Happy 2018 my friends! Let me tell you a story about 2017. And 2016. And late 2015. Yeah–pretty much those three years. For the past few years I have struggled deeply with the fear of being disliked.
I judged the success of my interactions on whether the person I was speaking to came away happy with me. I tried really hard to only talk about things that would please people. I kept criticism, warnings, and complaints largely to myself. What about you? Do you keep a lot of your dearest thoughts and concerns to yourself so that people won’t reject you for being you?
I needed to be liked so badly–especially by authority figures or other people who could have serious impact on my life–that the littlest bit of tension, suspicion, or disapproval could set off panicky fight-or-flight type hormones (mostly flight) inside me. Does confrontation or disagreement bring you these feelings?
This fear robbed me of a lot of power and progress in situations where I could have better stood up for myself or others. It’s caused me to make decisions I’ve regretted.
Something worth noting is that I haven’t always lived life according to this fear. I remember a few years ago, one of my role models gave me the compliment of a lifetime: “Unflappable,” she called me. I was strong, calm, and dependable. I wasn’t pushed around by people and I didn’t panic and concede when someone had a problem with me. I had been around that block before–dealt with a lot of people judging me–and I had learned to find my own strength and confidence.
I honestly am not sure where I lost it. But now I am sure, comparing these last few years to my earlier, stronger years–I am sure that I was much happier, much more successful, and even more liked when I didn’t worry about whether people liked me.
(BIG disclaimer before I go any further: Being a nice person is good. This blog post is not proposing you be a brat. Don’t be a brat.)
In 2018, one of my personal development goals is to stop needing–or even wanting–everyone to like me. The words I chose are: Confident; Unintimidated; Emotionally/mentally tough.
I cannot need others to always approve of me, be my friend, agree with me, or be happy about what I do or say. And here are a few reasons why:
1. Being liked by everyone is impossible.
Let’s start with the simplest reason not to live for everyone’s approval: IT DOESN’T WORK.
A while back I was chatting with a friend about former President Barack Obama’s leadership style. I mentioned that I was impressed that he worked so hard at being kind and respectful to both sides, not just viciously attacking the other side of each agenda or blindly towing his own party’s line. It seemed to me like it was important to him that he be able to get along and build relationships with the political opposition. My friend, a strong democrat, replied that the president’s agreeableness was his biggest problem, that he should have taken a much more vocal and forceful stand on everything.
Moral of the story: Try to be agreeable to everyone and there will always be people who disapprove of you for not being more disagreeable to people they don’t like.
A close friend had a similar experience. He had decided to passionately live his life according to one central standard: Peace with everyone. He was determined to be at peace with every single person in his life–to be friendly and to get along. And to his credit, his passion for this has made him one of the kindest and most compassionate people you’ll meet. But there was a problem. One family member, his mom, desperately wanted and needed him to oppose other family members, including her ex-husband, his dad. When they were together, she insisted they talk negatively about other family behind their backs. Whenever he saw his dad, his mom was hurt and angry and questioned his love. It soon became clear that no matter how hard he tried to be in a peaceful relationship with both sides, his mom would accept absolutely no version of friendship that made room for his priority of peace with anyone but her. He tried and tried to explain that all he wanted was to get along with everyone. But to his mom, his desire for peace with others meant a personal attack on her.
There are a million examples, and I’ll bet there are some in your own life that come to mind. At work, keeping your employees happy might mean letting down your own boss. You may feel pressure to blur some lines and cut some corners here or there for the sake of productivity, because one executive expects and encourages it. But keeping him happy means causing another leader to view you as unethical or undependable. Or just try making decisions about the holiday without offending one or another family member.
Maybe the biggest proof of all that you can’t please everybody: Try assembling a guest list for your wedding. Leave your crazy uncle off the list and risk the wrath of your grandparents. Put him on the list and the rest of your family might not show up. (Eloping is underrated.) You just can’t keep everybody happy, and sometimes trying will just make people even more unhappy with you.
2. Needing everyone’s approval leaves you feeling guilty, stressed, and hurt.
If I am trying desperately to keep everyone happy with me–if I make that my responsibility and blame myself when someone is disappointed in me or turns against me–If I need your approval in order to be happy, then I have given you control over my life and my heart.
