Deepti Chopra

Building the courage to disappoint others

At 17, I started undergrad at an institution of my parents' choice. It was close to home, so they would sleep better at night. It wasn’t where I wanted to go. But I was nice. This niceness didn’t last long. The resentment I experienced, brewed and expressed lasted more than a decade. I was so mad for so long.

Until recently. I realised that I wasn't actually mad at them. I was mad at myself for not believing in myself enough to fight for what I wanted. I thought I was supposed to be nice. Not their fault, just my stupidity.

They were only trying to protect me from the worst-case scenario. Safety was the main thing. They had no reason to optimize for my best-case scenario. So our incentives were fundamentally misaligned. They will always be. I didn’t understand this at 17.

At 80 (if I get there), I don’t want to blame anyone else for what my life was like.

Growing up, society expects us to be selfless and sweet, to say yes to everything people around us ask of us, to avoid conflict. I worried about how others perceived me. I was too afraid to say no. I wanted to fit in. So I acted nice. Kept blowing up in my face. It took me 3 decades to understand that the aim is to be kind, not to be nice.

Nice versus kind

Nice is being agreeable. Saying yes because you’re afraid to say no. People pleasing.

Kind is doing the right thing. For yourself. And for others. Having empathy, being respectful and acting in fairness, even when you’re not having the best day yourself. Even when nobody’s watching.

Kind is much harder to come by than nice, and it is that much harder to recognize.

Not saying you shouldn’t be nice. The world needs niceness. Probably more than ever before. Makes interactions easier. Helps us feel good, useful even. Keeps the peace. Works. As long as you’re aware of the mask.

Because nice doesn’t last. The resentment you harbour because you’re constantly denying yourself what you want erodes the relationship in the long term.

Kindness involves a deeper understanding and respect, both for oneself and for others. Kindness might not always look nice, because it can involve setting boundaries, having difficult conversations, and choosing yourself. If you take care of yourself first, you have more to give to others. 

'Hell yes or no' is a simple (not easy) framework to avoid the niceness trap. If an opportunity or request does not evoke a "hell yes" reaction from the self, maybe you should say no. Or at the very least, wait before you say yes. Give yourself the time and space to build the courage to say no.

Disappointing others

When you don’t know what you want, what others think of you becomes the priority. So you will either default to nice. Or you will be so mad at yourself, you will disappoint others for the sake of disappointing them.

Disappointing people is not the aim, but a potential byproduct of doing your thing. Having ownership of your decisions does not give you the license to be a jackass. You can be kind.

Often, the people around you are just concerned for you. And they have every right to be. They might not even realize it when they cross over to the dark side and their concern becomes control. So now you need greater conviction to do what you want. Which might be a good thing. Other people forcing their opinions on you pushes you to get clarity.

When you have clarity, you need less approval of those around you. Because you have your own.

The courage to say no and disappoint others comes from knowing what you want.

But that’s the hard part- knowing what you want.

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