Jennifer Keluskar, Ph.D.
When I was in high school, I wrote a piece for my writing class called "Inside the Outsider," in which I made a case for introverts like myself who had fewer, but closer-knit friendships. My classmates warned that it would not be as popular as some of the lighter, more comedic roasts of teachers and peers featured in our school magazine.
As expected, my article was not the talk of the hallways. However, it was one of my proudest literary moments thanks to the handful of shy girls who pulled me aside and thanked me. They appreciated how I validated the notion that popularity was not the epitome of personal fulfillment.
Still, at that point in my life I was left with the nagging thought that I might be, at my very core, unlikable.
Today, looking at it as a psychologist, I realize that it is important to understand the difference between unlike and dislike. Let's start with the fact that, as verbs, dislike is an established word in the English language, meaning "to disapprove of." In contrast, "un-like" has come to mean "To show that you do not like something by clicking the unlike button on a social networking site." What we’re talking about here is more general, although the influence of social media is certainly well taken. However, if you extend the search by considering "unlike" as an adjective or preposition, you will find that it generally concerns the idea of being different.
Believing that you are "unlikable" might lead to thinking that whatever makes you different or unique is also what makes others not particularly interested in asking you out for coffee or remembering your birthday. It is the belief that they may not dislike you, but they do not prefer you either.
Being unlikable is a painful belief about yourself to swallow.
The first step in addressing this problem is to realize that it is a version of reality that you have constructed. This is not to say that it is not valid to feel this way, especially when others have mistreated you. However, your internal beliefs about yourself impact your well-being and how you interact with others. These beliefs are also strengthened by how you perceive situations that come up in daily life. For example, someone who believes themselves to be unintelligent will perceive every little forgettable mistake as scathing evidence that they are not very capable.
Recognizing that your perceptions might be different from others' way of understanding the same situation will help you step outside of the whirlwind of emotion and objectively view what is making you feel lousy.
You do not have to think that you are “wrong” or “crazy” to consider that there might be another way of interpreting a situation. In fact, seeing the world through the lens of your beliefs makes you neither wrong nor crazy. Rather, it is part of being human. Showing awareness that different perspectives exist is liberating in the sense that there is hope for feeling better about yourself.
Believing that you are unlikable is common in youth with social anxiety, or excessive worry about peers’ perceptions, and research has suggested that children with social anxiety also underestimate their likability among peers (Baartmans et al., 2020). In other words, other children their age see them as more likable than they see themselves. This makes sense because if the focus of your worry is on whether others will see you in a positive light, you might over-focus on how others react to you. This has happened to me in the past when I have worried that nobody had said "hi" to me at a party. I would then realize that I had not made much of an effort to start conversations with them.
Relying on others for your self-worth is a slippery slope, and it reflects another, related internal belief that you must be liked by others to be seen as valuable or good enough. In the end, this could lead to more anxiety and a relentless striving for others' approval.
If you are a relentless approval seeker, you have probably experienced quite a bit of frustration and resentment. This is because relentless striving for the approval of others not only leads to more painful rejection experiences, but also to behaviors that might unintentionally drive others away.
For example, in the past I noticed that when I got stuck in the need-to-be-liked rut, I had more trouble saying “no” to others. Eventually, I would start to feel resentment that I was giving more than receiving in friendships. This thought would lead to feeling cranky, which might have led to behaviors such as being short with friends or not being as responsive as I normally would have been. Of course, this chain of events leads to feeling even more unlikable.
Where Does Relentless Approval Seeking Come From?
According to cognitive psychologist Aaron Beck, we develop ways of thinking about ourselves, the world, and others that are known as schemas (e.g. Persons, 2008). The conviction that you are unlikable, and its cousin, the belief that you "must be" liked or loved, are examples of schemas. There are various factors that might mold one's schemas. For example, having a more anxious temperament and having a critical parent might contribute to developing the schema that mistakes are intolerable.
Schemas become more problematic when they are "activated" by life events. For example, the belief that mistakes are intolerable may be activated if you are scolded or fired. You might then react by avoiding challenges (in order to avoid more criticism), not trying (so that you can tell yourself you failed because you did not put in effort), or over-compensating, such as being overly critical of others before they can criticize you.
It is tempting to respond to the problem of over-striving for approval by compensating with a "don't care what other people think" attitude. To an extent, the "don't care attitude" can be helpful. If over-done, though, it will lead those with a time-worn people-pleasing personality to weather the psychologically onerous task of not acting like your true self. It will also impact our how connected you feel with others, which research has indicated is important to mental health (e.g. Seaeri et al).
Below are some suggestions for ways to start breaking the unrelenting cycle of approval seeking, and therefore to feel more likable.
