"Please like me."
November 30, 2011 8:31 AM   Subscribe

Why do I get so stressed out by the idea of confrontation, or of people being angry with me? I obsess about it for ages. How can I move past this constant need for people to approve of me?

Some examples:

I was on a bus the other day and accidentally bumped into a man who turned around and began yelling at me for pushing him. I explained I hadn't meant to bump into him and I certainly wasn't pushing him intentionally, but he wouldn't stop yelling until I moved past him on the bus. I was freaked out throughout the journey until he got off.

At work, I'm leading on a project and recently made a decision that one of the others (a junior colleague called S) who's also working on it, under me, disagreed with. The decision didn't really impact on S, I thought, so I hadn't spoken about it with him beforehand. It never occurred to me that anyone else would have a problem with it and when I spoke to other colleagues they confirmed they thought I had done the right thing. Anyway, S yelled at me in front of the entire office and implied that I had lied to him. I tried to defend myself, apologized if I hadn't explained the situation clearly (though I thought I had), and sent him an email clarifying the whole thing and hoping it wasn't a problem. S hasn't replied to my email, or spoken a word to me at all for days. Another colleague implied that S is still really angry and is going around talking about how much I suck. I may have been at fault and S's concerns may be legitimate (even if I personally don't agree with them). But I've done all I can to smooth things over, and I certainly didn't LIE to anyone - and he's still acting like this. This bothers me a lot. Like as in, being unable to sleep a lot. Even though I don't particularly care for S - the idea that someone is mad at me and is, worse, talking about it - it stresses me out like nobody's business.

These are one-off incidents but show what I'm getting at I think. I usually get along well with people. But I am very meek in settings where I am not among friends (among friends I am more assertive and among family I am downright bolshy). I guess I am addicted to people "liking" me. I think it's a cultural thing - I come from a culture where what people say and think about you is important to the honour of your family etc. It's certainly not a family thing, as I am not shy about asserting myself with them at all.

I know I am not in control of the feelings of a man on a bus, or the feelings of my colleague. How do I let go and feel less stressed out? I am a huge wuss. It's not something I like about myself. I really need to get past it.

Thanks Mefites.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
I would say that in the first instance, you are right to be freaked out -- because that guy's reaction was WAY over the top compared to what actually happened, and the best thing to do with someone who's THAT tightly wound may indeed be to get away. So in cases like that, I wouldn't worry about reacting as strongly as you are (seriously, the dude went nuts becuase you BUMPED him, what other crazy thing was he gonna do?).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:38 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

The less I apologize, the better I feel.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:41 AM on November 30, 2011 [34 favorites]

I'd focus on the fact that, in both of these situations, and in many others, the majority of people around you do like you and most likely admire your gracious handling of the situation. The only person who dislikes you in these cases is someone who can't control himself or express himself appropriately--if he could, these "conflicts" would be resolved quickly, without drama.

I'd be pretty freaked out, too, if someone yelled at me on a bus like that. His yelling at you was completely inappropriate. I think what you need to realize is that no one else thinks you're in the wrong. No one on that bus heard him yelling and though, "Man, that guy who bumped into him sure is a jerk."

With work situations, it's a little more complicated, but I think the same principle applies. When a junior colleague yells at you in front of other staff, those other coworkers are going to think ill of him, not you. You explained the situation to other coworkers, and they agreed you'd made the right call. If S wants to sulk and gripe about it to others in the office, that just looks bad for S. No one is going to assess the situation like, "S is right to hold this grudge--I think Anon made the right decision, but S disagreed with him, so Anon is definitely a jerk."
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:53 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you are an American female (though this can apply if you are male as well, though not necessarily as common) then you have likely been socialized to be complaint and accommodating. And those traits have been billed to you as what is required to be a "good person".

Obviously, I am not suggesting that being accommodating is always a bad thing. But it does have its place. You will regularly encounter people who are unreasonable/irrational/assholes/users/jerks/selfish/narcissists/etc, and being accommodating to those people is not being a "good person", it is taking abuse with a smile, which you are in no way required or recommended to do.

If someone is being unreasonable or impolite to you, you have the right to object firmly to that person's behavior. This will not make you a monster or a jerk. You do not need to feel bad about it. It is your right as a decent human being in our society to not accept physical or verbal abuse from your peers.

The man on the bus? Screw him. He was being unreasonable and overreacting.

Your colleague "yelled at you in front of the entire office"? This is unprofessional and flat out rude. Don't feel bad, feel disgusted. You have every right to tell him that his behavior is inappropriate and not take his lack of self control personally.
posted by Shouraku at 8:58 AM on November 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

If you truly believe you're doing more damage to yourself by not being properly assertive, then you have nothing to lose by resolving to start standing up for yourself.

