no win just me
February 13, 2020 9:27 PM   Subscribe

How do I stop trying to win over everyone around me all the time?

I want to be more comfortable not being liked. And specifically, I want to cut out my (often self-defeating and exhausting) tools for getting there, especially mirroring other people's behaviors/sensibilities/preferences. How??

For context, I am in many ways very comfortable being an eccentric queerdo. I love going deep into hobbies and following larks that others would probably find weird. I try to live my life true to myself and do right by those I love, and also be a person invested in justice and care for others. All good stuff. And yet, so, so many of my interpersonal interactions are oriented around quickly and successfully winning the approval and warm regard of others as a safety-seeking strategy (after a stressful and traumatic childhood I'm still coping with at 30.)

There's always a little script running in my head asking the question, "how good does this person feel about themselves as they are talking to me?" I want mentor figures to feel happy and good about themselves because they feel they are helping me. I want new possible-friends to feel comfortable and not exhausted by me. I always try to give my therapists the experience of being component and making this big impact on me even though it's totally ridiculous and clearly not my job (and my most recent one was very good about not letting me do that.) It's not that I need someone to think "wow, that SMB sure is Rad/Kind/Interesting." In fact, direct evaluations of my personality make me feel super uncomfortable. It's more that I want them to think "I'm on SMB's side, I feel warmly towards them." So I look for subtle cues and read body language and infer intentions. I do my best in small group settings, where I can read the interpersonal information fluently enough to play the role of placater or humble leader or whatever is called for in a way that makes people trust and like me, and one on one in most situations develops similarly. I often get read as extroverted and very skilled with people as a result, and I suppose those aren't entirely untrue, but I don't think people understand the game I'm playing internally at all (unfortunately I do this with *everyone* all the time, from my landlord to my Mom to my students to people I date. Maybe it's just what being a human socially in the world entails, but it makes me feel worthless and used and ugly and bad, on harder days it makes me obsess about wanting to die. I'm ok now.)

It's a problem for a number of other reasons too. It's a barrier to true intimacy - playing a version of myself Being Real is just never the same thing as actually being real - so in that way it's very counter productive. It also has some costs at work - I want to get better standing by my ideas for things that might require being open to be not super liked, if only temporarily. It's limiting to aspects of my life that require navigating ambiguity with how people will respond, such as developing closer relationships to people with very different backgrounds and experiences than me, or even just like, going to parties or enjoying taking social risks (I still take some big risks, but). It's a barrier to being kind in a deeper sense, when seeking justice is inherently inconveniencing and abrasive. I also could be wrong - maybe this part of me is legibile to everyone around me and I'm seen as overeager and untrustworthy bc of that. But I'm also able to fine-fine tune the dials enough to avoid those impressions. Depressingly, I'm very good at this stuff.

I want to be a different way. I don't want this. I want to be confident I can get unconditional positive regard from my closest people - and I'm lucky to have this with my lovely family and close friends, when I can let myself not manage them/me. And yet. Safety-seeking by managing reactions is just so so hard to give up. How can I start? Thank you.
posted by Sock Meets Body to Human Relations (12 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Commenting because I have very much the same issues and would love to learn some strategies myself. I suspect that apart from the causes that you mention, this particular issue could be a side effect of being more than usually empathetic. The many times you mention your care about how other people are feeling makes me suspect that you are one of those people who has a thin "barrier" to other people's emotions. What they feel, you feel.

"I want new possible-friends to feel comfortable and not exhausted by me. I always try to give my therapists the experience of being component and making this big impact on me even though it's totally ridiculous and clearly not my job"

I hope that there IS a way to reduce the negative side of being so empathetic and caring without reducing or negating the strength of those abilities. But maybe the first step (which you already seem to be doing) is recognising when you are taking on responsibility for somebody else's feelings beyond what is reasonable. In my experience, being aware of when I'm doing this, in a neutral, non-judgemental way, goes a long way toward helping.

