I recently had the huge honor of meeting one of my personal heroes: U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren. Though I did once consider running for office, my admiration for Senator Warren isn’t purely political: There are few people out there today, in any field, who are able to set aside their fear of not being liked in order to do the work that they were born to do. This is particularly true of women, who seem to be both born and raised to consider others’ opinions and seek consensus before they act.
I hold myself to many standards, and receiving others’ approval has always been one of them, no matter how hard I try to pretend otherwise. I have never found a way to separate my drive to do great things in the world from my need for approval from other people. My perfectionism motivates me to exceed expectations in everything that I do; but the problem is that this flawed strategy works. I work harder to be better and to achieve more—for others’ approval, and for my own—and when I get that approval, it reinforces my need to continue striving for perfection in perpetuity.
Perfectionism has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. I see it as a product of three factors: I hold myself to excessively high standards, and I often worry that I’m not living up to my potential. I’m powerfully empathetic, which puts me in the position of thinking about other people’s feelings and perceptions more often than most. Last, for me, toxic perfectionism is a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder—adding fuel to the fire.
What’s the link between perfectionism and the fear of not being liked? My perfectionism and my OCD have convinced me that unless I am perfect, I will face terrible consequences. So whether you obsessively perfect your appearance or the work that you do, you are convinced that anything less than perfection is deeply shameful—and for those of us who are highly attuned to other people’s feelings, shame is a truly terrifying prospect.
What I admire about Elizabeth Warren is her ability to persist in doing what she knows is right, in spite of the backlash that she’ll inevitably face. There’s an unspoken understanding that compels women to be agreeable. Others expect it of us, so we expect it of ourselves. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign shed light on this inherent conflict: Can a woman be viewed as likable at the same time as we’re asking her to prove her competence—particularly in a traditionally male role? How can we be ambitious without being perceived as threatening; outspoken without being heard as shrill; intellectual without being seen as cold?
Though my time with Senator Warren was brief, what I wanted to say to her was, “Thank you for inspiring women like me to set aside their fear of not being liked in favor of doing what we know is right.” Her courage and persistence remind me that my incessant need to gain others’ approval is self-defeating: By watering down the person that I am in order to meet others’ standards, I’m diluting what makes me unique—lessening the chance that I’ll contribute anything worth noticing in my lifetime. In turn, this widens the gap between who I am and who I believe I should be—setting off a chain of alarms in my perfection-driven brain.
Ever since, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on the fear of not being liked: Why it’s so dangerous, and how perfectionistic, empathetic women like me can work to overcome it. Here’s the wisdom that I’ve gathered.
10 Ways to Overcome the Fear of Not Being Liked
#1: Question the tapes that play on repeat in your head.
Are your thoughts a constant stream of criticism about yourself and other people? It’s critical to figure out how to turn down the volume down on that kind of negativity by consciously transforming the way that you talk to yourself. When you constantly undermine your own self-esteem, you’ll find yourself trying even harder to win other people’s approval in order to feel worthy—but when you’re constantly criticizing yourself, you become more critical of other people, too. In this way, placing too much pressure on yourself to be liked by other people can have exactly the opposite effect.
Also, when you’re in your own head, it makes it harder to be the kind of person that attracts other people to you. After all, how well can you listen to other people if your brain is firing off constant criticism about yourself and the people around you? When you break out of your own consciousness for a little while, you realize that you’re not the only one fighting a difficult battle—which can help you to connect with other people rather than isolating you.
#2: Remind yourself that people’s opinions are incredibly subjective.
You know the saying, “It’s not my cup of tea”? Imagine trying to prepare a cup of tea that appeals to everyone. How can you satisfy the people who like green tea with sugar, black tea with honey and lemon, herbal tea with milk—and the people who’d rather have a strong cup of coffee? You’d end up with a cup of lukewarm water—pleasing no one at all. (For the record: My cup of tea would be a strong chai with almond milk and a generous spoonful of honey.)
It’s better to make the best damn cup of tea you can, which will naturally attract “your people”: The ones who genuinely appreciate what makes you you—no convincing or pandering required. If you spend your life trying to tweak your personality and preferences to please everyone you meet, everything that’s original about you—the qualities that draw your people to you—will end up on the cutting room floor.
#3: Accept that people aren’t thinking about you as much as you think they are.
You know how noisy the inside of your head is? You’re not alone in that. We all spend the vast majority of our time focused on our own worries and struggles. Knowing that, why would we let our fear that others will think poorly of us dictate how we spend our lives? Imagine going up to an acquaintance whose opinion you value (or fear) and telling them, “I’m holding myself back from doing what matters to me in life because I worry that you’ll disapprove.” Any reasonable person will respond, “Seriously?! What I think doesn’t matter—just do what makes you happy!”
#4: Reassure yourself that the people who love you just want you to be happy.
Each of us has a handful of people whose opinions have the right to impact our decisions—and those are the same people who will most likely love you regardless of how you choose to spend your time. So do the work that makes you feel fulfilled; get married and have kids at whatever age feels right to you (or don’t do it at all)—just don’t let the opinions of insignificant people hold you back from spending your life how you need to.
#5: Strive to be respected; being liked can come later.
Winning someone’s respect is so much more enduring and meaningful than winning their approval. Here’s the perfect example to illustrate this: Think about the graph during a presidential debate that depicts the audience’s real-time reaction. Their ratings fluctuate wildly in response to incredibly subjective factors like word choice, tone, facial expressions, and interactions between candidates. Imagine a politician whose sole strategy is to keep people’s ratings of him or her consistently positive. They would have to avoid saying anything of any importance because it would simply be too risky. In the end, of course, the strategy would completely backfire, because who would vote for someone who failed to say anything that actually mattered to the people listening?
If you live your life like this, it’s inevitable that you’ll lose sight of what’s important. You can’t get anything done without taking risks—and the most worthwhile, life-changing risks often involve taking a stand on something that matters to you, no matter what the social consequences might be. Think of someone who you admire—do you admire them because they’ve failed to offend anyone, or because they’ve had a real impact on the world? They might not be universally liked—Elizabeth Warren certainly isn’t—but they’ve won the respect of their people. Don’t get distracted by the ebb and flow of criticism and praise from people who don’t matter—command the respect that you deserve, and other positive effects will follow.
#6: Never forget that there’s important work to be done that only you can do.
Using other people’s approval as a compass to let you know you’re headed in the right direction will always lead you off-track. Only your own intuition can lead you to the work that you’re meant to be doing in life—not just for your own fulfillment, but to fill a gap in the world that only you can. The pursuits that you’re passionate about aren’t a coincidence—they’re the areas where you can make a true difference in your lifetime. Your unique skillset and perspective are your greatest asset, not a liability—so make it your goal to find a place where you’re valued for who you are and can make a meaningful contribution.
#7: Embrace the fact that what makes you unique is your competitive differentiator.
You’ll never find fulfillment or lasting success by striving to be a second-rate version of someone else. There’s a difference between improving the person that you are, and trying to become someone that you’re not. We’re all challenged to become more well-rounded versions of ourselves and step outside of our comfort zones in order to progress. However, your job is to become a first-rate version of yourself, not to become more like someone else—that would diminish the contributions that only you can make.
Here’s some #realtalk on this subject that I learned the hard way when I was struggling to find my first job out of school: When you’re interviewing for a job, it’s easy to focus too hard on pleasing everyone in the room; but you simply won’t get hired if you’re not memorable. By airbrushing your personality and your story to try to fit everyone’s expectations, you might come across as competent and personable—but ultimately, you’ll be forgettable. What makes you unique is your competitive differentiator—so embrace that; don’t shy away from it. (Unless you’re a jerk. See #10.)
#8: Focus on building each other up.
When you’re hyper-focused on winning other people’s approval, it’s almost impossible not to become competitive and defensive. It might feel counterproductive to publicly praise someone else when doing so sends positive attention in their direction rather than yours. However, not everything in life is a zero-sum game. Plus, let me tell you a little secret from social science: When you say negative things about other people, they associate those qualities with you rather than with the person you’re talking about.
Positivity, encouragement, and support are not finite resources; and fostering an environment where kindness is thrown around like confetti is beneficial for everyone. This is especially important for women to realize, and even more so in male-dominated fields: One woman’s achievements pave the way for all of those who work alongside her, as well as those who come after her. The world is tough enough as it is; we don’t have to step on each other to make our way to the top, no matter how steep the competition might be. Rather than burning the ladder you climbed so that no one else can follow you, use your influence to create an environment where there’s room for more than just one female leader.
#9: Pay attention to how social media makes you feel.
Social media enables us to compare ourselves to other people on a daily (or even hourly) basis. If you don’t closely monitor the impact that this has on your mental state, it’s all too easy to wind up feeling dissatisfied with who you are or what you have without even realizing why. Even worse: It’s not easy to disentangle your sense of self-worth from the feedback that you get on social media once you’ve been sucked in.
That’s why it’s important to take a step back and observe the effect that social media has on your mood and your thoughts. How can you build a more affirming, positive experience for yourself—and which steps do you need to take to extricate your self-esteem from the amount of likes that you get?
#10: Just don’t be a jerk.
I saved the simplest principle for last. If you want people to like you, treat them with kindness and respect, and they’ll return the same to you. It’s easy to convince yourself that winning people’s favor is as complex and mysterious as alchemy. You don’t need to jump through hoops. Make kindness a cornerstone of your personal brand, and the relationships that you want will follow.
