What we got wrong about love

I don’t remember what game we were playing, or what this little boy was having a tough time with, but I remember like it was yesterday watching his father get more and more frustrated, eventually losing his temper and snapping at his sweet little boy. They were on a team and they were losing and the little boy wasn’t playing well enough–and this, apparently, was a big deal. That’s how it went in public, so you can imagine what the little boy heard every day about his worth at home. And now this little boy isn’t so little anymore, but he still says the word “sorry” constantly: any time there’s the teensiest chance that he’s disappointed anyone, made a mistake, or even just when he’s waiting for someone to be mad at him for no reason. He’s sorry for everything, because he knows–more deeply than he knows almost anything else–that who he is isn’t good enough for the people who “love” him.

 

I don’t know if you believe in a god, but I’m sure you believe in Love. I grew up believing that there is a god and that this god absolutely hates everything besides absolute perfection. Which is weird, because I also grew up reading a holy book that states, “god is love.”

This is not about whether I believe in that god anymore, or a different god, or no god.

I want to write about the impact my belief system had on my day-to-day notions of “love,” and the ripple effects that has had on each area of life.

I’m guessing I have lots of fellow humans whose unique worldview experiences or social experiences have led them to internalize similar notions about “love.” (I’ll try to sum up these love-notions a little later.) If you find that this speaks to your own experience, I’m writing this for you. And if you find that this sounds like the experience of someone you love, I’m writing this to help you understand and be with them.

What I learned about love, you can learn in lots of different ways:

You can learn it, like I did, from living in a world where everything has a specific spot somewhere between good and bad on a moral scale. We believed we had a very clear understanding of what was the holiest and most excellent way to do or say or believe–everything. It led to deep, guilty soul-searching episodes when someone would ask, “Is this the best use of your time?” Because it probably wasn’t. And if it wasn’t, you were probably disappointing god. “Best.” It’s why you had to sit with your family in church, not with your friends, because symbolically that was the most god-honoring way to do it (and, anyway, sitting with friends might corrupt you). It’s why we talked on our way home from church about how much we disapproved of those families who did let their kids go sit with their friends in church. It’s why we couldn’t play sports. It’s why we mocked people who worshiped with “shallow,” “worldly” contemporary music. It’s why I realized, as do many of the males who grow up in a similar worldview, that I was “called to be a pastor” (minister, if you’re not familiar), because even if we didn’t attach the word “best” to it, we would attach words like “highest calling.” I just know I got more attention and support for wanting to be a pastor someday than I did for wanting to play baseball. This was just the world we lived in. Doing and saying and pursuing and loving only the “best” or the “best way” was the obsession of our everyday lives.

You can also learn the same lessons about love from parents who are really mean to you. If you’re being constantly criticized, constantly yelled at, constantly mocked, constantly put down, constantly shamed–and especially constantly compared. Compared to your other siblings, compared to your parents, compared to your friends, compared to successful people on TV. Albert Einstein is attributed with saying, “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I don’t know if he actually said that or something similar, and I know that “genius” has more than one definition, but do you sort of get it? There is a beauty and worth in every unique individual. But some of us grew up in homes or ended up in jobs where people were always mad at us because we couldn’t climb trees, but they didn’t bother to discover how well we could swim. Maybe you weren’t “smart” enough. Maybe you weren’t “athletic” enough. Maybe you weren’t “extroverted” enough. Maybe words like “klutzy” or “daydreamer” were used derogatorily about you a lot. Maybe you were happier just reading a book alone in your bed, so your family or friends called you “boring.” So you learned that you weren’t quite as worthy of love as someone smarter, more athletic, more extroverted, more fun, etc. The most deserving of love–the most lovable–are the ones who are most those-things: extroverted, smart, athletic, fun, funny, talented, “interesting.” (“Interesting” is a dangerous adjective when we use it to compare people.) Maybe you kept your version of you and you think it’s unlovable. Or maybe you fixed yourself by switching to the version of you that is all those better words like “smart” and “athletic” so that people will love you, but you don’t feel like you anymore, and now you’re training the next generation that only the “best” are worthy of love.

