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How to do the right thing, even when you're worried others might not be happy about it


Many people fear the thought of someone else being unhappy with them. So much that it will make people act in ways to accommodate others even when the actor ends up being unhappier as a result. Wouldn’t it be nice, if you could act in accordance with what you think is right, instead of being compelled to do something merely out of a motivation to avoid that uncomfortable feeling when someone else is unhappy?


Here’s an admittedly small example from my own life. After I go to the grocery store each week, I drive back to my house, and I have to turn from the main road with a high speed limit onto a residential street. There is no turn lane, so I have to slow down quite a bit in the regular lane to make the turn safely. This often results in people going fast behind me having to slow down on my account. And I admit, I think about the frustration that person in the car behind me might feel because they have to slow down.


But the fear of someone else being unhappy can impact far more serious situations, like if you have to confront someone about bad behavior in your personal life, you need to talk to a coworker about something they’re not doing well, or if you need to report misconduct in a professional setting. Sometimes there is something that our values tell us we should do, but it is hard to make ourselves do it because, well, we just don’t want to deal with that discomfort of thinking we’re making someone unhappy.


Here’s the thing. How someone else responds to the world is not really under our control. Sometimes frustrating things happen to other people, just like they happen to us. And you know what? We deal with it. They are capable of dealing with it too. Instead of focusing too much on the outcome, I would suggest thinking this way:


How would you know you did the right thing in a given situation, if you couldn’t refer to the outcome that isn’t under your control?


Instead of focusing on the outcome, we need to think more about the process that leads us to the outcome.


In the case of my drive home from the store, I could ask myself: Did I signal with enough warning and turn my signal on before I started braking? Did I not slam on my brakes? Did I drive like a responsible person would drive? That is the process. And if I want to feel good in hindsight about how I acted, it should depend on what I can control rather than what I can’t control. In other words, not what the other person thinks, but whether I acted in accordance with my values and how I think other people should be treated.


Sometimes, that will result in someone being unhappy. But that is a part of being human. The best we can do is to live our values, and to treat other people in the way that we think is right. It doesn’t mean we ignore how other people might react: that is an important part of acting right. But it is only one consideration.


So, ask yourself how you would know you did the right thing without referring to the outcome, and you will be on the right track.

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