In many of us, there’s an interesting paradox in our behavior: we strongly want to be loved and liked by others, but we won’t admit it. We often design our careers, living spaces, styles of dress, and other aspects of our lives to gain others’ approval, and sometimes even rehearse what we’re going to say to each other. But we feel that, if we admit how much we do to ensure good relations with others, we’ll be rejected and seen as weak. Telling someone “I want you to approve of me” is probably one of the scariest and most vulnerable things we can do.
I’ve come to believe the reason we’re so anxious to hide our desire to be liked is our conviction, on some level, that nobody else wants approval—that we’re the only people who want to be liked and loved, and have anxiety about not getting those things. Many of us walk around assuming we’re the only ones with insecurities, and that everyone else “has it together” and would ridicule us if we admitted to wanting approval. Thus, we try to look tough by pretending we don’t care what anyone thinks and we’re just doing our own thing.
I was reminded of this recently in a conversation with a friend. She tends to get pretty worked up when she feels like someone’s ignoring her or not taking her seriously, even when it’s someone she doesn’t know. Lately she’s been distressed because, when she comes across the woman who lives next door, her neighbor seems to ignore her and doesn’t respond when she says hello. When this happens, my friend starts coming up with all sorts of painful stories about why her neighbor isn’t acknowledging her. She wonders if her neighbor thinks she’s ugly, unsociable, crazy, or worse.
After we’d talked about my friend’s situation a bit, my friend remarked that an interesting thought was entering her mind. She realized her neighbor’s behavior was actually a lot like her own back in college. When my friend was in school, she was even more worried about being disliked, and she tended to shy away from relating with people for fear of being harshly judged. Some days, she felt so shy that she’d walk around campus with a hat or hood on her head, looking down at the ground so she wouldn’t be talked to or seen.
“It sounds like your neighbor might be just as afraid of being judged as you were,” I said.
“Maybe,” my friend replied. “I have a hard time imagining anyone could be as shy and scared as I was back then, but maybe.”
After our conversation, though she was still skeptical that others harbored the same fears she did, my friend found the way she saw her neighbor beginning to shift. Instead of fretting over how much her neighbor supposedly despised her, she found herself feeling compassionate and understanding. After all, she knew what it was like to experience the fear her neighbor might be feeling.
And, she recognized, what if her neighbor does actually think she’s unattractive or worthless, or has made some other negative judgment about her? If her neighbor, when she sees my friend, thinks “it’s not worth my time to say ‘hello’ to this worthless person,” her neighbor must have her own share of anxiety. If she’s really concerned about wasting time, losing face, or otherwise being harmed just by saying hi to somebody, she must have quite a fearful existence.
But at a deeper level, my friend reported, when she started considering the possibility that other people had the same fears of being disliked, she felt the intensity of her anxiety lessening. Her biggest fear, she recognized, wasn’t that others wouldn’t accept her—it was that her desire for acceptance made her weak, alien or strange.
She was ashamed, in other words, of the fact that she wanted to be liked. The tension that gripped her chest and shoulders when she felt rejected or unacknowledged by someone came from that shame. When she started recognizing that her desire to be accepted was only human, her shame began fading away.
Conversations like this one have convinced me that it isn’t our desire to be liked that has us feel so embarrassed or frightened when we think someone isn’t acknowledging us. It’s the common belief that wanting to be liked makes us weak, immature, or otherwise unacceptable.
When a situation comes up that triggers our need for acceptance—maybe it’s someone interrupting us, ignoring us, talking to us as if we don’t understand, or something else—it activates our shame around that need as well.
I think many of us could make our lives easier by simply admitting we want to be loved and liked by others, and recognizing that this doesn’t make us weird, unacceptable, shameful or anything else. When we reconcile with that desire for acceptance, rather than judging it or pushing it away, the desire no longer seems so overwhelming and threatening.
Paradoxically, once we understand that the desire for acceptance is a common human need, it stops feeling so desperately important. Acknowledging that desire actually helps us feel freer to live the lives we want, without having to constantly look over our shoulders to make sure we’re being approved of.