You can learn this dangerous version of love from being in a family or social circle that gets most of its pleasure from making fun, bullying, mocking, teasing-but-really-not-just-teasing, and criticizing others. For some, life seems to be about who we can laugh at today, who we can shake our heads about and say things like “how do they live with themselves?” or “I’m glad I’m not like them.” Humor is a complicated subject, because making fun of people who are different or uncoordinated or “dumb” or “stupid” can be so, so pleasurable. And so, so dangerous and hurtful and sad. There are lots and lots of videos on the internet of genuinely hilarious accidents and situations that people have found themselves in–harmless. And there are just as many videos of people who have found themselves in confusing, embarrassing, or frustrating situations and are being taunted by the rest of the world–not at all harmless, but so easy to laugh at. Maybe you and your siblings or friends found your identity in entertaining each other with running commentaries on the stupidity you saw all around you: Ignorant people, confused people, tongue-tied people, nervous people, lazy people, vain people, “fat” people, “ugly” people. The world was about judging others. Happiness was found in making fun of a “stupidity” that thank god you didn’t share. And now what you know about love is that love is for the “best” ones, the “good” ones, the “talented” ones, the ones that won’t be the butt of a joke.

You can pick up these dangerous notions about love from growing up in a home where everything is about being wealthier than the rest of the world, more successful, more academically inclined. You find that you don’t fit into this world, so you are less lovable. Or you find people in the outside world who don’t fit into this world, so you can’t love them as much.

In the end, this idea about love that come with words like “best” and “worthy” and “disappointing” and “different”–these ideas can come from worldviews and experiences that put any different version of “best” on a pedestal: Religion, morality, health, sports, money, intelligence, style, popularity . . .

And this idea is sometimes imposed on us by people who are motivated by feelings of hate. But they’re also imposed on us by people who are motivated by feelings of love. “I want the best for you, so I will protect/teach/push you by . . .”

 

In a nutshell, this damaging notion about love that so many of us have learned is this: Love needs a reason.

“I will love you if . . .”

“God loves you if . . .”

“I will be disappointed in you if . . .”

“You’re stupid if . . .”

“I will be so proud of you if . . .”

“You’re my favorite because you . . .”

“I love you because you are the best at . . .”

“I will support you if . . .”

“I will disown you if . . .”

And it sometimes goes one step further. “Love needs a reason, and each reason falls somewhere on a scale.”

“You’re the most . . . in the family.”

“You’re so much smarter than . . .”

“You’re so much more beautiful than . . .”

“You’re not as . . . as you used to be.”

“You’re not as . . . as she is.”

“You should be more . . .”

“If only you could . . .”

“I would love you more if you were less . . .”

 

I honestly think this idea matters a lot. It’s such a deeply rooted part of what love and worth mean to so many of us, and it has real and sometimes very sad effects.

Deeply internalizing the idea that your own or someone else’s worthiness of love is dependent on where they fall on a scale of worst-bad-good-better-best impacts our mental health and our relationship with ourselves. It impacts how we feel about entire people groups and the world as a whole. It impacts how we bond and interact with our social circles. It impacts our relationships–especially our closest ones. And it seriously impacts how we experience all the little (or big) things in life, like art and adventures and cups of coffee.

 

There are a lot of personality traits that society has largely endorsed as “better” or “normal.” I think that collectively we are slowly getting more accepting about these things, but generally, being “not normal” in certain ways comes automatically with a feeling of “bad.”

Deeply introverted people and people with sensory processing sensitivity can find it difficult or impossible to function in many settings. If I’m such an introvert that I literally can’t even process the fact that you’re loudly saying words directly into my face in a crowded restaurant, I very likely feel a lot of shame for being this way. Like I’m letting you down. If that’s you, maybe your parents told you that you had a bad attitude or only cared about yourself, or your friends told you that you weren’t any fun. Or maybe they all said “oh that’s okay that you’re introverted,” but you could tell for sure they actually meant “we can put up with this, but you’re definitely not our favorite.” Either way, at least until recently, introversion has been treated like it’s a bad thing and introverted people have often been left feeling misunderstood, lonely, ashamed, and “less than.”

