I have this ingrained need to please people. I’ll do anything to feel liked. I can’t stand it when I suspect someone didn’t like me or found me annoying. And I take any kind of slight, perceived or actual, incredibly hard. And that means that coping with the simple, human fact that there are people out there in the world who don’t like me as a person, is incredibly difficult.
When I was younger, I had this idea that “real” best friends were people who were never annoyed with you. As a consequence, I was perpetually afraid of unknowingly doing some tiny thing that irritated them and made them leave me forever.
I would lie awake at night, staring at the ceiling as I ran through various conversations and interactions I’d had that day.
Did I do something annoying?
Was I boring, or repetitive?
I needed to remember to talk less.
As I got older, I thought I grew out of this burning need to be everyone’s perfect, unproblematic best friend. But to my dismay, it reared its ugly head.
I still care deeply about what people think of me — even people I’ll never see again.
I had a drink with an old coworker the other day, and while we were chatting about new jobs, old jobs, and co-workers, he mentioned another one of our ex-coworker had got in touch with him.
“Josh said his new job is great — there’s nobody he actively dislikes there,” Mark said.
Immediately I was spiraling. Why had Josh not got in touch with me? Was I one of the people he disliked? How long had he hated me? What could I have done differently?
I thought back to our working relationship — I’d thought we had a good time. We were deskmates, we joked around, sometimes we had lunch together. This whole time I’d thought of him at least as a work friend, and he didn’t like me.
This is someone I hadn’t seen in months and probably never would again. And it still had this powerful effect on me and my mental wellbeing.
As I was reeling from my unsubstantiated, somewhat paranoid train of thought, it occurred to me that I was being ridiculous. I needed to stop.
Why did it bother me so much? Why did it matter? Why did one person’s opinion of me make me so deeply insecure?
I could recognize it was a little ridiculous, but I had no idea how to cope with this kind of anxiety. How could I learn to deal with the fact that inevitably, some of the people I meet throughout my life will not like me?
1. Gain some perspective
The first step is not forward but backward. Take a big step back and look up, around, in. There’s so much more to life and ourselves than this one, ultimately meaningless interaction.
To put it into context, for the first time in human history, astronomers saw the birth of a binary star system. And it happened 920 million light-years ago.
This happened in a world I live in, this year.
When I remember these kinds of everyday miracles are happening, and focus on the fact that we’re lucky enough to live in the time where we get to watch it all unfold, it’s easier to consider that Josh’s possible dislike of me doesn’t actually matter.
I can move past today by thinking about what tomorrow might bring — not for me, but our world.
2. People can find you annoying and still like you
This startling revelation occurred to me as I contemplated my feelings towards my friends.
Unlike in Disney movies, people and their relationships aren’t black and white. If you think about your friends and acquaintances, you’ll probably find that for the vast majority, you don’t love or hate them. There will be nobody that you fully dislike, or find absolutely nothing wrong with. We’re complicated beings, and our relationships are many-sided, constantly evolving.
In my head, I’d created this pointless dichotomy — if I wasn’t loved, I must be hated. And it simply isn’t true.
Even with the people that I find most annoying, I’ll actively choose to spend time with them — because I still like them. This means that I have to assume that people who find me incredibly irritating don’t outright hate me, and probably never will. People can find us annoying and still enjoy our company.
3. There’s no accounting for taste
This was my hardest pill to swallow: the realization that no matter what I did, no matter how charming, funny, or likable I made myself, some people would not like me. No matter how many times I changed my personality to suit the crowd, one individual in there would find me distasteful, irritating, cumbersome.
Wouldn’t it be better to live my life as I chose, doing things that brought me happiness, and let the people who don’t like me, not like me? Rather than spending time and energy molding myself into something I thought most people would like, wouldn’t it be best to focus on what I liked about myself?
I needed to accept that, just like mushrooms or the color orange, some people love us and some people will not. This isn’t our fault, or through any of our actions necessarily, it just means we’re not their taste. And that’s OK.
I still struggle to understand that I can’t change myself into a perfect person who will be universally loved. I will say things and do things that people will find annoying. But for the most part, it’s out of my control — and ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
By learning to accept myself as I am, I can sleep a little better at night.
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