficult challenges.

Similarly, if you have to do something difficult that you’re really afraid might disappoint someone else, wouldn’t it make sense to work up to it gradually so you can build competence and confidence?

Let’s say you want to quit your job. But you’re terrified of disappointing your boss because they’ve been so great to you and invested so much in you both personally and professionally.

Instead of assuming you need to just summon a massive amount of willpower and go do it, why not work up to it by practicing this skill of tolerating fear and being willing to do what’s right even though someone else might get disappointed?

For example: You might practice giving some difficult but constructive feedback to your coworker after presentations even though normally it’s the kind of thing you just wouldn’t say anything about. It’s not nearly as hard as telling your boss you’re quitting, but it’s still exercising that same muscle you’ll need in the future.

In other words, if you can practice tolerating the fear of disappointing others in small ways (the 30% version), you’ll be that much more confident when you finally decide to accept the big fear (the 100% version).

Learn More: How to Give Negative Feedback Well

6. Watch out for fake guilt.

Fake guilt is when you mistakenly interpret a difficult emotion like sadness or pity as guilt.

For example: A good friend gives you an opportunity to invest in their company. You’re excited for them and their new venture, plus you think it could be a very lucrative investment. But you’ve committed to putting all of your extra financial resources for the next couple years into savings for your children’s college fund.

However, you’re struggling to say no because you’d feel too guilty rejecting their new venture that they’ve worked so hard on.

Technically speaking what you’re feeling there isn’t guilt. Guilt is a relatively “narrow” emotion meaning it doesn’t happen that often. To feel guilty you have to have knowingly done something immoral. Which, for most of us, doesn’t happen that often. And in the example above, while it might feel sad or disappointing that you can’t invest in your friend’s company, it’s not morally wrong, which means guilt isn’t the appropriate label for what you’re feeling.

But we often end up mislabeling sadness or some other sadness-related emotion as guilt because however bad guilt feels, it gives us an illusion of control. When you’ve done something wrong, you can usually alleviate that feeling of guilt somewhat by making restitution.

Sadness, on the other hand, is the result of loss, which by definition means you’re helpless to actually do anything. So rather than experience the pain of helplessness, we label the feeling guilt because it makes us feel a little less helpless.

In any case, if you struggle with fear of disappointing others, fake guilt might be a subtle but powerful reason why.

Learn More: Do You Suffer From Fake Guilt?


All You Need to Know

If you struggle with chronic stress, anxiety, overwhelm, or burnout, there’s a good chance that the root cause is FODO, fear of disappointing others. This means addressing this fear is the key to managing those other secondary struggles.

Here are a few tips for getting over your fear of disappointing others:

  1. Consider the costs of your FODO.
  2. Remember that you are not responsible for other people’s emotions.
  3. Reframe your fear as uncomfortable, not dangerous.
  4. Use reverse empathy to build some initial confidence.
  5. Start with the 30% version and work your way up.
  6. Watch out for fake guilt.

11 Comments

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For years I’ve been trying to get to the root cause of my husband’s ‘yes man’ attitude and chronic lies.
The lies are always to cover up any mistake he may have made, thing he may have forgotten to do etc.
He burned out completely at work as a project leader because he kept on accepting the extra work which was being piled on to him. He did this knowing full well he couldn’t possibly handle the burden as he was already struggling with the workload. He wouldn’t even let on to his boss that he was struggling and so of course received no help or guidance on the matter, just constant critique from above that he didn’t get this or that done on time, resulting in huge fines for the company, that his work was sloppy, clients complaining that he didn’t call them as arranged (he wouldn’t even call to cancel as he couldn’t face it) and hasn’t done what he said on time causing problems for other workers on the site.
At home he’d always lie when asked “did you go to the post office (as agreed)?” If he didn’t, because of the workload or simply forgot, he’d fabricate an excuse such as there wasn’t one in the area where he was working or they were closed or there was a huge queue.. he’d never ever admit he forgot. If he was supposed to make an important phone call, say to confirm an appointment for that same evening, but forgot, he’d lie and say he tried several times but couldn’t get through. This has been an issue for years and years. He can’t even tel his parents that our daughter has mental health problems and will be going into the psychiatric hospital for observation and evaluation! They’re clueless. He just makes up excuse after excuse as to why he can’t pop round with the kids when they ask to see them. This of course is going to have huge repercussions further down the line..
I believe after reading your article that we may finally have found the answer and will definitely take it with us to his first appointment with a psychologist coming up next month.
Thank you so much!
Keep up the good work,
Simone

Thank you, Simone. And best of luck with your guys’ situation and especially your daughter.

Hi Simone, I just read your comment and I understand so much of your husband because I struggle with similar things too. My husband tells me all of the time that he can’t trust me because I’m not dependable (i.e. I will tell him I can do something and never do it because I either forgot and don’t have the capacity) and I do lie to cover up my mistakes. I never realized until I was married but lying is a way of life to cover things up so people don’t get mad with me.

So much of mine is the fear of disappointing and people getting angry with me….the consequences of “speaking up” or doing something for me. But there’s also a huge component of shame. It’s a core shame of who I am and believing I’m fundamentally flawed. This one runs deep and I’m currently doing trauma therapy (EMDR) for some things that happened in my childhood.

I share all of this with you to provide some insight into your husband because I know how hard it is from his perspective and how hard it is on you as his spouse. I also hope it helps shed some light on to what you can talk to a counselor or psychologist about.

Best,
Elizabeth

Super brave posts this , helpful for me to read. So thank you , good luck with the therapy. I’m not yr original poster but thought I’d just say thanks anyway . Best
Sarah

As Sunni said, perfect timing. I was about to go somewhere this morning that I felt I “should” even though I was pretty sure my mind and body were too exhausted to handle it. I actually had my keys in hand and the garage door open when my mind just said “NO, you’re not going.” I went back into my house and did some things that I’d been putting off because I was too busy, and now I’m sitting on my patio getting some much-needed sunshine and reading this article. The little voice in my head keeps popping up to ask me if I made the right decision but I’m doing my best to push it aside and focus on not feeling responsible just for a little while.

I’ve been appreciating your posts on Medium for a while. This is one LZ among others, like them… it’s in the swamp. I have a lot of work to do, keep writing, I’ll keep listening even in the fog.

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