Until very recently, if you were attracted to someone of your own sex, you were likely completely rejected by family and friends. Or maybe you were “accepted” but like in the “isn’t this amazing that we still accept you???” way that makes you feel just as rejected. Sexual orientation had such a central spot on the bad-worse-worst scale in the world I grew up in that I remember one time being told not to use the word “homosexual” because “it’s so evil it shouldn’t even be named.” So many people have accepted the message that they are less worthy or unworthy of love because of their sexuality.

Any and every kind of “fitting in” is so important to us that we reject the parts of ourselves that don’t match the “normal” we see around us. We learn to be embarrassed about making unusual life choices. We get self-conscious about being “different.” We try to reshape every unique part of ourselves until we can feel like one of the “normal” people. I love singing, and sometimes I quietly sing in my office. On self-conscious days I don’t let myself sing, and that’s sad. On days I embrace my “weird,” I get to enjoy that part of me. Another not-normal thing about me is that I have a really hard time understanding teasing. Very often I hear things as really serious (or at least seriously passive aggressive) that were meant as affectionate teasing. This is a noticeable enough part of my personality that for a while it became something I felt very embarrassed and ashamed and guilty about. Like I was defective.

We all have unique us-things that aren’t normal-things. And if we learned that love needs a reason and that love needs the best reasons, our unique us-things leave us feeling ashamed, embarrassed, inadequate, and lonely.

So “not normal” equals “bad.” But it’s more than just that. We have legitimate “weaknesses,” or aspects we identify in ourselves as areas where we want to grow or change–even if we know it’s “normal” to have these weaknesses. An internalizing of the “you-have-to-be-worthy-of-love” message means that we equate having these weaknesses with the generic label of “bad.” If something about me frustrates myself or causes stress for my significant other, that makes me “bad,” or at least it is a “bad” thing about me. And that is very sad, and it means you probably can’t love and accept me, and so I feel helpless and vulnerable and threatened and unlovable.

Weaknesses aside, even my strengths and my accomplishments and my good-things have to be the best! One of the most common phrases I remember hearing growing up was, “Is that really the best use of your time?” And that question lodged deep in my psyche. As an adult it has left me dealing with chronic tension and anxiety about doing all the best things, making all the best choices, “redeeming the time” as I learned to call it. It meant that relaxing was bad. It meant that getting lost in a story for the story’s own sake wasn’t worthwhile. It meant that playing video games with friends was a waste. And even as my values and beliefs changed, the old “bests” were simply replaced with the new “bests,” and I began feeling guilty for going a day without learning some big thing or without writing or without going to the gym. Every choice and every day has to be the “best.” My whole life has to be the “best,” so the idea of a career where I’m not making this huge impact on the lives and hearts of so many people was just not acceptable so I never bothered to look into acting even though deep down it was like my favorite.

Perfectionism. Workaholism. Obsessive dieting. Over-commitment. Dissatisfaction. Competitiveness. Fitting in. Stoic toughness. All these ways we are compelled to tirelessly grasp for “best” so that we can be happy with ourselves and so that others will be happy with us. That’s a lot of “best” to keep up with, especially because we never quite think we’ve reached it.

 

This subtle idea that love requires a reason affects how we see the broader world, too, from humanity as a whole to specific people groups. People who “talk that way” or “dress that way” or “spend that way” or “think that way” or “look that way.” People who struggle, people who “fail,” people who are vulnerable, people who need help, people who are “different.”

We alternatively fear and scorn “those people.” Democrats or Republicans. Immigrants. “Blacks” or “Mexicans” or “Middle Easterners.” Men or Women. Boomers or Millennials. “Filthy” rich. Homeless. “Fat” people. Sensitive people. Dreamers. Network marketers. Christians. Atheists. Parents. Politicians. Auditors. Celebrities. Rednecks. Rebellious teenagers.

We find a label that we’ve experienced as somehow “bad” or “less than,” and we assign it to a group of people we don’t know–humans just like us deep down–and then we get to hate them, reject them, make fun of them, mistrust them, attack them, write them off, bully them.