Tell yourself avoidance and meekness will actually make the situation worse and BELIEVE it-- don't even give yourself the opportunity to weasel out. Defend your our own dignity, even if you feel stupid, even if your voice gets wobbly or you feel like a jerk (you won't be a jerk, but you may feel like one till you get used to being your own best advocate).

And if you choose to turn the other cheek, do it with sincerity, strength, and mindfulness and you will get even more positive results.
posted by devymetal at 9:00 AM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

Your subordinate yelled at you in front of the whole office? Jeez, that would be a firing offense in my job (I mean, you probably wouldn't get fired for it, but it would fall under "gross insubordination" and you could be fired.)

What has led S to think that he can treat you like this? Are you female? Is he racist/xenophobic against people of your background? Does he treat other people like this?

Do you believe deep down that you don't deserve to be treated politely or that you don't deserve to lead projects? Do you believe deep down that you are less worthy or less skilled than others when this is not born out by facts? Or that male/white/etc people are the norm and that you are an outsider on sufferance? Do you believe in your heart that people are going to hurt you physically if they get mad enough? Do you believe that you are automatically weaker than others regardless of the situation? Are you socialized to think super-hierarchically, like some people are "better" than others and that it is immoral to question your "superiors"?

These are all things I struggle with, unconscious or semi-conscious beliefs that have in the past made me let others walk all over me for no reason. I try to name these things even if I can't get rid of them.
posted by Frowner at 9:09 AM on November 30, 2011 [12 favorites]

This is a tough one, because on some level, we know that people's perceptions do carry some weight. For example, if we didn't have the pressure of our peers, some moral values would probably not be upheld by society as a whole.

However, one thing that has helped me is understanding that part of my anxiety over some of these things was a control issue. Somewhere deep down, I felt as if it was my responsibility to control other peoples' perception or reactions to me. I could do this by being careful, being extra nice, etc. If it didn't happen, I tended to internalize it as a personal/social/moral failure.

What helped me get past this was to realize, over time, that this is freaking impossible. Not because I wasn't personable/sociable/or good, but because other people are pretty messed up at times under a shiny exterior, and there is literally no way to control the oft-irrational way that other people engage the world around me. Even people whose values I admire and whose opinions I trust will not always respond to me in a way that is fair or just or helpful.

Setting aside this need for approval of others that is grounded in some sort of social control can be tough. But I do believe that much of what helps us get beyond this is understanding that, more often than not, people are faking it. They aren't better than us, they have social problems of their own, and their negative opinions only hold as much weight as we grant it.

Now, it's okay to grant weight to certain opinions. But I send it through a more rational filter now, instead of a socially emotional one, that primarily asks: what can I take from this interaction to become a better person, and what can I leave? By making it a bit more clinical on that end (which, to be honest, is how some of the most successful people get successful, despite a myriad of mistakes along the way), has helped tremendously. As we all need that same level of grace, it's helped me to say we're all in this together, just trying to figure it out rather than saying, how is this situation I don't like all about me?
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:11 AM on November 30, 2011 [25 favorites]

What's your childhood background? Mine was violent, or with the threat of violence. It's hard for me to have any faith that, for instance, yelling will stop with yelling and not go on to complete mindless raging violence. I can count on one hand the times that's happened to me as an adult, and as an adult I can call the cops or get other adults to help. However, as often as I lectured myself about that, I would still freeze up inside. I'd get through the situation, and people didn't know I'd frozen, but it was ALWAYS some sort of automatic reaction, often followed a week later by panic attacks- seemingly out of nowhere.

These days confrontation is more like vaccuuming. I hate vaccuuming but it doesn't make me freeze up emotionally. It's just a chore. What got me from there to here was EMDR. I hear it doesn't work for everyone, but if your background's like mine, some sort of PTSD treatment might work wonders.

It felt really dumb to get PTSD treatment when I hadn't been to war or even had as violent a childhood as my poor neighbors, whose parents managed to be exponentially more crazy than mine, who WERE trying to be better people, but weren't great at figuring out how. (/understatement)

I don't know why it affected me more than it seemed to affect other people who had things worse. Maybe I was a sensitive kid. Who knows? Who cares? It worked and I'm a lot more able to respond instead of react and I have a lot more realistic expectations of the outcomes, despite some residual panicky commentary from my inner 8 year old.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:13 AM on November 30, 2011 [8 favorites]

And now that I've gotten better on the emotional/panicky level, I'm aiming for what SpacemanStix is saying, which I agree with 100%.

I had to get rid of that PTSD level first, though.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:15 AM on November 30, 2011

I know I am not in control of the feelings of a man on a bus, or the feelings of my colleague. How do I let go and feel less stressed out? I am a huge wuss. It's not something I like about myself. I really need to get past it.

