To feel accepted is a nearly universal human desire. After all, we evolved to survive better in groups, where fitting in and having the trust and respect of our peers are the measures of success. The need to belong is in our DNA.
But sometimes that need takes center stage, and what others think about us takes on more importance than what we think about ourselves.
We may analyze each look and word that comes our way for clues that we’ve been judged and found acceptable or lacking. Someone passing in the hall without a hello may leave us red-faced and convinced we don’t deserve notice. We may people-please, always putting others first, which leaves us open to being taken advantage of while we chase praise. We may exhaust ourselves trying to be cool enough, hard-working enough, attractive enough, or successful enough to feel valued.
David Sack, M.D. is board certified in Psychiatry, Addiction Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine. Dr. Sack currently serves as CMO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment centers that include Promises Treatment Centers, The Ranch, and The Recovery Place. After receiving his medical degree from Rush Medical College, he completed his residency in Psychiatry at the UCLA-Neuropsychiatric Institute. He served as a senior clinical scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health where his research interests included affective disorders, seasonal and circadian rhythms, and neuroendocrinology.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
What’s behind this anxiety about being liked, and why are some of us so much more vulnerable to it than others?
In many cases, it’s a type of echo from the past. At some point in our lives, something or someone may have made connection and affection seem conditional, something we have to fight for and don’t really deserve. A sense of shame develops as we inevitably fall short of perfection. Author Brené Brown, who has spent her career studying shame and the ways in which we can develop what she calls “shame resilience,” writes of this in her book The Gifts of Imperfection:
“Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think?’”
Perhaps your childhood caregivers were emotionally distant, physically or verbally abusive, or set impossible standards. Perhaps you were bullied at school. Perhaps you felt as though you never measured up in our competitive comparison culture.
Or perhaps you can't pinpoint an explanation. You just know you feel insecure and unworthy, and that leads you to count on others for reassurance that you matter and belong.
To be sure, wanting to be thought of positively isn’t a bad thing. We all need a little awareness of how others view us to keep balanced and attuned to how we affect others. But too much concern about what people think can lead us to value only what others want from us, rather than what we desire and need. And the irony is that what starts out as an effort to ensure our happiness and acceptance can end up doing the opposite.
Creating a New Mindset
If you recognize that you are someone who's anxious about being liked, there are steps you can take to get back to a healthier relationship with others and with yourself.
1. Keep things in perspective.
It’s said that people would care a lot less about what others think about them if they knew how little others think about them. And it’s true: Everyone has enough to occupy their mind. They also have their own insecurities. If you're worried about how you come across to someone you’ve just met, keep in mind that they’re probably doing the same.
2. Question your thinking.
Humans tend toward cognitive distortions, patterns of negative thinking that can hurt our mood or behavior. For example, we may assume the worst, or filter out the good in a situation and pay attention only to the bad. Or we may overgeneralize or jump to conclusions. Pay attention to your thoughts, and question them rather than allowing impressions to run away with you. You may discover that what you’re fretting over exists only in your mind.
3. Let go of perfection.
It can be hard to shake the feeling that if you just get things right, you will be loved and admired. But this is a fruitless pursuit, not only because perfection is an illusion, but because what people think about you has more to do with them than with you.
4. Get to know yourself.
What do you really like? What do you really want? Are you making choices about your career, relationships, and pastimes because you want them or because they’ll please or impress someone else? Allow yourself to try new things and wonder, “What would I pursue or enjoy if I wasn't so worried about being judged?”
5. Find your tribe.
Somewhere out there are people who can identify with you and appreciate you for who you are. Don’t waste time trying to hang on to those who expect you to conform to their wishes and wants. Cultivate authenticity, and you’ll find those you are meant to be with. As Brown writes in Daring Greatly, “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
6. Allow yourself to be vulnerable.
It can be terrifying to go against the grain, speak out, take a risk, or face disapproval. But decide what matters to you, trust yourself, and go for it. We don’t grow by always playing it safe; we grow by allowing ourselves a chance to fail.
7. Accept a helping hand.
The anxiety you feel about what others think can sometimes be overcome with a little self-awareness. But in some cases, especially for those with underlying trauma or mental health issues, professional help can help you get to the root of your feelings. Allow yourself to reach out for the care you need rather than prolonging your suffering.
8. Be your own friend.
It’s a tough reality, but you will never be able to make everyone like you, no matter what you do. But look on the bright side: No one else can do it, either. So accept the twinges that will inevitably come when you realize you haven’t made a connection with someone, and focus instead on a goal that will take you further toward being the kind of person you want to be—learning to like yourself, flaws and all.