It’s the age old story–you were never good enough for your dad as a kid, and now that you’re an adult, you just want him to be pleased with you. You want him to accept you for who you are. If he has a problem with you, you feel small and sad. But maybe what your dad thinks of you has nothing to do with you and everything to do with him.
Living for a parent’s approval or your boss’s approval or your significant other’s approval or your kid’s approval–tying your happiness and self-image to whether someone likes you will just lead to hurt. Again and again and again. Because while you may choose to want them to like you, they may choose for themselves that they don’t.
I’ll bet you have a relationship where you find this tendency in yourself. (I know I do!) You fight in your head over every little decision, because what would please you will displease your boss. Maybe last time you chose to stand up for yourself, and your boss let you know in no uncertain terms that you displeased them. You ended up sad and guilty–yet another person you’ve let down. So this time, you’re choosing to concede. Let your boss have his way. Live to please. So you end up making choices you don’t feel right about, and you end up stressed and still feeling guilty.
If I live to please, I always feel guilty: Guilty for the compromises I’ve made to please others, or guilty for not pleasing others because I refused to compromise.
If I live to please, I always feel hurt: Hurt by your choice to pick a fight with me even though I tried to keep the peace, or hurt by someone else’s disappointment that I have a relationship with you to begin with.
And if I live to please, I always feel stressed: Am I getting it right? For you? For him? For her? For them? And if I am getting it right for everyone else–am I honestly getting it right for myself?
3. Needing to be liked stunts professional progress.
I hate corporate politics. I dream of finding a place without politics. But politics don’t seem to care. They’re sticking around no matter how I feel.
An incredible number of people–influential people–will encourage, expect, and even require you to do things you don’t feel right about, or not to do things you really want to do. And needing to be liked–needing approval–will make you a permanent servant of stronger, bolder political players.
I’ve noticed that the people who end up making progress quickly or getting their way (at least for a good while) in organizations are the ones who don’t need to be liked by everybody. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If I have a deep passion, for example, for promoting inclusivity and equal opportunity in my company–there will be some people who don’t like that, who spread negativity about me, and who want to see me go. I can need their approval and stop working so hard for this good thing. Or I can let them have their own problem with me, and keep focusing on the good I am doing. At the end of the day, if I need everyone to be on board my ship, my ship will never set sail.
I’ve also noticed that the people who do need to be liked by everybody are usually stuck serving those daring leaders and innovators who don’t need to always be liked. There will always be someone who will only accept and like you as long as you are serving their vision and purpose. So you make the trade off: They get you as a pawn in their game, and you get liked.
The rule applies to every area of work within an organization: If I need you to like me, and you don’t need me to like you, then I will do what you want me to do. Every time. But what if I also didn’t need you to like me?
If I didn’t need everyone’s approval, I’d think outside the box more–take bigger risks–accept bigger responsibilities–identify more problems with the status quo–chase opportunities without apologizing to less ambitious co-workers.
Some time ago, someone a few rungs above me on the corporate ladder brought me something to do. It didn’t sit right with me–in fact, I knew it wasn’t right. I started to protest, and immediately her face flushed and she got pushy. “Trust me, it’s fine! Just do it!” In the little decision-making moment that I had, my mind went straight to the conversations she was going to have later with her co-workers and higher-ups, people who could influence my career: “He’s such a stickler.” “He thinks he’s better than everybody.” “He just doesn’t get it.” I just wanted to be liked. I didn’t want anybody having problems with me. But if I said no, I would have a problem with myself. And so would all the influential people on the other side of the corner-cutting spectrum if they found out. Talk about stress!
But what if I didn’t need her to like me? What if instead of trying to please everyone, I consciously chose the kind of person I wanted to be, and allowed some influential people to help me and some not to. What if I recognized that pleasing everyone was just never going to happen, and I focused my energy instead on being bold and strong and confident? After all–those confident, independent types were the ones I kept seeing up near the top of the ladder.
No matter what your career goals and projects, the more energy you expend on the impossible mission of pleasing everybody, the less you’ll have to build on your own vision. And there will always be people who just aren’t pleased with your vision.