One other variable, too, can be repeated exposure to those things that make us nervous, if the opportunities are available. As we learn to engage them over time and redefine how we think about them in the process (see my post above), we'll find that a lot of the biological responses that are equated with nervousness tend to die down and be reprogrammed. This is exactly how I learned to not be nervous in certain situations, actually.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:15 AM on November 30, 2011

You might find the cognitive behavioral therapy approaches helpful in unpacking those emotional filters that SpacemanStix talks about and replacing them with more realistic, rational filters. A lot of people recommend David Burns' "The Feeling Good Handbook", but you might also/instead take a look at granddaddy of them all, Albert Ellis's A New Guide to Rational Living, which includes discussions of precisely this issue of wanting to be liked/approved of by everyone, the problems this can cause in your life, and how to reframe things in a healthier manner.
posted by drlith at 9:33 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

American television notwithstanding, the choice is not simply between being a wuss and being assertive. The middle position, when you realize that people are over-reacting and you let it go in a kind of zen way, is the best route in my view. Most observers will get the picture and side with you. You know you are a good person, so tell yourself this. It might take a bit of practice. Aggressive people seek one-upmanship or revenge, and they are trapped in an endless cycle of conflict.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:44 AM on November 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

you have the right to object firmly to that person's behavior.... It is your right as a decent human being in our society to not accept physical or verbal abuse from your peers.

start standing up for yourself.....Defend your our own dignity

How exactly does one do these things? In the first quote, do you simply stand there and say,

"I object to your behavior." or

"I will not accept physical or verbal abuse from [you]"

And if you do say those things, do they actually help you diffuse the situation?

In the second quote, how do you defend your own dignity, exactly? Do you say something? If so, what?

Is there such a thing as a verbal self defense book? If sticks & stones apply to the abuse, why wouldn't it also apply to the rebuttal (be ineffective)?

The only way I can wrap my brain around how to react is to imagine I'm a valuable vessel/plant/spirit that others should treat so (as well as myself).
posted by yoga at 9:47 AM on November 30, 2011

I agree that it can become a control/responsibility issue so that I feel like I'm to blame for that other person's reaction, even when it's clear that they are the only ones who can control themselves, and they were simply unreasonable or rude.

In cases like this, especially once an apology is issued, I focus on trying to let it go, because otherwise it'll take over my brain. I do that by focusing on the things I CAN control: my life, my choices, my goals, the actions I plan to take in the next few days to achieve those goals or be a good employee, etc. Focus on being your awesome self, instead of them.
posted by ldthomps at 10:18 AM on November 30, 2011

Is there such a thing as a verbal self defense book?

Yes. It's a classic, actually. OP, you could also look into a practical self-defense class near you - the good ones will cover just such situations, and talk about body language, verbal responses, de-escalation, and also do some role-playing so you can process your emotional reaction in a safe place and start to get desensitized.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:21 AM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

To start, like yourself better. To start to do that, stop seeing your fear of confrontation as so awful. Yeah, the confronters are the winners of the world, but they are annoying, obnoxious, and selfish, and lose on the relationship front. Then forgive them for being such.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:29 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

It seems clear to me from what you've written that you were not at fault in either of these situations, but I also can imagine the intense anxiety I would feel if I were in your shoes. Both of these men were completely inappropriate and seem more than a little crazy. Rather than apologize any further to S, I think you could escalate to management /HR. If he treats you like that, he'll treat other people like that, and that's bad for you and for your team. If you can get him off your project, do it. You can describe S's outburst, and explain that you've attempted to discuss his concerns but he will not cooperate. It's important to the success of your project that you have a team you can work with, and he has demonstrated that he is not willing to be a team player. (Others with more corporate / HR experience may have better ideas, but I think most people will agree that you don't need to put up with that kind of BS).

But I also think I can guess why you haven't thought of taking the offensive - because you secretly or not so secretly believe that if someone is angry it means you did something wrong, and that smoothing things over is essential to your survival. If you're anything like me, this comes from your family of origin. Therapy can help. I have some really similar problems (check out my recent ask for gory details and some really helpful suggestions).

Also - read The No Asshole Rule for guidance on identifying and avoiding assholes in the workplace.
posted by bunderful at 10:46 AM on November 30, 2011

I can relate. I remember loosing sleep for several days because I accidentally cut off a pedestrian while driving. I didn’t hit him, but his look of disgust and raised fist are still clear in my mind. This example is different from yours in that I did make a mistake, but it certainly was not intentional. In school I used to obsess about poor marks and lost grades. I hated thinking about what other people thought of me.

I have come to realize that much this is due to a need for approval that I developed as a child. I have a fear of conflict from growing up in a house that had a lot of verbal abuse, some physical abuse and generally not-so-healthy attitudes from the adults. In addition, I’m a North American female and I was socialized to acquiesce, take the blame and avoid conflict at all costs.

