Notice that I didn’t title this piece: “What to Do When Someone Lets You Down.” That’s because, in my experience, it’s not what happens to us that makes us unhappy. It’s how we react to it—and how we “feel” is the core of that reaction.
A few years ago, I felt let down by a friend. She’d been one of the people I counted on for support as I live day-to-day with chronic pain and illness. Over the years, she was important to me, both practically (I could count on her to help me out if I needed it) and personally (she always listened if I wanted to share my struggles).
Then, suddenly, her life changed dramatically—in a way that was wonderful for her. She fell in love. And yet, from my perspective, she’d “gone missing,” both physically and emotionally.
I experienced a range of emotions, some of them seemingly contradictory. For instance, I was happy for the new direction her life had taken, yet I also found myself resenting her lack of attention to me. And, although I didn’t want things to be different for her, at the same time, I longed for things to be the way they’d once been between us.
In Song of Myself, Walk Whitman wrote that there’s nothing wrong with experiencing conflicting emotions. In fact, I often enjoy that particular characteristic of the human mind. But, with my friend, these seemingly contradictory feelings were adding to my stress as I tried to come to terms with the change in our relationship.
To get a handle on what was happening, I decided to make a list of unhelpful responses to feeling let down by someone. Then I made a list of helpful responses. Making and contemplating this list proved to be tremendously valuable to me as I adjusted to this change in my life. I hope my thoughts will be helpful to you.
1. Getting angry
Anger didn’t help at all. It even exacerbated the physical symptoms of my illness. I like the way the Buddha put it: anger comes right back at you like fine dust thrown against the wind. Getting angry about what had happened was like hitting my head against the wall. The only person it hurt was me.
The fact is, life is always in flux. It’s delusional to think that relationships will always stay the same. When a relationship changes in a way that’s not to your liking, anger may arise. That’s okay but, instead of letting that anger brew and intensify, let yourself feel the sadness that underlies it. This is the beginning of the healing process.
2. Feeding fear
To my surprise, I experienced some fear over what was happening—fear that I might lose all my friends and all my support. When fear arises, I’ve learned to question the validity of the thoughts that it generates. I don’t try to suppress the thoughts because, frankly, the mind is going to think what it’s going to think. Yet, at the same time, I don’t have to believe those thoughts.
When I questioned the validity of my thoughts, I realized the absurdity of assuming that a change in one relationship meant that all the others would suddenly change and I’d lose all my friends and support. This questioning allayed my fears and, with that, came a feeling of relief.
3. Engaging in self-blame
When my friend fell in love, occasionally negative self-talk reared its ugly head. I’d find myself thinking: “What do you expect? Given the unpredictability of your symptoms, you’re unreliable as a friend. Who’d want to put up with that for very long?” How irrational to tie my friend’s newfound love to my supposed shortcomings as a friend! Taking sides against yourself like this is the most harmful of responses.
1. Recognizing that all relationships change
Change is an inevitable part of life. To think otherwise sets you up for unnecessary anguish and suffering. Circumstances change; people change. Accepting this as a part of the human experience eased the mental pain of this particular change, even though it wasn’t one that was to my liking.
2. Feeling happy for others
When I realized that I was feeling resentment toward my friend, I reminded myself that I actually felt happy for her that love had entered her life, even though it was hard on me. Feeling happy for others is called mudita or “empathetic joy” in Buddhist practice. And it does take practice. It’s worth it, though, because feeling happy for others makes you feel happy. Trust me on this one.
3. Questioning the validity of the stories we spin
I already mentioned the value of questioning the validity of thoughts. It’s such a valuable practice that I want to elaborate on it a bit. I’m continually astounded by the crazy stories I can spin—stories that go to extremes, such as: “Clearly, she never liked me that much in the first place to have so quickly shifted her attention to someone else.”
When you find yourself spinning these types of stressful stories, ask yourself if there’s any reason to assume they’re true. In this particular situation, unless you talk with your friend about the change in your relationship (which might be a good idea, depending on the circumstances), you have no way of knowing what’s going on in her mind. She may very well think everything about your friendship is perfectly fine!
(To read more about questioning the validity of your thoughts, see “You Don’t Have to Believe Your Thoughts.”)
4. Investigating how the underlying source of unhappiness is an unfulfilled desire
Not getting what we want is an inevitable experience on the path of life. Not a day (maybe not even an hour) goes by without one of my desires going unfulfilled. When I’m able to recognize that desires are ever-present but are often unfulfilled, I’m better able to free myself from the prison of desires and make peace with my life as it is.
And so, I worked on seeing clearly that my ongoing desire and longing for this relationship to be as it once had been wasn’t serving me well. Indeed, it was source of deep suffering. I told myself that the sooner I could accept without bitterness that I was no longer going get exactly what I wanted from the relationship, I could move on with my life (and the relationship).
Moving on in a situation like this can take several forms: continuing with the relationship but changing your expectations; working to enrich your other relationships; reaching out to new people.
5. Wrapping disappointment in a cloak of self-compassion
Many years ago, I made a commitment to treat myself kindly and with compassion. It’s the greatest gift I’ve given to myself. In this particular situation, it was the perfect antidote to my disappointment and to the self-blame that occasionally snuck in.
To cultivate self-compassion, I recommend that you start by making a commitment to be nice to yourself (yes, it’s that simple), and then be content to take baby steps at first. With practice, being your own unconditional ally can become a lifelong habit.
When you’re feeling sad or let down in some way, it helps to speak to yourself in a compassionate voice. I use words that directly relate to the situation at hand. Here I silently repeated sentences to myself such as: “It’s so hard to have lost the close companionship I once felt with my friend.”
I hope you’ll try compassionate self-talk the next time you feel yourself on the verge of aiming judgmental thoughts at yourself. This practice can open your heart to your disappointment and that makes it possible to wish everyone well and to greet your next life adventure with curiosity and friendliness.
It’s painful to feel let down by someone, but it happens to all of us. I hope this discussion of helpful and unhelpful responses will be useful to you as we navigate life’s path together.
Thank you for reading my piece. You might also find this helpful: “5 Ways Not to Make Things Worse When Stress is Overwhelming.”