The idea that some groups of people are less lovable because of who they are or what they’re going through is the very antithesis of compassion. We mock and make fun and build walls and forget that all these people are just humans who, like us, at their core are just vulnerable souls in need of love and support.

 

Love needing to be deserved impacts our own social circles, too. One way I’ve noticed I carry with me this only-love-the-worthy-ones baggage is through my deep down gut reactions to people who hurt me and let me down, even in little ways. I’ve noticed that I learned a tendency to see only one or the other: someone that doesn’t hurt me and I love them, or someone who hurts me and I hate them. There’s no room for people that I love and also am mad at sometimes, because once they’ve hurt me they’re “bad” and it’s simplest to just reject them and move along. Either someone is the “best” or they are unsafe. Only the “best” are safe.

Sometimes it’s not about safety, sometimes it’s just about preference and popularity. We learn socially to accept and appreciate and embrace and follow and enjoy the “best” people, and neglect the “less-thans” out there. It’s why even in many social groups that try to be built around “love,” like some churches, the “odd” people–the socially awkward or the mentally ill or the addicts or the handicapped–are left out of the cliques. We gravitate toward the people whose style and company we consider the “best,” and we happily leave the “odd” ones to fend for themselves.

This perfectionist view of love also tends to really rub other people the wrong way. When I take issue with everything that isn’t quite perfect–when I always, always, always point out the errors or the weaknesses around me and look for reasons to criticize every single thing–well, it’s just not how to win friends and influence people. My accepting and loving only the “best” things doesn’t work for my friends.

 

Perhaps most sadly and painfully, this idea that love needs a reason can slowly erode your relationships–especially your closest ones.

Back to the idea that “not normal” equals “bad.” Nobody will get to know your significant other better than you will. And you won’t get to know anybody else in the world as well as you know your significant other. Which means that you see the “not normal” highlighted in your significant other so much more closely and loudly than you see the “not normal” in other people you like and look up to. And when some of those “not normal” things about your significant other start to get under your skin–which, for the record, being annoyed can be completely understandable and healthy–it is so easy to forget that your view of your significant other is what it is only because of your vantage point. When you compare your significant other’s insecurities to your other friends’ insecurities, your significant other loses this comparison. When you compare your significant other’s anxiety or mood swings to the anxieties and mood swings you’ve seen in other people, your significant other loses this comparison. Every “imperfection” you see in your significant other, you see so much more closely than you see it in anyone else. And that can eat away at your feelings of love and acceptance and patience and compassion. You can become frustrated and quite understandably discontent. You can feel panicky and stuck. “Other people don’t seem to have this problem. If only I could be with other people.” The reality is other people do have this problem and other problems, you just see your best friend’s “bests” and “worsts” from a front row seat.

In the context of people needing to be worthy of love, realistically recognizing your best friend’s imperfections means you have found a “problem,” and instead of love there is doubt and fear and mistrust.

As compassionate and accepting as you determine to feel toward you significant other, whose insecurities and weaknesses you get to know so deeply–if you have internalized the lesson that you need a reason to love someone, you will find reasons not to love. And you will experience times where you have lost sight of reasons to love. And in those times, if your love for your crazy best friend has to “make sense,” you won’t be able to find it.

Chances are you’ll be right about your best friend being a little heavier on the weaknesses than a few other fantastic humans you’ve met. When you fell in love with your best friend, they were “the best person in the world.” But there’s a good chance that someday you’re going to come across someone that you see as “better.” Maybe a new person has those characteristics that attracted you to your best friend, but even more strongly. Maybe your values have changed as you’ve grown and this new person’s compassion or their healthiness or their ambition is more attractive to you than your best friend’s.

In a world where you’re supposed to save your biggest love for the people who have (in some arbitrary way) earned it the most, best-friend kind of love and safety and togetherness and got-your-back-ness doesn’t work.

Flip the roles for a minute. Your partner fell in love with you “because of your ambition” or “because of your sense of humor.” You know there’s someone with more ambition than you, or someone a little funnier. But you need your partner to still love you anyway. What you really need is to just be loved for you. No matter how you compare to the next person.