Over time I have learned to stand up for myself. Part of this was speaking up and taking chances in social situations. I started asking questions and offering strong opinions more often at school and work. I practiced asking people out on dates to make myself more outgoing and to learn to deal with rejection. I also eventually started teaching which meant awarding bad grades to students who earned them and dealing with their ire when they ended up in my office. All of these things made me better able to deal with stress and conflict in a healthy and rational way. I think you need to do something similar, to practice dealing with conflict.

I remember, years ago, meeting someone who honestly didn’t care what most people thought of him. This amazed me. I cared what everyone thought of me. Theses days I aim to be respectful, professional and pleasant to those around me. If I make a mistake I apologize, try my best to fix it and then organize my life so that it won’t happen again. And then I just move on and remind myself that if someone else is still pissed at me it is their problem, not mine. I sleep great at night (at least on the nights where my kids don’t wake me up!)
posted by Cuke at 10:58 AM on November 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

@ yoga:

I used to be a rather timid person, an people were all to quick to give me detailed advice on how to stand up for myself. Eventually I just found the method that made me feel the best about my interactions and went with it.

Example 1) The man on the bus: Had I been in that situation, I would have simply said that I was sorry once and proceeded to my seat. If he yelled, screamed, threw a tantrum after that I would not have paid the slightest bit of attention (unless I was in danger). Usually, If someone wants to be irrationally upset, there is nothing rational that you can say to instantly calm them down. So why make the situation worse?

Example 2) The angry co-worker: I would have listened for a minute to gauge what exactly he was so angry about (for future reference) then would have calmly said "You outburst is unprofessional and I will not take part in it, however, I will be happy to discuss this with you later in a calm setting" and just walked away.

What I have realized threw the course of learning to stand up for myself, is that you need to do three things when you are being unfairly yelled at and are in a situation where you are unable to just ignore them (such as with with a co-worker):

1) In a firm but calm voice, call the person on their inappropriate behavior.

2) Tell them exactly yet briefly why you find their behavior to be inappropriate (it is unprofessional, or an overreaction, or impolite, etc).

3) Refuse to say another word until they calm down and address you appropriately.

To an irrationally angry person, their reaction seems totally legitimate and justifiable. Thus, any argument that you provide as to why they are being unreasonable will be met with further contention. This is why you have to shut up and disengage until they calm down. Do not argue with them, continue to apologize, repeat yourself. This will only make the tirade go on longer.

Of course, there is no magic bullet for these type of situations, however, this is what I have done for years and it has yet to work out negatively for me. YMMV
posted by Shouraku at 11:49 AM on November 30, 2011 [9 favorites]

Are you female? Women are acculturated to be the peacemakers, to acquiesce to other people's demands, to do as we are told. The message is that if someone is angry, it's because you did something wrong, and you had better do something fast to fix it.

This is just part of what it means to grow up in a patriarchal society. It can be incredibly difficult to overcome. But seeing it in yourself, and studying how other people react in the same situations, is part of the way out.
posted by ErikaB at 5:56 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

not everyone will like you. NBD! do you like everyone you meet? of course not.

Shouraku is spot on, consider doing that.

here's my thought. if you're a woman, getting over being socialized to please others can be very hard. doing so might require you to consciously practice assertive behavior until it becomes natural and instinctive. don't be too self-critical, you might be doing what you have been told to do your whole life, so that's really hard to push back against. and if you're not a woman, well, you can still be raised as a peacemaker/pleaser and not want that to be such a big part of your communication style and change is still hard.

some ideas are here and you could check out this book.

at first you'll have to force yourself to do more assertive things, and it will feel hard and probably there will be some anxiety. but as you notice a good change in how people react, you'll get better and better at it and it will become a habit.

also, consider that jerks who like to pick fights tend to pick on people who are more compliant and apologetic rather than people who are assertive and can stop caring what the other party thinks of them. so being more assertive might help you develop a reputation of strength and diplomacy, and decrease harmful confrontation with colleagues, friends and family.

*as far as the guy on the bus...don't worry about that. i am quite assertive and can even be confrontational sometimes, but i also react the same way as you did when a stranger confronts me in public and starts yelling or making a scene over a little thing, like bumping into them or crossing the street in front of them, etc. this is because people who fly into a rage for no reason or have disproportionate reactions can also sometimes be dangerous.

one trick i like to do when i'm just out walking around or commuting is to practice my assertive body language. while walking, i meet people's eyes just for a quick moment, then look away, but never down. this is a powerful body language signal of assertiveness and an indication that i have situational awareness.

i notice that many women tend to make eye contact for a moment and then look down at their feet (especially if they have fancy shoes on and have to watch their steps). that's a body language signal of submission, and it's damn near impossible to be verbally assertive with submissive or fearful body language, you know?

another thing is learn to take a compliment gracefully, even if you have to practice "thank you, that's very kind" in the mirror for a while. no self deprecating.
posted by zdravo at 7:40 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

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