4. Needing to be liked by everyone keeps you from helping people.
This one is near and dear to my heart.
I grew up in a world where everything was either “right” or “wrong”–“very good” or “very bad.” Everything had to be judged. Everything was a moral issue, and I had to know all the answers. I now think that world doesn’t work. It leads to arrogance and viciousness, shame and depression. Over-zealous over-confidence has led to hundreds of wars and conflicts throughout history.
But now I’ve found that–in reaction to that world–just as big a world exists where there is no “right” or “wrong.” Everything is okay. Peace is the only value. Nobody can speak up against things as “bad.” Everyone worships the vision of being completely 100% chill.
But in the real world–in the real world where, according to the CDC, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18–in the real world where over 500 lives were ended in 2017 by mass shootings in America–in the real world, there is such a thing as “bad.”
I want to help people who are being hurt. And sometimes it’s not as black and white as a gun in your face. In fact, more often than not it’s quiet manipulation and bullying. Parents emotionally abuse children, high schoolers bully less cool high schoolers, co-workers bully the new guy or the nerdy girl. Bosses take advantage of their employees. Celebrities use their status to get away with sexual harassment. And it’s really easy to just go with the flow–let it happen–laugh it off–shrug your shoulders–“not my problem.” After all, standing up and saying “No” takes guts. And breaking the silence usually puts a big target on your back.
As long as I need everyone to accept and approve of me and what I do, I can’t take a stand against the “bad.” If I need to be liked by everyone, I can’t stand up to bullies and abusers and help vulnerable people find strength and freedom. Too many people would rather I just leave things be so they can stay comfortable in the status quo.
If I need to be liked by everyone, I can’t ruffle feathers, can’t be honest about the elephant in the room, can’t say no to hurtful behaviors. I can’t help people who are being hurt and also remain popular with the people doing (or enabling or ignoring) the hurting.
Do you want to be the kid that “stayed out of it?” Or the kid that stepped in between his friend and the school bully and said, “You’ll have to get through me first!”?
5. Lastly, living for approval from others keeps you from being you.
Do you ever hear yourself say something and think, “Wait–where did that come from?!?”
If I spend so much time worrying about what others will think, I just won’t be myself.
If I worry at every meeting about how every single person will feel about my opinions or votes or suggestions, I won’t speak up (and certainly won’t recommend creative new solutions or thinking outside the box).
If I need every client to be completely happy with me, I won’t be able to say “no” when I need to say no in the interests of my own career and the health of my organization.
If I can’t say no to one family member’s gossip because I want them to like me, I won’t be the loving, caring person the rest of my family needs.
If I choose not to be honest about who I am when I’m making new friends because I’m afraid I’m too weird or different, then nobody will ever know and love the real me.
If I carefully write every single blog post so that absolutely everyone will be pleased with what I have to say and think I’m a smart guy, I won’t communicate genuinely from the heart.
Dependence on the approval of others–always needing to be liked–paralyzes you. It keeps the real you hidden deep down, while an ever-stressed and watered-down version of you walks the tight rope of each new job and relationship.
Don’t be afraid to be you. You don’t need everyone to like who you really are. Diet You isn’t going to be very useful to the world. Be the bold, free, loving you that you are pleased with–and I promise you, you’ll find that the kind of people who end up liking you are pretty amazing people to have in your life.
Be the kind of person you would like, and leave others to struggle with their own opinions of you.
One last thought–a friend of mine, who has spent his career as a therapist helping people be honest with each other and get along, says something that will always stick with me: “People connect at the level of their struggles.”
In this Facebook/Instagram/Always-Look-Happy kind of world, it’s tempting to think that if you open up about who you really are–dirty laundry and everything–people won’t like you. So we bottle our emotions, hide our hurts, and turn a blind eye to the suffering in our own homes. Because we’re afraid that if we get real, people won’t like us.
It’s not true. Be real. Talk about the things you feel like you’re not allowed to talk about. Show the fear and the love deep inside you. You’ll find a hundred friends who are aching to share just as deeply as you are. Yes, you’ll also find a few who are sad that you’re being you. But at least you’re actually being you.