Something that has helped me with this exact issue is that while I might FEEL this way, I don't have to act on those feelings. It's fine for me to feel that need to please, but I don't have to let that feeling control my actions. I have the power to say "Uh, this is really uncomfortable, but I'm going to do x anyway". For some reason, the idea that I don't have to try to change the way I am (how I think and feel) but just what I do, seems much more possible.

It also helps me not to judge this aspect of myself by calling myself "needy" or "weak" etc, but I try to have compassion for myself. Feeling too much is hard, in a world that doesn't value kindness. Wanting to be safe and loved is rational.
posted by Zumbador at 11:30 PM on February 13 [7 favorites]

"For context, I am in many ways very comfortable being an eccentric queerdo. I love going deep into hobbies and following larks that others would probably find weird. I try to live my life true to myself and do right by those I love, and also be a person invested in justice and care for others."

You sound like someone I would want to know :) A lot of that applies to me.

I will just say that I could have written this question a decade ago. I was really socially awkward in high school, but a very empathetic person. When I got to college, I realized I could just...completely reinvent myself. And I used the exact people pleasing ability to make a ton of friends and integrate myself into a ton of social groups. I was popular! And I was extremely miserable, for exactly the reasons you are unhappy.

There is no magic pill. Or at least, I couldn't find one. There is just making a decision, and then dealing with the results. I resolved that I would be my authentic self (at least, as much as I could be!), and that I would only be friends with people who were down with that. 99% of those previous friendships ended...but not in a bad way? It was more like...I stopped keeping up the charade, and they generally just faded as I stopped showing up to parties I didn't want to go to. The friendships that remained have largely all existed for the remaining decade!

"I want to be confident I can get unconditional positive regard from my closest people - and I'm lucky to have this with my lovely family and close friends, when I can let myself not manage them/me"

Here's the thing I sort of had to discover and cannot control how others will feel about you. You can only be the best you you can be. Of course, others will give you feedback, and that can be invaluable! If you value someone, you will of course care about what they say...but at the end of the day, part of being authentic is accepting that not everyone is going to be down with that. I think that this will be the hardest part for you. It's very vulnerable! To go from being a complete people pleaser to being yourself. The thing that made it worth it for me is that you can be confident in the relationships you have. You can't be confident that everyone will like you, but you can be MUCH more confident that the people that like you.

For me, this is all a process that started my senior year of college and has continued since. It's so so easy to slip back into people pleasing mode, but I try hard to just be myself. Sometimes that can be a bit lonely! I am also a pretty intense person (but not a jerk, I think??), and not everyone is interested in that. But the upside is that every once in a while, I meet someone and they just CLICK. They see that part of me and resonate with it and we basically instantly become lifelong friends. So you do get something for it! Plus, my sense of self is so much stronger. Before, it could be hard to tease out who I really was, as I was defining myself in relationship to others. Now I'm just me! Of course, there are still tons of things about my identity that I'm fleshing out, but at least I know that it's my own stuff, vs. a reflection of others.

I dunno, it's hard to put this into words elegantly -_- but I just resonated so much with what you said! Everyone I meet also thinks I'm extroverted, when I'm very much not. I'm also queer and intense! Ah!

One thing I will say is that at work....well, I think being authentic is good, but I mean, if there's one place where having boundaries and knowing how to please people is very useful, it is work. I suppose it depends on your career! But for me, being able to make basically everyone like me has been, uh, extremely useful! I try not to be unethical about it, I don't like, scheme with assholes. But getting on the same page with one's boss, for example, is great. And an extension of this is that you can use this to create social capital to help others. I'm a cis white-passing man, and I've definitely striven to use my "everyone's friendly local wooh" status to stand up for members of my team from marginalized groups. "Hey, didn't so and so just say that?" "Hey, why don't we let so and so keep talking?" "Hey, we probably shouldn't use that word" It can make a big difference!

You sound great! Bet the best most authentic you you can! Not everyone will love it, but the people who do REALLY will!
posted by wooh at 1:34 AM on February 14 [3 favorites]

I struggle with this as well, including being an eccentric queerdo and being 30 and still recovering from a stressful/traumatic childhood. The love of my early caregivers was absolutely conditional, and as a kid I had very low confidence that they even liked me, let alone loved me. I still struggle with ongoing feelings not just of not being good enough, but of not even meeting minimum bars for basic human acceptability; on good days I feel just about like a person and on bad days I feel like a turd smear on the face of humanity.

