This is going to sound like a really odd request for advice particularly from an adult but for as long as I can remember I have needed to be liked by pretty much anyone and everyone I interact with. But it’s more than just a need for people to like me, at times it verges on obsession. The crazy thing is that this doesn’t just include people who I am close to like my friends and family, it also includes people who I may only meet once or only interact with in small doses such as colleagues. I know that I shouldn’t give a shit about people who are either indifferent towards me or certainly those who are rude to me, but counter-intuitively, they are the ones I am more bothered about, particularly the ones who are rude or mean to me.
This obsession with social approval isn’t anything new. I can remember as a teenager when I forced a friend over the phone to speak to her younger sister and discover why she apparently didn’t like me. I really didn’t have much evidence to go on apart from the fact that she didn’t speak to me at school and the only link we had was her older sister and my friend. I could hear the sister saying all the things that as a rational adult I know I should just brush over my shoulder: she’s annoying, she’s boring, I just don’t like her! But I couldn’t let it go. By the end of the call I had managed to ‘persuade’ or rather coerce the younger sister to say that she did like me after all. What a way to make friends?! Through simply pestering (irritating) them into relenting.
Another sore point as a kid was that I was dumped a lot, that is I was picked up and dropped by a group of (mean) girls who I thought were the real deal when it came to a friendship group. I was constantly made to feel incredibly lucky that I was even admitted to this group. When they tired of me, I was left out from parties and cinema trips, only to have them pick me up again and regale all their wonderful friendship tales during my absence. I can even recall on one of the girl’s birthdays sitting in the cinema crying quietly as there weren’t enough seats for me to join them on the row. I was made to sit on my own and no-one offered to join me. Yet, I STILL wanted to be friends with them!
And now as a 30-year-old woman, I still identify with that overly-sensitive kid, and this obsession with social approval has become almost crippling in its ferocity. I agonise over not just what I say to others but also how I say it, so that in some social gatherings (particularly around people I don’t know well) I am at one of two extremes: super quiet or talking the ears off those around me because I don’t want them to think I am boring or have nothing to say. And when the party is over I am left with snippets of memories reminding me of a joke or comment I made to X or Y that could have been interpreted in a way that I didn’t intend.
A recent example of this social approval obsession is with a new colleague. Even on my off and sometimes grumpy days I make an effort to say hello to colleagues I see in passing, or at the very least I give a smile. This particular colleague attempts neither of these with me, or if she manages to muster the energy to reply she cannot even bear to glance in my direction. Anyone else probably wouldn’t think too much of it, perhaps she is thinking about other things, she doesn’t want to stop and chat, let alone say hello. But in being relatively passive towards me, I take it as a deep personal affront.
I have a fantasy that one day I will let the anxiety and obsession float over me, that I will stop fucking worrying and not let others bother me or at least not as much. How can I move in that direction and grow the fuck up?
30 going on 13
Dear 30 going on 13,
I can feel your desire for approval, as to a greater degree, we all crave it. That’s right, everyone. Some things can get easier as we mature and grow, we think that we are going to be able to do things right, be better than before. Progress. We can master our vulnerabilities and then it’s onwards and upwards whether that’s from a bad relationship, a crap job or lifestyle set-up. And it’s true, some of us are better at battering off the anxiety associated with certain social situations and blocking those freaking annoying thoughts that can plague your very existence. But this idea of progress is in reality deeply subjective and tenuous at the very least.
Perhaps you can link your desire for social approval to your childhood; were you striving for your mothers or fathers (or even both) good graces but your advances were met with rejection or a dismissive attitude? Perhaps it stems from making and fostering those early relationships with friends, including the mean girls. You never knew where you stood. So in response to this, you unconsciously decided that it was up to you to seek approval, rather than others seeking it from you. You wanted to be in control.
You say hello to colleagues in the corridor assuming that they will reply, you want to know why people may find you annoying, you expect to be able to sit with ‘friends’ (mean girls) when you go to the cinema. And fucking aye! I agree! There are basic social norms that we should expect from others, a little decency and a little humanity can go a long way. And perhaps that’s why there are certain people that we choose to hang out with, after all, they are the ones that tick some of the boxes like we tick theirs. But there are those that tick far less or even none whatsoever and we still spend time with them. We are rarely rational and you are judging others by your own social expectations (although sitting next to people you go to the cinema with is a given). This obsession to understand is only resulting in a never-ending negative feedback loop. One person fails to adhere to your social code, so you seek out answers for their behaviour, you aren’t able to find out or comprehend what their deal is, so you keep looking for unattainable clues unless you choose someone/something else to obsess over.
That colleague, those girls, the younger sister all have something in common. Your need to control the outcome. You want that colleague to at the very fucking least to acknowledge you, those mean girls to permit you into their circle with no conditions attached, and the younger sister just to give you a real goddamn answer to a very simple freaking question, “What is your problem with me?” And when you can’t control the outcome you lose your head, “This wasn’t how it was meant to be!” And then you try your darndest to fix the problem, you want them to see you in the way that your family and close friends see you.
And what about those people who love and cherish you? Why is it difficult to hold onto the positive thoughts and feelings associated with them? Or rather, them of you? Perhaps it’s because you don’t believe it’s real. You’re waiting for them to have a sudden epiphany and realise that you are boring and have nothing to say! You know what? At times, we are all boring and have nothing to say. But right now and since your teenage years you are judging yourself from this mythical ‘out-there’ worldliness that is somehow better than this world. Your self-worth is firmly placed in other peoples’ hands.
I wish I could say, “Don’t worry about it! Chill out! Why do you care so much? Stop being so sensitive!” But I imagine you’ve heard all of that before. Though if there is anything in life that I have realised and that is being sensitive is NOT A BAD THING and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise or make you feel bad for it. I absolutely hate it when people say shit like that, as though expressing yourself or showing some emotion will send you to the depths of hell. If you want to cry, cry! If you want to scream, just do it! And if you want to walk past that colleague and ignore her then feel free. You don’t need to explain your behaviour, like in truth, many people don’t need to explain theirs to you. They have their own shit going on.
But all in all, retraining your brain to like yourself a bit better may be perhaps the way to move forward. Forgive the vulnerabilities of those mean girls, the younger sisters and the colleague as if you look close enough there are cracks that we are all try to hide. Learn to hold yourself up a bit higher by spending time with loved ones, sit back and take it in. Therapy could certainly help but see if you can enlist loved ones and take small steps. You’ll get there 30 going on 13.