1. Remind yourself of the difference between unlikable and disliked.
Try to recall others' behaviors and consider the evidence that they do not actually dislike you. For example, you might realize that the person who snubbed you at a social event was dealing with a stressful situation at the time. If you realize that you are not disliked but still feel unlikable, consider whether what you are actually seeking is popularity. Then, remind yourself that achieving popularity is not a requisite for being successful, helping others, or being happy.
2. Catch unhelpful thinking styles.
Your perceptions shape your reality, but this might differ from the actual reality. If your reality tends to be gloomier than objective evidence would suggest, the culprit is likely an unhelpful thinking style. Unhelpful thinking styles relate to Dr. Albert Ellis’ concept of cognitive distortions, or biases in thinking that negatively impact mood (e.g. Ellis & Dryden, 1997).
Consider and try to catch unhelpful thinking styles such as:
· Personalization, or the tendency to think that you are to blame for bad situations rather than blaming the situation itself.
· Jumping to conclusions, or the tendency to make assumptions about others’ thoughts, feelings, or intentions. A classic example is looking at a tired person's face and assuming they are angry with you.
· Emotional reasoning, or the tendency to assume that your feelings reflect reality (for example that feeling foolish means that you are a fool).
Once you catch an unhelpful thinking style, use healthier self-talk to reshape reality, such as, “maybe they are just tired," or "this feels weird, but that does not mean I am weird."
3. Monitor your social behavior.
Ironically, compulsive striving for others' approval may unintentionally lead to one showing behaviors that are socially unappealing (Lynch, 2018). Examples include excessive head-nodding and smiling, which can be interpreted as disingenuous. Also, feeling and acting high-strung can come off as intimidating to others, and it could lead you to unintentionally act in other ways that do not invite positive social response, such as not accepting a compliment.
The best way to address these behaviors is to focus on noticing your surroundings. You could do so by finding on online technique to relax (such as 5-4-3-2-1 Mindfulness, from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/behavioral-health-partners/bhp-blog/april-2018/5-4-3-2-1-coping-technique-for-anxiety.aspx).
In a similar vein, you can shift your attention to thoughts about what your preferences are. The point here is to re-direct your focus away from thoughts about what others think about you, and to bring yourself back to what you enjoy and care about. Examples might include activities that are available at a social event, nature (if you are outside), or an interesting topic that is brought up in conversation. Having a more relaxed and accepting mindset will make positive social behaviors, such as accepting a compliment, feel more natural.
4. Invoke a sense of doubt.
I regret the many sheepish moments of realizing that the person I thought disapproved of me did not have such intentions at all. An example would be when someone keeps telling me that they are too busy to get together, and it turns out that they actually were overwhelmed at the time.
"Invoking a sense of doubt“ means that even if you are certain someone does not particularly like you, invite doubt to sit next to your conviction and to have a voice (even if it is a whisper at first) in your mind.
A social act like giving a compliment or show of thanks can help strengthen the "doubt of disapproval" voice if the person responds to the initiation positively. And if they do not respond positively, there are many other fish in the sea! Have faith that you will find people whose approval you do not need to work so hard to gain, and those are the friends worth keeping.
5. Face your fear of not gaining another's approval.
While it is healthy to want to be liked, it is unhealthy to feel you need to gain others' approval at all times. Therefore, an exposure to not gaining others' approval may help you learn what it feels like to achieve the balance of gaining others' favor versus preserving your sanity. Ways to expose yourself might include saying "No" or "I can't" in response to requests, or politely disagreeing with someone's opinion.
If all else fails, keep in mind that there is no rule out there that your worth as a person is dependent upon how much positive regard others give you. This is a formula created by your thinking, and fueled by how you think about your life experiences and societal expectations. You have the power to change that rule to one that embraces the diversity of human personalities this world has to offer.
Baartmans, J.M.D., van Steensel, F.J.A., Mobach, L., Lansu, T.A.M., Bijsterbosch, G., Verpaalen, I. Rapee, R.M., Magson, N., Bögels, S.M., Rinck, M., and Klein, A. (2020). Social anxiety and perceptions of likability by peers in children.
Eckhard Roediger, Bruce A. Stevens, Robert Brockman. Contextual Schema Therapy: An Integrative Approach to Personality Disorders, Emotional Dysregulation, and Interpersonal Functioning. Context Press.
Ellis, A. & Dryden, W. (1997). The Practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Springer Publishing Company.
Lynch, T. (2018). Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Theory and Practice
for Treating Disorders of Overcontrol. New Harbinger Publications.
Persons, J.B. (2008).The case formulation approach to cognitive-behavioral therapy. New York: Guilford.
Saeri, A., Cruwys, T., Barlow, F.K., Stronge, S., & Sibley, C.G. Social connectedness improves public mental health: Investigating bidirectional relationships in the New Zealand attitudes and values survey. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry: https://doi.org/10.1177/0004867417723990