One thing that has helped at work in particular is reminding myself that I'm there to do a job, not to make friends or be liked. It's nice to be liked, of course it is, and as an adult I'm good at the charm offensive that wins other people's surface liking (apart from maybe 5% of people who by default bounce off my personality, which has always been true), which makes it easy to slip into the mindset that doing that charm work is also part of the job of being my professional self.

Weirdly, something that has made this much easier is working with someone whom I was fairly close friends for about 18 months where we've since basically completely stopped talking to one another and there's still some underlying hostility floating around. The person had a similarly messed-up early life to mine and in this case they courted me for the friendship in the first place, it got intense quickly, then they started pulling away, and eventually they essentially friend-ghosted me when I was going through a particularly vulnerable time in my personal life. I've also realised since that they were a habitual manipulator/shit-stirrer/shit-talker of other people behind those people's backs, and I'm very confident that I'm now on the list of people they habitually shit-talk about to the people who are still in their inner circle, based on the amount of shit-talking about other people that I used to be the audience for when I was in their inner circle.

I realise this seems like an unrelated anecdote from my personal life, but weirdly it's been incredibly freeing to know that someone I have to work with actively doesn't like me and is almost certainly badmouthing me behind my back and I...don't really care? It has only solidified my resolve that I'm not there to make friends or be friendly or make people like me, I'm there to do a job. Sometimes doing that job means making changes or decisions that won't be received positively by everyone. And that's fine - I'm not there to make friends, I'm there to do a job. The conundrum of "do I do this unpopular thing or not do it so that people will continue to like me?" is only a conundrum if you believe on some level that part of your job is being liked or approved of by other people; as soon as you let that go as part of the professional standards requirements, these decisions become a lot easier, because your job is to do your job to the best of your ability, not to do your job as well as you can without ever risking someone else's dislike.

I don't have an answer to the whole question as I'm still trying to work it through myself, and my version of coping with this in purely social situations is more like "try to only socialise with people that I'm confident like me already", which might not be the healthiest approach or applicable to the way other people are living their lives. But on the work side, knowing that I have to work with someone whom I thought liked me and who has now turned out to dislike me has been so weirdly freeing, because it's literally not my job to care about whether they like me or not, I am just there to do the work and get paid and go home again at the end of the day.
posted by terretu at 1:36 AM on February 14 [1 favorite]

> playing a version of myself Being Real is just never the same thing as actually being real

This is the line that really stood out for me. It's a kind of endlessly recursive self-consiousness, yes? Whereby you're painfully aware of yourself being conscious of (being conscious of (managing others' perceptions of you (while they're maybe conscious of your ongoing self-consciousness about doing that))). I can see why it's exhausting.

Not saying that you should be like me, but in some ways I'm the opposite. Many times, I'm entirely oblivious of the reaction that I'm getting, and I need a third party to tell me how it went for whoever it was that I was talking to.

I don't think that's any better, in terms of successful & mutually satisfying communications, than what you do - but for me that's what Being Real amounts to. For better or worse, that's just who I am. I'm the guy who'll blunder in & say something ill-judged, from time to time. I can kinda catch myself doing it, in or shortly after the moment - but that doesn't mean I have any realistic chance of doing it differently. I've learned that I can accept that.

Possibly, in your case too, the gap between playing-yourself-Being-Real and actually being real might be smaller than you think. Possibly that's just who you are. Possibly there's a way for you to lean into that & own it, and screw those people (we'll assume that they exist) who don't get it or who are put off by it.
posted by rd45 at 1:49 AM on February 14

I'm really sorry this is causing you so much pain. What you have written resonated deeply with me, as a female POC it has been heavily impressed upon me from an early age that being authentic < being lovely and inoffensive to all and I have learned with time to appreciate the skills that this has forced me to cultivate. Like you, I'm good at people. Being charming to all who know me has smoothed my professional and social paths in many ways despite the fact that I am a little weird. I wonder if it's helpful at all for you to reflect on the positives of this: how you have come out of trauma with a strategy to read people so well and it has resulted in so many people liking you (and many, I am sure, envious of your amazing skills of empathy and reading people!). What an amazing survival strategy! You are such a strong person!

