A few weeks ago, I called a florist. There wasn’t anything remarkable about this particular conversation: I asked questions about bouquets and centerpieces, she answered them, I dutifully typed notes in an ever-growing Google Doc labeled “wedding stuff.”
The reason I remember it vividly, though — the reason I feel just a tiny bit squirmy even now, thinking back — is precisely because it was so unremarkable. It was fine. The voice on the other end of the line was cool, professional, neutral. Which makes sense; it was a business call, after all, and I was a potential client. But fine always leaves me a little rattled, a little down. It’s not phone anxiety, exactly. It’s just that I prefer the calls where I hang up feeling like we’ve connected — like the two of us, in any other context, would maybe be pals. Everyone tells you wedding planning is going to be emotionally exhausting, but no one tells you it’s that much more so if you have a deep-seated, seemingly unshakable need to be liked by everyone you encounter.
It’s an exhausting way to go through life, for that matter. I’m not talking about a boss or a co-worker; it makes sense, to some degree, to be concerned about how much those people like you. I’m talking about total strangers, people I’ll meet once and then maybe, probably, never interact with again. I don’t know why this is such a persistent thing — maybe it’s a hallmark of a neurotic personality, or maybe it’s a cousin of social anxiety, something that affects an estimated 7 percent of adults in the U.S. But I do know, just from talking about it with friends, that I’m not the only one with this particular struggle. There are plenty of us out there, people who feel similarly icky about seeming disapproval from customer-service reps, cabdrivers, or people behind them in line at the grocery store.
Here’s the problem: Just tell yourself it doesn’t matter if they like you, quite frankly, is dumb advice. Of course I know, on an intellectual level, that it doesn’t affect my life one way or the other whether this stranger thinks I’m delightful — that doesn’t stop me from wanting them to. So I turned to the pros. Below, some psychologist-endorsed (and actually helpful) tips for caring a little less about being liked.
Think of yourself as an inkblot.
You know the Rorschach test, that thing where you look at inkblot patterns and explain what you see? Roger Covin, a clinical psychologist based in Ottawa and the author of The Need to Be Liked, says he tells his clients to imagine themselves as those splotches on the page. “What a person sees says more about them than it does the inkblot, and the same thing is true interpersonally,” he explains. “The very qualities that make you likable to one person are the exact same qualities that will make you unlikable to another person.” What one person reads as confidence, for example, may look like bossiness to someone else. Honesty can be helpful or rude; a tendency to crack jokes can be appreciated, or it can be annoying.
And what other people make of your inkblot depends in large part on how much they see themselves in the spatter. In a 2009 study titled “Being Liked Is More Than Having a Good Personality,” a team of researchers found that after they controlled for the traits that typically make someone more likable — friendliness, agreeableness, etc. — volunteers were most likely to say that the participants they liked the most were the ones whose personalities were most similar to their own. That was especially true for people with “undesirable” personality traits, the authors noted; the more neurotic or cantankerous a subject was, the more inclined they were to appreciate people who shared those same characteristics. Like attracts like — or, perhaps more accurately, like likes like. And while you can control your side of a conversation, you can’t control the personality, or the preferences, of the person on the receiving end.
Consider all the things you don’t know.
Beyond just personality, Covin says, there are plenty of other factors — large and small, fixed and fleeting — that influence how someone might feel about you at any given time. “People have their own life histories,” he explains, “[and] even their own states of mind at that moment.” Someone might be having a bad day at work or a bad week at home, or they might just be distracted by a growing to-do list and eager to turn their attention back to it. All, again, are factors beyond your control and likely beyond your knowledge — and while they may influence how people respond to you, they’re not about you. Sometimes, it’s soothing to remind yourself of your own relative insignificance.
“Even if one [person] is hungry and the other’s not, that will impact how they view you,” Covin adds. You might be the most charming person on the planet, but there’s only one cure for hanger, and you aren’t it.
Pinpoint your biases.
Clinical psychologists will sometimes talk about “cognitive errors” or “cognitive distortions,” a jargony term that really just means problematic thought patterns. One of those patterns, Covin explains, is called “mind reading” — when you falsely assume that whoever you’re with is thinking negative thoughts about you. Other examples: “personalizing,” or making something about you when it isn’t, and “catastrophizing,” or assuming that the worst-case scenario is the one that’s going to play out. Most of the time, people committing these cognitive errors “aren’t even aware of it,” he says. “It just sort of happens automatically, and then a lot of anxiety gets generated.”
The key to overcoming them, then, is figuring out which ones apply to you. Working through your own cognitive errors is a process of introspection more than anything else: What assumptions do you make about yourself, about other people, about your circumstances? What do you take for a given that you shouldn’t? How fair are your judgments? Pay attention to where your mind goes before, during, and after conversations, and then be honest with yourself about anything that may have skewed your perception of what took place.
Remember the difference between negative and neutral.
In general, humans are pretty lousy at dealing with ambiguity — which means that if someone is giving off vibes that are neither obviously friendly nor overtly hostile, most of us are going to have a hard time getting an accurate read.
“I don’t know if there’s ever really a neutral point on the liking scale in everyday experience,” says Ozlem Ayduk, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies interpersonal relationships. And that, in turn, means that plenty of totally neutral encounters end up being interpreted as negative ones. That’s especially true for people high in “rejection sensitivity,” the tendency to assume that other people are going to shut you out, and to be anxious about the possibility.
“If there’s no clear-cut cues, then what you rely on is your theory about the world,” Ayduk explains. “And if my theory of the world is that people are likely to reject me, I may see someone minding their own business, but I interpret that as, they occupy themselves with texting because they don’t want to make eye contact.”
Rejection sensitivity isn’t quite the same as the need to be liked — it typically applies to people you already have relationships with, or see yourself building relationships with, as opposed to strangers — but the two are closely linked. And as with cognitive errors, this is another case where self-knowledge is power: Recognizing your own skewed perception of the world is the first step toward correcting it. From there, Ayduk says, “classic cognitive behavioral therapy techniques” can help ease the anxiety around potential rejection: “You can learn to reinterpret other people’s behavior, and you can challenge your assumptions and expectations.”
Tell yourself the odds are crushingly against you.
Another trick Covin likes to use with his clients: Put yourself in the context of the whole entire Earth. “Imagine you could spend a week interacting with all 7 billion people on the planet. What percentage of those people would say that you’re generally, for the most part, a likable person?” If someone names a percentage that’s outrageously high or outrageously low, he works with them on developing more realistic expectations; for people whose figures are already in the more normal range, though, the exercise can be a handy reminder that running into people who dislike you is an inevitable fact of life.
For example, Covin puts his own number at around 70 percent. “The implications of that are that 30 percent of people wouldn’t like me, and 30 percent of 7 billion is 2.1 billion. That’s a lot of people,” he says. “If I go through a drive-thru, or to a restaurant, I interact with people who, if they got to know me, probably wouldn’t like me. They’re everywhere. You have to find a place of acceptance for that.” Just tell yourself it doesn’t matter may be useless, but Just tell yourself the odds are crushingly against you might work: You’re going to be disliked by people. A lot of people. And that means there’s nothing left to do but suck it up and move on to the next phone call.