9 Questions You Have to Ask When Someone Lets You Down
With time and space, can they make things right?
Posted June 6, 2016 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
In my advice column, I recently answered a reader struggling with her feelings over her brother's decision to get involved with a married woman. The reader was close to her brother and was having trouble dealing with her disappointment in him.
She couldn't look at him the same way. She wondered if they would ever return to the relationship they had previously enjoyed or if her faith in him could be restored.
Loving or even just being close to someone comes with many potential risks—grief if we lose them, betrayal if they break our trust, and disillusionment if they do something we don't approve of. Whether it's a close friend, a family member, a trusted mentor, or a romantic partner, feeling disappointed with someone when they make choices we don't agree with is common.
When this happens, you may feel like you didn't really know the person at all, and perhaps you can't imagine going back to how things were. You may feel personally wounded—even if the person's actions didn't directly involve you. You may feel both angry and like you don't have the right to be angry, and you might be very confused as to how to proceed.
Whether the event is big—you find out a person has a history of significant deception—or small—you find out the person supports a political position you disagree with—here are nine questions to ask yourself as you navigate your new reality.
1. Do you fully understand the situation?
There are several psychological principles that make us prone to distortion when we interpret the behavior of others. For example, the fundamental attribution error says that when we observe other people's behavior—including seemingly bad behavior—we are more likely to assume that it was due to their character or disposition than to the situation.
However, with our own behavior and mistakes, we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and blame the situation. Is that what is happening now? Might you be putting undue emphasis on someone's personality or character rather than on situational factors?
2. Is there a point for connection or empathy?
Let's say the person made a terrible mistake, and perhaps it does show fallibility in character. Is there still a possibility for empathy? Have they struggled with circumstances like depression, extreme stress, or health problems that weakened their resolve? Can you imagine yourself in their shoes? Empathizing does not necessarily mean excusing, but it can open the door to moving forward.
Is there a deeper problem that might need treatment, like substance abuse, that has compromised their decision-making? If this is the only time they've let you down, are you willing to view it as an anomaly? Have you ever done something that you are ashamed of and wish you could erase?
If so, would you want people using that event to make a broad decision about you about your character? The more you're able to emotionally connect with the other person in this situation, the more you may be able to see important nuances that help you assess the circumstances.
3. Are there contradictions or exaggerations in your viewpoint?
Part of being human is occasionally being hypocritical in our viewpoints, especially in regard to our knee-jerk reactions. Have you ever done something similar to what this person did, but blocked it out? Are you using defense mechanisms to declare yourself better than this person when the evidence doesn't back it up? Are you using a me-versus-them mentality to unjustly boost yourself up? Or are you coming down unduly hard on someone's careless mistake to convince yourself it could never happen to you?
We often do this to view the world as a more predictable, less scary place. It is easier to believe that people deserve what they get through their own responsibility within a situation than to believe that bad things happen unfairly and unpredictably. Having inflexible standards, relying on black-and-white thinking, and changing your moral "rules" as you go along are all potential problems when judging others.
4. Is there something they can do to make things right?
Sometimes the path to resolution is clear. You may simply want an apology and an acknowledgment of responsibility or some validation of how the person hurt you. These things can be so powerful and healing that they sometimes make people less likely to sue doctors for malpractice.
Other times an apology might feel empty and do nothing to make you feel better, or there might be specific ways you want the person to make things right beyond apologizing. Sometimes you might just want to be assured that the person will prevent the same thing from ever happening again.
Think through what you are really looking for. Is it realistic? Fair? Or is it a way of getting revenge and making the other person pa" for their actions in a way that will hurt them back?
5. Can you give yourself some time and space?
It is possible—and understandable—that you might need time away from the person in order to collect your thoughts and process some of your emotions. Be careful to use this time in a measured and emotionally healthy way. Don't give the person the silent treatment, and don't manipulate them by promising communication or reconciliation only to change your mind.
Instead, communicate civilly and clearly, even if briefly. "I need some time to process this, probably several days minimum. I will let you know when I've had time to think and am ready to talk further."
6. How can you best convey your feelings?
It's important to be mindful of your communication, so you don't say something you wish you could take back later. Getting roped into angry, spontaneous reactions can be dangerous. Take some time to write out your feelings, first for yourself. What's most important to get off your chest? And what points are important for the other person to hear?
Sometimes these two categories don't always match. And sometimes, getting something off your chest can be helpful even if it isn't directly heard by the person—like thoughts kept in a journal or shared only with a therapist.
When communicating with the person who disappointed you, focus on specific ways that their behavior has affected you. Use the classic "I" statements ("I felt very betrayed, angry, and scared when I found out you had run up another credit card debt. And I'm worried that this could happen again, since you didn't tell me yourself") rather than accusatory statements that will immediately put them on the defensive ("You are so irresponsible with money. Don't you get it? Can't you see how serious this is? What is wrong with you?")
7. Can you see the big picture going forward?
Think back to your relationship prior to this point: Does it all have to be negated? In some cases, the act committed by the person may seem to cast their previous behavior in a bad light. But in reality, it doesn't need to if the mistake was a momentary lapse of judgment. In other cases, it is hard to view the prior relationship as anything but marred (especially in cases with long-term deception or manipulation.)
What is the big picture, and what role—and size—does this latest act have? Is it possible that as time moves forward, the relative importance of this disappointing act will diminish? This is common in long-term relationships: During the week that your partner or friend majorly disappointed you, it may feel like the most salient thing in the relationship because you are living it in the moment. However, as time moves on, that disappointment takes on diminished importance because your brain begins to weigh the relative impact of one week versus five, ten, or thirty years.
8. What does "forgiveness" mean to you?
Forgiveness has been shown to be beneficial in certain ways. But it can mean different things to different people. Sometimes forgiveness means full absolution, never again negatively viewing the person for what they've done and truly beginning to forget what happened. Other times, forgiveness may mean letting go of one's anger about the situation (which might help with the health benefits), while still allowing your view of the person to be fundamentally altered.
Some people will choose to move on civilly and act like things are the same, but their beliefs and emotions will never feel resolved. And, of course, there can be any number of levels of feelings in between. What do you ultimately believe about forgiveness and whether it can be achieved in this case? What do you want your interactions with this person to look like tomorrow, a month from now, or a year from now? Ultimately, you have the power to choose how to handle the situation. Use it wisely, for yourself and for the relationship.
9. What can you do to keep yourself healthy?
Being hurt by someone can cause a major uptick in your stress levels. Your eating or sleeping patterns may change, or you may feel fatigued, irritable, or anxious. Sometimes a sudden stressor can increase our risk of substance abuse or impulsive, reckless behavior—or even increase feelings of hopelessness to the point of suicidal thoughts.
What coping mechanisms can you employ? Are there friends you can talk to or hobbies that can calm you down? Can you attempt to take particularly good physical care of yourself at this time, even though it's harder than ever (but arguably more important)? Exercise, meditation, laughter, fresh air, and sunlight can all help you keep your daily mental and physical health in check. And confiding in a professional—especially if you have feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, or notice that you are not taking care of yourself very well—is a good option that can help you reach clarity on what you want your relationship to look like moving forward.
See more of Andrea Bonior's articles on mental health and relationships: