How Do I Stop Caring If People Like Me?

Illustration: Montse Tanús
Earlier this year, I ran into an old colleague. When we worked together, years prior, we’d been friends – not best friends, but we’d never fought. The exchange was pleasant enough so when I left, I went to message them to say it was nice to catch up – only to realise they’d blocked me on Instagram. 
Of course, I did what any normal, healthy millennial would do: I obsessed over it. 
I mentally combed through every single one of our last exchanges, searching for any sign that I’d been on the receiving end of a friend-dumping. I ran every weird thing I might have said through my head but, ultimately, came up short. I hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary, she just did not like me anymore. And honestly, that was harder to stomach.
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Like most people, especially women, I worry about whether or not people like me. I’m a fairly anxious person who grew up without much parental support, so I want to be liked by everyone, whether or not I even like them. 
My fear of being rejected leads me to bend over backwards trying to please everyone I meet, altering my personality and picking up on what they might like or want, then going out of my way to offer it. Whether it’s a shoulder to cry on, help with work or just someone to drink with, I’m there. 

My fear of being rejected leads me to bend over backwards trying to please everyone I meet, altering my personality and picking up on what they might like or want, then going out of my way to offer it.

If someone doesn’t like me, I just work harder, pouring my energy into a less than equal relationship. I spent years thinking that this made me nice, but I’ve started to see it for what it is: I am, quite simply, a bit of a doormat.
After nagging from actual friends to "stick up for myself", I’ve started to accept the bitter truth: some people just won’t like me. Truly understanding that fact is a constant learning curve, and one that’s made me feel heartbroken. 
I know people are diverse and personalities clash but I still long to find a way to care less what people think of me while remaining open and loving. I envy people who don’t waste their time trying to please. 
Psychotherapist Alyss Thomas tells me bluntly that trying to make others happy is "people-pleasing behaviour, and it is often based upon insecurity or not feeling loved for who you are." She adds: "People don’t like us for two reasons. Either you are in some way behaving obnoxiously, or they are projecting onto you some unresolved and split-off parts of their own personality, which is what happens when people judge you for a characteristic that you have no control over."
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So why do some of us care so deeply about what others think, to the point of obsessing over every interaction, when other people really don’t care at all? Erin Brandel Dykhuizen, psychotherapist, tells me that it’s a natural human impulse to seek connection and approval. She references polyvagal theory, which posits that the least stressful way to re-regulate after a traumatic experience is to connect with others and seek reassurance from them. "It is important for our stress regulation to be around others that we see as sources of support, and in order to see others as sources of support or reassurance, we need to believe that they have a positive opinion of us." To that end, it makes sense that those with more trauma are more likely to want to be liked.

People don't like us for two reasons. Either you are in some way behaving obnoxiously, or they are projecting onto you some unresolved and split-off parts of their own personality.

Alyss thomas, psychotherapist

Erin confirms this, telling me that we can look to our childhood for answers, as it is integral to forming beliefs about ourselves. 
"If you received messages growing up that there was something wrong with you, or that you are worthless, that may make you very sensitive to whether or not people like you," she tells me. 
"Also, if you did not feel that a significant person in your life, like a parent or caregiver, thought you were special or important, you may really struggle to feel like people really like you," she says, adding that everyone, on some level, cares what other people think of them, but that people who care too much "may have a tendency toward low self-esteem and need validation from other people." 
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Sound familiar? Craving external validation because you lack inner self-worth hits the nail on the head for me but I find it embarrassing to admit how desperately uncool I am in my desire to be liked. Erin says that this isn’t necessarily a negative trait. "Making some space for your desire to be liked can be helpful. It's really okay to want everybody to like you, even if you know it's impossible. So first honour that part of you that wants this, and then accept that it cannot be possible." 
She adds that, for the most part, people think of us less often than we believe. "We are all, for better or worse, the centre of our own universe, at least as our thoughts are concerned. The vast majority of people are not thinking of whether they like you or not," she explains.

Craving external validation because you lack inner self-worth hits the nail on the head for me but I find it embarrassing to admit how desperately uncool I am in my desire to be liked.

It seems like the biggest issue is not realising that we have innate worth that does not depend on others. Erin says that "learning to appreciate your own worth can be a matter of acting as if you have value, even if it's hard to believe. For people who struggle to feel valued, it may help to try treating yourself the way you treat others. Asking yourself, 'Would I say this to a friend?' when you find yourself judging yourself harshly can be a good way to start noticing the ways in which you discount your own worth."
Needing to be liked is a hard habit to break; for one, it’s human. It’s a product of your experiences and often a symptom of your empathy. It’s hard to know the line between ignoring that someone doesn’t like you and being a pushover. 
But it’s worth remembering that some people just don’t value niceness; the more you suck up, the less they respect you. People love differently – just because your love language is bombarding someone with attention doesn’t mean the recipient has to appreciate it. Erin says that we need to learn to balance our own needs with the needs of others.
You can’t control how others perceive you. It’s a difficult truth but a truth all the same. When it’s an important connection that you want to preserve, check in – just because someone isn’t replying to your text doesn’t mean they don’t like you anymore. But if it’s a person you can lose if they aren’t treating you the way you deserve, or someone you don’t really know, just let it go. Or try to, anyway.
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