‘I’m Terrified of Being Disliked’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

I’ve always struggled to accept other people’s opinions of me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been borderline obsessed with being liked. It’s not that I need to be the most popular or most beloved person ever. It’s more that if someone doesn’t like me, even if it’s a complete stranger, it drives me nuts. It makes me cringe. It makes me want to curl up and die.

You could say I’m a “people-pleaser.” I’m definitely prone to saying “yes” to things I don’t want to do for people I don’t really care about, because I want to avoid them having negative thoughts about me. That’s the crazy thing. I need to be liked by people I don’t even like! 

This problem is always simmering in the background, but it’s been brought to the fore recently in a weird way that’s making me want to take it more seriously as an issue I need to resolve. It might sound ridiculous — I know it does, actually — but here goes: I attend this fitness class twice a week or so. It’s always the same group of guys and the same coach, and I can tell they don’t like me.

They’re all buddied up with each other. They’re always joking and talking to each other, and I can’t really explain it in concrete detail, but whenever I’m prompted to join in (we have a “question of the day”), no one reacts. I’m also not the physically strongest guy, and I feel like they’re judging me or looking down on me. Maybe this is me reading way too much into it, maybe this is me still mentally being in high school, but I feel … disliked!

The workouts are fine and I enjoy my results, so I don’t really want to drop it. I live in a decently sized city, but this is the only class of its kind. Again, this also might be entirely in my own head, and maybe they don’t dislike me at all. But, Papi, it’s gnawing at me, and I’d like to get over it. What should I do?

Sweating It

Hey there, Sweating!

Wow, this letter made me anxious. I could really sense the aura of misery swirling about you in Zumba or Barry’s Bootcamp or whatever this fitness class is. You said it’s the only one of its kind, so I’m imagining swords are involved, or nudity, or robots. Regardless, anxiety is an unwelcome thing in such environments. Though, on the bright side, maybe being so on edge burns more calories?

To begin, yes, it’s likely all in your head. But it could also genuinely be the case that these people don’t care for you. Maybe that’s because you haven’t quite hit it off yet, or maybe you’re not properly putting your weights away, or maybe they’re just cliquey. Regardless, the reality is that we will often be in close proximity to people who, for one reason or another, don’t like us. It’s a valuable life skill to learn how to navigate that. Here are my thoughts on the subject.

In my experience, people-pleasing develops as a defense mechanism. It’s a way to minimize conflict. Conflict isn’t just an argument or a fight. Conflict is two schedules not perfectly aligning. Conflict is having to say “no” to mundane requests. Conflict is having to gently correct someone when they get your name wrong. Conflict is present in the vast majority of human interactions to some degree.

Conflict can’t be avoided, but it can be diminished. If you’re a person with an unhealthy relationship to it, you will find yourself immediately rolling over and playing dead to neutralize it as quickly as possible. Root causes of this behavior can vary, but I encounter it most commonly in people who were conditioned at an early age to associate conflict of any kind with severe punishment, people who were abused in their homes or at school.

I know it’s the case for me that the severe bullying I experienced as an effeminate kid in a rural middle school taught me that there are people out there who are more than willing to hurt you based on the flimsiest of pretenses. I also learned that people can and will abandon you to fit in with the crowd.

Even now, as an adult with many wonderful friends, I carry a fear of abandonment, a gnawing suspicion that if I ask for too much, if I cause too much trouble, if I don’t behave perfectly, I’ll be dropped. This can make little tiffs or disagreements, things that will naturally occur between individuals, feel like full-on crises.

All of this stems from one core belief: I am disposable. When we hold the assumption that we aren’t valuable, that we don’t deserve anything, that no one could possibly consider us worthy, it can make us desperate to avoid any external validation of our worst fears being true. If someone is mad at us, if someone dismisses us, if someone dislikes us, this becomes evidence that we were right, that the people who’ve hurt us were right. We don’t deserve love.

When you see the world this way, developing a low opinion of yourself and being extremely self-critical to the point of paranoia feels productive, like a preemptive strike: I can avoid being abandoned if I can avoid doing anything wrong. I can’t be annoying. I can’t be too much. I can’t bother anyone. This, for a person who associates conflict with punishment, feels “safe.”

It’s darkly comedic, Sweating. In some ways, you’re already living the nightmare that your deepest anxieties are conjuring up. Yes, you are disliked. You dislike yourself! Yes, you are being dismissed and being treated as disposable. By you!

It’s just that your opinion of yourself weighs less than the opinions of others. That’s sad! That’s not good. That is absolutely something you need to fix. As it stands, you can be run over. You can easily be manipulated. You will probably feel resentment both for yourself and for others. You will likely find it more difficult to connect to people if you can’t let your guard down and be yourself. We need to acknowledge this behavior and work to disrupt it. I know a great place where you can start.

I want you to use this fitness class as a training ground in more ways than one. Challenge yourself to take up space, to have a great workout for yourself and not worry about whatever is going on around you. Be pleasant, be polite, be talkative, even, but don’t let anyone make you feel like you don’t belong there. Boutique fitness is expensive! You didn’t pay $30 to be a second-class citizen. Practice being you, regardless of who’s around you and if they like you or not. They can take it or leave it.

Other people deciding if they like you or not is their math homework, not yours. I’m not advocating that we be selfish or inconsiderate. Quite the opposite. Constantly worrying about other people liking you is, somewhat paradoxically, egotistical. It’s behavior that’s motivated by a loathsome obsession with the self. We shouldn’t need people to be nothing but effusive or kind to us, lest they inspire a breakdown.

In asserting ourselves, we signal to others that we have self-respect. It welcomes people to interact with us without fear. And anyone who has a problem with that, rather helpfully, is easily identifiable as someone we have no business knowing.

Ultimately, I relate to you, Sweating. I’m an anxious person with a public writing career that often elicits feedback from people who are more than willing to go out of their way to put me down. I hear pretty nasty things about myself and about my work semi-regularly! As someone who was abused by his peers in his youth, this has been the hardest challenge to overcome in my chosen profession.

But these challenges come up for us all, and I’ve started to see them as ways to prove to myself that I’m capable enough to handle them, and that I won’t let them in and bother me to the point that I change my behavior. I was not put on this earth to make sure everyone around me is comfortable with my mere existence. I have to live. So do you.

Here’s to getting stronger.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published on February 8, 2024.

Purchase J.P. Brammer’s book, Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘I’m Terrified of Being Disliked’