There’s nothing wrong, I’m sure, with being attracted to someone’s traits and strengths and accomplishments and style to the point that you “fall in love.” Love has reasons. I just think love can’t totally need reasons. Because there will always be a “more reasonable” person to love, but humans were made to provide love and safety for each other–and not just for the “best” each-others.

Love needing a reason–love needing the best, the most worthy-of-love things to love–is a fragile, hurtful, loveless love.

 

Beyond our relationships with ourselves and others, being obsessed with comparing lovableness and worthiness and good-better-best-ness just practically drains life of its zest.

The world is full of magic. But we miss most of the magic when we obsess over the “best,” when we only love the things that “deserve” to be loved.

We scroll and scroll and scroll through Netflix looking for the-just-right TV show with it’s just-right humor that will put us in the just-right mood that we felt that one “best” time. (And, of course, we land on The Office and commence our thirty-fourth rewatch, because, despite all I’ve written so far, if there ever was a “best” and “most-worthy-of-love” thing to be exclusively embraced, the Office is it. Or maybe just because “favorite” is okay, too.)

We stress and stress and stress over our choices, desperately needing to make sure we’re making the most right decision that will lead us to the most happiness.

We criticize most things because they’re not the best. We’ve seen better.  Besides one, every single cup of coffee becomes “not the best cup of coffee.”

We mostly notice the “dumb” parts about each movie we see, each song we hear, each painting we look at. Because we’ve become wired to “discern,” to have “high standards,” to seek the best of the best of the best. Always. So we criticize almost everything in the world. All things but the best things are unsatisfying.

Once, when I was a teenager still living in a culture defined by a comparing/earning version of love, something struck me. And it’s a little dorky, like debate-kid-argument style dorky, so bear with me. This worldview of “god-accepts-only-the-very-best” and “only-the-most-excellent-is-pleasing” that I had grown up with, applying it so faithfully to each and every activity and choice in everyday life–its logical conclusion can only (and quite absurdly) lead to a world where we sing one and only one “hymn” to worship god–whichever we discover is the “best,” the most “beautiful” and “pleasing” to god. We’d only read one book, the best book. We’d only ever spend time with one friend, the best friend who had the most positive influence on us. Of course, this was absurd. Which meant, of course, that this notion of love and worth that I had grown up with was not an actual thing. It didn’t work. It wasn’t life. Life is bigger and broader, beautifully diverse and colorful, and full of countless uniquely lovable people and songs and places and styles and tastes and stories and choices and relationships and expressions.

The “best” just isn’t important. It’s not really even a thing.

 

Can I ask you a question? Like a real, honest, uncomfortable, stop-and-think question. If you learned this lesson about love–that love needs to be earned, that the biggest love is reserved for the best people and the best things–how has this impacted your life? What words of rejection have you said to yourself because you aren’t good enough? What harsh judgments have you caught yourself making because those people have problems? Who have you treated as less-than because you genuinely thought that’s how it worked? How has this fragile “I’ll-love-you-IF” and “You’ll-love-me-IF” version of love left you and your closest person in the weak, vulnerable, nitty-gritty-real-life moments? And do you ever wish you could just like things?

 

Could we give up this broken notion? Relearn love?

What if you just loved people and things . . . . . . ? (Like there isn’t more to that sentence.)

Maybe love doesn’t need a reason.

No, let me try that again without the watering down:

Love doesn’t need a reason.

 

My best friend and I used to ask each other all the time, “Why do you love me?” And that can be a very fun and encouraging and celebratory question to ask and answer. But often I was unnerved when the answers were less along the lines of “because-you’re-the-best-at . . .” and more along the lines of “I-don’t-know-I-just-do.” I couldn’t retrace the exact path it took for that answer to go from my least favorite to my most favorite. But it’s there now. Sure, I feel loved “for” being kind. But I also feel loved “for” being anxious now, too. And best of all, I feel loved “for” just . . . being me. No reason. Just love.

 

tl;dr version: Love doesn’t need a reason.

Anatole France - love without reason

‘You Don’t Have to Like Me’ – 5 Reasons to Be Your Real Self This Year

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 did it, 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.