Do I need to be liked? Absolutely not. I like to be liked. I enjoy being liked. I have to be liked. But it’s not like a compulsive need to be liked… like my need to be praised.
—Michael Scott, The Office
Our culture teaches us that “confidence” is the result of getting approval and validation from others; knowing we’re giving other people what they want and like, and them thinking highly of us.
In some ways this makes sense, because humans are wired to crave connection. We’re never going to stop caring what other people think of us, because evolutionarily, as a communal creature, being liked and accepted means survival. That said, seeking to make other people like us often fails to deliver the confidence it promises, because there is a certain tank inside us that only approval, acceptance, and love from ourselves can fill.
Filling that tank is easier said than done, of course. Many of my clients walk around with a constant, urgent need for everyone to like them, approve of them, not be mad at them, not judge them, and/or think they have their shit together. Telling them that they “just need to love themselves” isn’t helpful in the slightest.
I think of the constant need for approval and acceptance as a sort of “Halo Top” approach to connection and belonging.
It’s like having a really strong craving for sweet, rich ice cream, but then trying to sate your craving with low-calorie, fat-free, non-dairy, fake sweetener Halo Top. It just can’t scratch the itch; it can’t provide satisfaction to the craving. So what happens? People who feel like they can’t (or shouldn’t) eat full fat ice cream reach for Halo Top when they have an ice cream craving, and then wonder why they can’t stop until they’ve eaten the entire pint and still want more!
As children, many of us learn that our emotional needs won’t or can’t be met directly even when they’re expressed, either because our caretakers are unable or unwilling to meet them. This knowledge doesn’t make us stop craving things like emotional intimacy, undivided attention, or the pleasure of someone delighting in us, though. So we seek out diluted substitutes — a “plan b” for the emotional craving, where we learn to scratch the itch a bit without risking too much vulnerability.
In short, we start seeking out the Halo Top of connection, love, and belonging.
We seek out praise, compliments, superior social status, success, and attention for how we look…. and then we wonder why it never quite feels like enough. Never fully satisfied, we need each new person to like us, approve of us, validate and accept us.
Trying to get everyone to like you can be a substitute for feeling deeply seen and loved. Learning to people-please and perform likability is a way of getting positive attention without risking conflict and loss. Sometimes even getting negative attention, or attention for the “wrong reasons,” can feel better than getting no attention at all.
All of these behaviors and desires (and many more) can be considered coping mechanisms: responses to unmet needs, trauma, pain, and/or fear. And none of these behaviors or desires make a person bad, or stupid, or selfish. It is simply the natural result of being human, growing up in our culture, and wanting to feel connected and loved.
Many of my clients tell me that their biggest fear is someone not liking them, or being mad at them.
This is often because they’re so used to judging their worth based on other people’s opinions that it would shatter their fragile feelings of worthiness to know that someone had a negative view of them.
I always find this interesting, since we live on a planet with eight billion other people, and nobody is liked by everyone. Like our taste in movies, music, and food, our taste in people varies, and people’s opinions only reflect on them, not on the movie, music, food, or person they like or don’t like.
Think about someone who doesn’t like your favorite band or favorite food. Their lack of enjoyment doesn’t mean anything about the band or food, and it doesn’t need to change your experience of listening or eating it, because it’s completely unrelated to your experience.
The same is true of people.
If someone doesn’t like you, that has nothing to do with you. It doesn’t mean anything about you, and it doesn’t need to lessen your enjoyment of you. Ultimately their opinion of you says more about them than you, and the only person whose opinion of you matters is your own.
It’s worth noting here that it’s still totally normal and ok if it hurts your feelings when someone doesn’t like you.
Even if you believe explicitly and implicitly that it doesn’t mean anything about you and you really love and approve of yourself, it can still hurt to be rejected. But it’s important to separate that feeling of “ouch” from the downward spiral of “what did I do wrong?” The “ouch” feeling is valid, but trying to fix yourself in order to be more worthy of the person’s approval is not.
So… what do you do if you need everyone to like you, or are easily upset by the thought of other people judging, not liking, or being mad at you? Here are four tools to help you begin!
Figure out what this need is protecting you from.
If you’re someone who experiences a “need” for everyone to like you, try getting curious and exploring what deep emotional need you might be trying to fill by having everyone like you, think highly of you, or not judge you. What’s driving the need, and what is it helping you avoid? How does it protect or serve you?
You can also try exploring the fear that’s driving this need. Often it’s a fear of abandonment, or abuse. For example, if you didn’t get a strong and secure attachment to your parents when you were little, then you may feel like every time someone gets upset at you that they will stop liking you or loving you. Or if you grew up with abuse, you might rightly fear repercussions of physical threats or emotional threats if someone stopped “liking” you.
Learn to tolerate the discomfort of rejection.
Sometimes when I suggest stepping outside their social comfort zone, my clients ask me “but what if I get rejected?”
This question holds within it the assumption that the discomfort of being rejected is inherently bad and dangerous and must be avoided. But I have another way of looking at it. “Oh, you’ll definitely be rejected,” I tell them. “The goal is to be so authentic that people who don’t appreciate the real you will reject you as quickly as possible.”
It’s uncomfortable to get rejected — but it’s actually safe and ok to feel uncomfortable. That’s a crucial difference. Learning to tolerate feeling these feelings, and learning that life goes on even though you’re uncomfortable, is a huge step toward being able to let go of the need for everyone to like you.
Recognize that other people’s judgements are about them, not you.
This one can be a difficult pill to swallow, but it will set you free from the need for everyone to like you.
Everyone sees the world through a unique lens. One person might read your energy as fun and free, while someone else reads it as fake and overbearing. How they interpret you really isn’t any of your business, because it only reflects on their unique lens, not on you. Maybe they knew someone in high school who was fake and overbearing and kind of looked like you!
Everyone will resonate with different people, be drawn to different people, be attracted to different people, and be repelled by different people. Spend less time trying to make everyone like you, and instead focus on spending your time and attention nurturing relationships with the people who really vibe with you, and who you really vibe with.
Recognize that another person’s judgement about you can only hurt you if some part of you believes it’s true, and agrees it’s a bad thing.
It’s never actually the person’s judgement that hurts you, it’s either the negative energy behind it (which can feel extremely uncomfortable), or the fact that their judgement resonates as true in your own self-talk.
For example, if I called you a “blue crocodile,” you wouldn’t be insulted or offended. You would simply be confused, because… that’s not true. But if I called you “fat,” I might be able to hurt your feelings, because those words reflect something you have thought about yourself before.
Even more importantly, the meaning behind those words could only hurt if you believe being “fat” is somehow a shameful or negative thing. If you considered fat to be a good or neutral thing, then even if you agreed with the comment, it wouldn’t hurt. After all, you can’t be shamed for something you don’t feel shame about.
Let me know your thoughts on this one!
PS Have you seen my Avatar Guide yet?? The 30 page guide to the four Body Image Avatars comes with a self-assessment and four exclusive in-depth videos, to help you identify the root causes (and likely paths to healing required) for *your* unique body image issues!
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