How to Unlearn Your Need to Be Liked
August 8, 2018
Take a second and notice if you’ve thought one of these things today:
●︎ Do they like what I do?
●︎ Do they like what I say?
●︎ Do they like what I think?
●︎ Do they like what I create?
●︎ Do they like how I look?
●︎ Do they like me?
If we could do a virtual “show of hands,” my guess is that everyone reading this would have one—if not two—in the air. Whether it’s at work, before you post that #beachday pic on Instagram, or even while tucking your kids into bed, these “Do they like me—do they really like me?!” thoughts love to pop up.
Why: It’s human to want to be liked. Case-in-point: Even Beyoncé has dealt with a desire to be liked.
In a new interview for Vogue, the Queen Bey herself opened up about needing approval early on in her career:
”I look at the woman I was in my 20s and I see a young lady growing into confidence but intent on pleasing everyone around her. I now feel so much more beautiful, so much sexier, so much more interesting. And so much more powerful.”
Yup, that’s Beyoncé saying that even she felt the need to make everyone around her happy.
We Do It For the Likes
So, why do we all care so much about people pleasing? Being liked is actually a fundamental human need, according to Roger Covin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist.
Covin explains in his book The Need to Be Liked that our need for social acceptance grew out of our desire to physically survive—back in the day, we had to build shelter, find food, and defend ourselves every single day. It was all a lot easier to do in a team. To join a crew: You had to either have a skill that would benefit the group and/or be liked by people in the group.
Our brains haven’t caught up to the fact that we’re not defending ourselves from wild animals anymore—so we continue to people please. “In other words, we are hardwired to seek acceptance and avoid rejection,” Covin explains.
And, as Beyoncé learned firsthand, it can keep us from unlocking our full potential.
According to Psychology Today, our need to be liked can keep us from doing things that matter to us (but what will they think?), trying new things (but what will they think if I’m not good at it?), and, of course, lead to stress about meeting expectations (how can I make them like me?).
Basically, it can stop us from finding and living as our true selves.
You might be thinking: Sure, if I had the financial and creative freedom of Beyoncé, I could definitely stop people pleasing.
Yes, we still have to get along with our bosses, our co-workers, Erin in accounting, our spouses, our subway companions. But here's the thing: resisting your people-pleasing reflex isn’t about being rude or writing off responsibilities—it’s about going after things your way and for you (even a relationship or promotion or interaction) instead of chasing someone else’s kudos.
Here, a few ways to start shifting from “people pleaser” to doing things for you:
1. See Yourself as an Ink Blot
The hard truth: Not everyone is going to like you. But a lot of the reason why has nothing to do with you.
Covin told The Cut that the whole “do they like me?” game is similar to a Rorschach test. If you’re not familiar with the test: It involves showing someone an abstract inkblot and asking them what they see to learn more about their psychological state (ex. Two dogs high-fiving while wearing tutus). Everyone can see something different in the splotches of ink—and that’s similar to how people view you.
“What a person sees says more about them than it does the inkblot, and the same thing is true interpersonally,” Covin told The Cut. “The very qualities that make you likable to one person are the exact same qualities that will make you unlikable to another person.”
Basically, it’s not totally on you if someone likes you or not. And a number of factors can influence how a person sees you, even something as simple as how their day is going. If one person’s hungry, Covin says, it can even shift how they see you.
The whole “likability” thing is largely out of your control—so why shift all your behaviors to please others when just skipping breakfast could change their mind?
2. Disapproval Is Normal
It can also help to remind yourself that it’s normal not be liked by everyone. Robert Leahy, Ph.D., writes that “normalizing disapproval” can release some of the pressure to be liked.
“Do you know anyone who is approved of by everyone they meet?” he writes. "If everyone has someone who doesn’t like something that he or she says or does—and they still survive and thrive—then why would you be the one person who has to have universal approval?”
It’s a bit of tough love—but it can help break up the “Why don’t they like me?” thought pattern.
3. Untangle Your Worth From the ‘Likes’
When we tie our worth to likes from others—both real and digital—we lose ownership of our self-esteem, confidence, and all those good feels that can help us withstand not being liked.
To help reset your perspective, Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., suggests reminding yourself that your worth doesn’t need approval. “Reframe the misguided assumption that approval will somehow bring you self-worth, dignity, and happiness,” he writes.
Try telling yourself: “I am a worthy person whether or not I have the approval of others.” Repeat it until it starts to feel true.
4. Just Do It—For You
The classic Nike saying “Just Do It” deserves a little addition to the end: “Just do it for you.”
No, I don’t mean selfishly only do things that serve to benefit you—what I mean is pursue the things you need to or want to do in a way that is wholly you and driven by you. Even just mentally shifting what’s driving you from someone else to yourself can help.
“When you’re driven to achieve solely because you want to impress others, you wind up doing too much, feeling overwhelmed, getting lost in your thoughts about your challenges, people-pleasing, overworking, avoiding making time for yourself, and constantly finding yourself unable to say no,” Ilene Strauss Cohen, Ph.D., explains for Psychology Today.
Next time you’re trying to create or achieve something—whether it’s a work project or a new song on the guitar—step back and ask yourself: Who am I doing this for? Is it just to impress someone? If so, take note.
If you’re in people-pleasing mode, try to reconnect with your why. Why do you want to see this thing through for you?
Remember the reason you started—especially if it’s a creative endeavor.
As David Bowie puts it, “Always remember that the reason you initially started working was there was something inside yourself that, if you could manifest it, you felt you would understand more about yourself.”
5. Ask Yourself: What Can I Still Do If I’m Not Liked?
Surprise: You can still live a big life if you’re not liked by everyone. If, say, that stranger in the elevator wasn’t into your morning banter, Leahy writes that reminding yourself of all the opportunities that still exist can help.
“What can you still do (even if someone doesn't like you)?” he writes. “Can you see your partner, your family, your kids, your friends, and your co-workers? Can you still engage in all the activities that you engaged in before? If you can pretty much can do everything you did before, then what difference does it make if someone doesn’t like what you say—or if they dislike you?”
6. Start Small
Finally, don’t expect yourself to get over your “people pleasing” tendencies overnight. Again, this thing is hardwired in us—so it takes time and practice to change it up. Beyoncé said it took her years!
Start small by pursuing one thing a day just for you, not the approval, retweets, or likes of someone else.
Maybe it’s watching that Netflix movie for youths (hey, The Kissing Booth) for the 10th time, even though your friends think it’s “garbage.” Or, maybe it’s remixing that daily task so it feels more you. Or, maybe it’s even belting “Halo” with the windows down and laughing at the looks from the people in the cars around you.
“Start asking yourself questions like, what do I value? What keeps me awake at night? How is it that I prefer to spend my time?” Cohen suggests. “Start to listen to what you really want for your life, and align your actions with your values, principles, and goals. Instead of making decisions based on what others will approve of, start making them based on what’s right for you.”
As Beyoncé said in her interview, it’s a journey. “There are many shades on every journey,” she told Vogue. “Nothing is black or white. I’ve been through hell and back, and I’m grateful for every scar.”
Embrace the journey and know there's still time to grow. Then, make like Beyoncé and start building your worth from the inside.