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Favors, Vulnerability, and Recovery from Disappointment

Every once in a while I find myself in a vulnerable position and need to ask a favor of someone.  Many people find asking a favor difficult and that it makes them feel indebted or dependent.  Personally, I don’t find asking difficult because I know my heart’s attitude towards reciprocity in society: stranger or friend, I am happy to help anyone who sincerely asks a favor of me. We’re social animals and, therefore, we should not be afraid to help a stranger nor ashamed to receive help.

Are you asking or demanding?

The funny thing about a favor is that it’s basically a gift you ask for.  For that reason it’s best to accept the favor as it is given – no badgering, pouting, or negotiating.  If you told someone exactly how, when, and to what standard they should complete the favor, then it would cease to be a favor.  Instead, it would be a demand.

The nature of a favor is that it’s done by someone who has nothing material to gain from helping and who gives up his or her most precious commodity – time – in order to help you out.  It’s out of this recognition of the nature of a favor that my difficulty arises.  Sometimes a favor is unexpectedly done in a half-hearted or incomplete manner, which leads to my disappointment but no recourse or remedy.

Sometimes a favor poorly done is not a big deal.  Jenna didn’t do the dishes for me and they sat in the sink? Meh.. no big deal. But what about, this one: Chloe didn’t check on the cat each day the way she said she would.  Now I come home from vacation to cat pee everywhere and a starved animal. That’s a big deal.  Still, it doesn’t seem quite right call it a favor if we make strong demands about how the favor is performed.  Moreover, the danger in getting too specific is that the favor might be revoked.

Favors are intermittent or one-shot deals

Another aspect of favors is that they are intermittent, one-shot deals.  A favor isn’t a recurrent occasion. If you ask Chloe to watch your cat 3 or 4 weeks throughout the year, then it’s less akin to a favor and more part of the natural function of your friendship. If you tell me you have this kind of arrangement, I’d assume there was reciprocity consisting of your helping Chloe out in other ways.

The problem with favors as one-shot deals is that you cannot predict how or if a person will complete the favor.  Add to that uncertainty the rule against demanding how you want it done and you’ve got a recipe that sometimes cooks up a big pot of gluey disappointment..

Expectations are Natural and Inescapable

When someone agrees to a favor we expect that they’ll do it willingly and with the right intention.  After all, why would that person agree if they didn’t intend to do it well?  They could have just refused.  Therefore, it’s natural to expect that it’ll be done right.

But what does “right” mean?  Everyone has different ideas about what is the “right” way to do something.  Ask ten professionals to describe the most important processes in their jobs and you’ll still get ten slightly different answers.  This doesn’t mean they’re all right or all wrong.  My point is to illustrate that intelligent, helpful, willing people have divergent standards.

Cruel Letdowns?

Although I try not to build up expectations, it’s something I find myself doing.  It’s impossible to be human and not have expectations especially about something that matters to you.  When it comes to favors, I find myself with expectations that I wasn’t even aware of.  I’m only made aware of my expectations by the symptom: disappointment.  When the favor is of minimum importance, it’s easy to recognize and release the expectation and disappointment, moving onto more important matters.  But when the favor was life changing and you are truly vulnerable in asking for help, a letdown seems cruel.

Can we recognize, however, that disappointment doesn’t necessarily indicate wrongdoing?  Sometimes the disappointment is just a case of mismatched standards.  Using the example above, you certainly shouldn’t expect to come home to a sick or dead cat, but it’s probably too much to expect Chloe to groom, cuddle and play with your cat even if you consider it a crucial part of cat care.

How do I deal with disappointment?

There it is – that sick, sinking feeling in your gut when you really needed someone to help and the outcome wasn’t what you hoped for. Disappointment feels awful, especially when you’re in a vulnerable position.

When I’m disappointed it feels like being trapped. I feel desperate for escape, but time has closed many doors. Hope shuts down and the future I counted on slips away.  There’s an immediate reaction to feel like a victim.  In fact, part of me wants to feel like a victim, but at this point in my life I recognize that indulging in victim-hood doesn’t make me feel better, only worse. So how do we get out of disappointment at a favor not done to our expectations?

Reassure yourself and don’t give up hope.  When my mind starts spinning scenarios of doom, I first remind myself that I’m safe and I’ve always survived. If I’m alive there’s a way to remedy the situation.  I’ve learned that if nobody’s dying, then the situation is not as bad as you think it is.  I personally use the mantra: “Everything is going according to plan.”  It reminds me that things have always worked out when I put my heart and mind towards finding a solution.  There’s a “plan” (you can call it God, ‘the universe’, or process of cause and effect) and it’s ok to stop trying to engineer external forces.  Can you recall an experience when things seemed rock-bottom bad but they worked out in the end?  Never give up hope.

Accept partial responsibility for the disappointing outcome. Don’t be a victim. This sounds harsh, but by accepting responsibility you create an opportunity to turn it into a learning experience.  The first reaction to disappointment at a favor done poorly is blame.  If you find yourself thinking, I’m right to be disappointed.  He should have…, you’re falling into victim-hood.  When you’re a victim it’s difficult to be open to learning anything.  The experience of disappointment will be much harder to process psychologically.

When it comes to favors, in order to take responsibility, I ask myself: Is there a way I could have asked differently?  Could I or should I have asked someone else?  Could I have asked earlier? Were there subtle signs that the person was unwilling?  Does this person have a problem saying “no” to requests (i.e. was it smart to take him/her at her word?)?  By analyzing the situation for clues about what you can learn and do better next time, the experience becomes a learning experience. To learn is to feel safer by knowing you’ll handle it better next time.

As Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better.”

One last positive word about learning from disappointment…

Say you’re still reeling with nausea and feel emotionally distressed.  The favor not done to your expectations resulted in a horrible outcome for you.  You still don’t know what you’ll do and how you’ll fix it. It’s hard to maintain hope and you feel lost. What can you do?

First, don’t pressure yourself to feel better. Focus on that awful physical feeling at the same time as you practice controlling your distress. Get to know what it means to be disappointed. Adopting the attitude of curiosity can help. If you’re on the edge, you could also try to distract yourself with genuinely self-caring activities.

Second, find the hidden lesson in order to re-activate your agency to that you increase your ability to be proactive towards repairing your situation when you’re ready.  The lesson in disappointment from other is this simple rule:

If you’re going to help, help.

Use your experience as a way to remind yourself the next time someone is vulnerable and asks for a favor, that when you say “Yes”, you’ll put your heart into helping.  Know the pain of disappointment and remember that when you agree to help, it’s important to generously make sure that your help does indeed help.

It’s difficult to get through the disappointment, but focus on feeling safe and taking responsibility.  By focusing on these things, you’ll make it easier for you to recover and move on to the next challenge.

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