So, here’s what you need to remember (pin this chart if it resonates with you!):
How to Overcome the Fear of Not Being Liked: 12 Inspiring Quotes
Here’s what other people have to say about the fear of not being liked—some quotes that you’ve heard before, and some that I’ve uncovered:
“There’s no little certificate that says, You are liked. You have arrived. You are good enough now and forever. There is only where we are now and where we want to be. You need to work to find your own pathways in the world. Other people are not going to save you. You’re going to save yourself: through slow, deliberate action. When you act all doubtful and needful and desperate, you make yourself the wretched nobody that you’re scared of being. Get out more. On your own. Make this a part of your routine. List the things that you know about yourself. What do you like doing? What are you objectively good at? What music makes you feel the most alive? What are you afraid of? What do you know you need to work on to be a happier person? You start digging for what makes you special. You tear up the years of violent self-shaming and you drag those little jewels up out of the dirt. You’re smart. You’re a good listener. You can make great macaroons. Whatever. You dig them up and you polish them and you commit to taking care of them and looking at them as often as you need to.” —Beth McColl
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” —Howard Thurman
“It’s perfectly okay to want to be liked by other people. Given the choice, who in their right mind would rather be disliked than liked? The problem comes when we need to be liked in order to be happy. Once it becomes a need, we’ll do all sorts of crazy things to fill that bottomless pit of craving acceptance in order to feel whole. The saddest part of ‘needing to be liked’ are the countless sacrifices you’ll have to make in the attempt to reach the impossible goal of being universally liked. Exceptional men and women live their truth regardless of whether or not everyone liked them. This means rejecting the urge to change who you are based on the company you’re surrounded by on a moment-to-moment basis. People will be repelled by you for reasons you may never know. Here’s what we can control: Being a better person than we were yesterday, knowing clearly what we value, and living our truth.” —Shola Richards
“Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” —Marianne Williamson
“You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.” ―Richard Feynman
“People who frequently seek the attention and praise of others are looking for an external validation of themselves. They want something outside of them to deem them worthy, able, and good. Usually, this is because, at their core, they are filled with self-doubt. So they do what they can to increase positive feedback and eliminate negative feedback. But when we act in such a way that eliminates negative criticism, we also eliminate many, many possible lifestyles, actions, and directions from our realm of possibility. Within all of us, there are numerous things we really, deeply wish we could do. But we end up sacrificing our selves and our dreams to try to appease those around us. The funny thing is—whether we invest energy into making others like us or not, there will always be people who don’t. When you simply mimic the values of your current company, your opinion stops being yours. You become a hypocritical piece of clay, molding yourself constantly to try to fit in everywhere, and in doing so, retaining no shape to call your own. Most people won’t know the you that’s buried beneath, and you may begin to forget that person too. On the other hand, habitually presenting your genuine, vulnerable self does nothing but strengthen your acceptance of who you are. Your fears may never entirely cease, but you will learn that acting in spite of them was more important.” —Jordan Bates
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” —Steve Jobs
“Perfectionism is a particularly evil lure for women, who, I believe, hold themselves to an even higher standard of performance than do men. Too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they and their work are perfect and beyond criticism. I’ve watched far too many brilliant and gifted female creators say, ‘I am 99.8 percent qualified for this task, but until I master that last smidgen of ability, I will hold myself back, just to be on the safe side.’ Now, I cannot imagine where women ever got the idea that they must be perfect in order to be loved or successful. (Ha ha ha! Just kidding! I can totally imagine: We got it from every single message society has ever sent us! Thanks, all of human history!) But we women must break this habit in ourselves—and we are the only ones who can break it. We must understand that the drive for perfectionism is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, somebody will always be able to find fault with it. (There are people out there who still consider Beethoven’s symphonies a little bit too, you know, loud.) At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is—if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heart. Which is the entire point. Or should be.” —Elizabeth Gilbert
“You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do.” ―Olin Miller
“Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think?’ Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: ‘If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.’” —Brené Brown
“Part of growth is learning to create inner peace without being dependent upon things turning out a certain way, or needing people to respond to you in a specific way. You want to create as something you are and be able to give and share it with others. You become the center, radiating your soul’s light outward, rather than waiting for situations, relationships, and events in your life to be arranged in such a way that you have peace.” —Orin
“We all want to be loved and accepted, but this most human desire to connect and belong can hamper us when we let the opinions of others decide how we ought to live our lives. Yet if we allow our courage and self-love to speak louder than our fears, we ultimately learn that the road we thought ‘harder’—that of harnessing our unique potential without regard to the pressures and opinions of others—is the only one that can lead to success and fulfillment. And it’s the only road that leads to true connection as well, built on the support and cherishing of your differences that lie at the heart of all genuine affection.” —Goalcast
—Read it on #featherandflint: 10 ways to perfectionistic women to overcome the fear of not being liked. Click To Tweet
Overcoming the fear of not being liked can be a lifelong battle—and that’s okay. Rather than adding “caring too much about what other people think” to the list of flaws that make you feel inadequate and ashamed, it’s important to realize that placing importance on other people’s perceptions of us is in our nature as social creatures. Our connections with other people are vital to our survival. What you do have control over is the degree to which the fear of judgment impacts your actions and your self-esteem.
I truly hope that these 10 strategies to overcome the fear of not being liked will help you to boldly pursue the life that you deserve. Plus, here’s a playlist to inspire you to kick ass and take names, no matter what’s standing in your way. I can’t wait to hear what you think in the comments!
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