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The Folly and Exhaustion of "Everyone Has to Like Me"

Self-monitoring in hopes of being liked is a burden that drains energy.

Key points

  • Accepting weaknesses and strengths in oneself is key to feeling acceptance by others.
  • Seeking approval from new and old friends does not mean losing sight of one's authentic self.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy strategies can help change a negative internal dialogue into a positive.

I’m supposed to be promoting my novel With or Without You, coming in paperback June 29, and what’s the main thing on my mind right now? The quality of the Canva video I’m making? My pre-sales? Nope. Instead, I am obsessing about what everyone will think, if they will scorn me for self-promoting, or if they think my videos are too amateurish. If they will like my book.

Here is the truth: I am worrying most about whether or not they will like me.

Caroline Leavitt
Portrait of the author trying to be likable as a clown
Source: Caroline Leavitt

Every time I meet someone new, even acquaintances, I worry about how I'm perceived. A constant barrage of inner comments assaults my self-confidence.

Do they like me? Do they think I look odd? Or old? Are they going to comment on my hearing problem or my bizarre hair, or my weirdly pale skin? Are they irritated by my all-black clothing?

If I friend someone on social media and am not friended back, I often ruminate for hours on what I did or why I am not enough.

And if someone I asked to blurb a book couldn’t, even if they explained they had deadlines, I wonder if they secretly meant they thought I was a lesser writer?

I know this is kind of crazy. I know it. But still, I believe it. It has me in its hooks. And I don’t have to ask from where on earth this nonsense came because I know its origins.

It came from family.

My mother, whom I loved, told me that people wouldn’t like me unless I was happy and did things for them. She told both my older sister and me that no one likes someone who complains or carries on, that we should always have a smile, no matter what happened in our lives. We should always be the first to apologize and make amends even if we have done nothing. Don’t bother people. Don’t annoy them. Don’t call and ask for things because if you do, they will most likely scorn you.

But there was another prong to this dangerous serving fork. If you aren’t accommodating or quiet, or polite, then you'll be punished. You get hit or yelled at or ridiculed over and over until you become two sizes smaller. And so, I learned. And for a while, that was how I navigated the world.

But I got older, and then I started realizing how much work this all was, how exhausting it was. I could never feel like I was truly myself, maybe because I was busy being who I thought others wanted. I had no idea who that authentic self was.

Lately, I’ve been pushing against this with a little help from my friends. To my surprise, when I sat down with a friend Leora and told her what was going on in my family, she warmed to me.

“How can this be?” I asked her. "I was sure you'd abandon me as being too difficult to deal with."

“Honesty is a gift,” Leora told me. “You let me see the real you, and that makes me love you even more.”

That got me thinking. Sometimes, when I went to lunch with people, I knew I could be sociable for two hours, but I rushed away, exhausted from self-monitoring like Cinderella at midnight. I had to make sure I presented a glowing, happy presence that others would be drawn to. Sometimes, I feared canceling appointments or saying no to invitations.

But others took notice and that helped me change. One day my agent took me to lunch.

“You’re being too nice,” she told me.

I was gobsmacked.

“You know you can ask me for things,” she said. “Why don’t you try me?”

It took me a while, but I finally did ask, and to my surprise, it, like my lunch with Leora, made things even better between us, more trusting, more real.

My husband Jeff has helped too. When I told him I didn’t want to cancel a dental appointment because the dentist wouldn’t like me, Jeff looked at me, astonished.

“You want the dentist to like you?” he said. “Why would you care?”

He asked me what life would be like if everyone did indeed like me if I never ruffled feathers or made anyone even slightly miffed.

“That’s not human,” Jeff said. “And anyway, do you like everyone?”

“I try to—” I said.

“Really? QAnon people? Racists? You try to like them?”

Oh. He got me there.

But there’s a third thing that saves me. Cognitive therapy. My new mantra is—is there evidence for that, or am I just imagining evidence? And just about 90- percent of the time, it’s my imagination.

Can I really know what another person thinks if I don’t ask, or they don’t tell? And if someone doesn’t like me, isn’t it possible their distaste has more to do with them than with me?

I began to realize that it’s not a crime to dislike some people and love others, that it’s not a crime for others to dislike me. The only real crime would be against me, spending precious time brooding about the whole issue of likeability. Instead, I try to like me, all the messy parts, the human ones. I become my real self more and more, and maybe that’s the first step. And the most important.