In terms of your internal monologue - the intense thought you give towards managing people's emotions towards you - I had a thought which may or may not be helpful. Increasingly over the last few years I have learned to pay attention to how other people make me feel. I don't want to sound like an asshole but it's easy for me to get people to like me in a superficial way. But when I stop thinking "how can I get them to like me?" and instead "Do I actually like this person?" it provides a better driver of helping me decide whether this is a person I want to know better. Is it possible that, when you hear that little tape in your head start to play its usual "Does this person like me?" spiel, you could remind yourself, "Look, they probably do; I'm fantastic. But do I like them?" And one way I find myself getting a bit realler with people I actually do like is by - in a weird, ourobouros kind of sense - not being quite so delightful with them. So with a real friend, I will say, "I'm stressed, I've got all this work to do, I'm in a horrible mood, my boss really pissed me off," and even though these are not particularly positive, delightful things the fact that I feel safe to share is what builds a bridge between them and me.
posted by unicorn chaser at 4:19 AM on February 14 [8 favorites]

Oh I relate so much!

Here's a neat trick.

I get especially bubbly in group settings where I'm trying (successfully!) to be the "fun friend" or the "charming potential friend". I get home and realise that I'm drained and never once this whole evening was I really and truly myself.

So what I do now on an evening out is I check in with myself at intervalls. I sort of lean back, sometimes in mid-conversation or when there's a lull and give myself a once-over. Am I happy? Tired? Annoyed? Depressed? And then I consciously allow my face to reflect what I'm feeling. Usually that means I just stop driving the conversation for a while. I'm quieter, listen to people instead of feeling pressured to Say Something Now. I become aware that I'm running the"extrovert" subroutine and I'm allowed to turn it off for a while and just exist here, as myself.

The sky hasn't fallen.
Nobody even notices.
If they do, they sometimes ask if anything's wrong and I just smile and tell them I'm suddenly feeling my tiredness, which is such a normal thing to happen nobody even remarks on it.

I feel like since I've started doing this I'm much more aware of who I am and much more in control of when I let down my guard and let my friends see the real me. I also don't find people as exhausting anymore.
posted by Omnomnom at 4:40 AM on February 14 [15 favorites]

Perhaps start with those trusted family members / close friends. You'll be learning through trial and error what it even feels like to take up space in the world, so begin with people who make you feel safe. Practice voicing your contrary opinions, or allowing yourself to be emotionally vulnerable, or whatever else you feel like you're holding back in everyday life.

I think the work piece is the hardest, because workplace success does require diplomacy and compromise, and this can be very very bad for those of us who don't have great boundaries. I had the realization at my last job that the strategies I was using to deal with a toxic boss were identical to the people-pleasing behaviors I'd learned from a traumatic childhood. (And it worked like a charm, a fact that I find deeply disturbing when I examine it too closely.)

I'm still learning to assert myself at work, but in the case of Toxic Sludge Boss, my trauma behaviors were activating because she was not a safe person. Asserting myself was not really the answer; getting the hell out was.
posted by toastedcheese at 6:20 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]

playing a version of myself Being Real is just never the same thing as actually being real

Sure it is. Whatever you're doing at any given instant, that's you doing that, and that's all being real is.

I don't think your current behaviour toward other people is at all problematic. I think it's merely socially skilled. There is nothing at all wrong, in and of itself, with behaving in ways that promote social harmony. That's a good thing to be doing.

I think the actual problem here is the stories you're telling yourself about that behaviour, because it's those stories that form the basis for this feeling of inauthenticity.

If you're frequently finding yourself choosing not to say things that you think really did need to be said, or jumping in to fill what you'd otherwise judge as awkward conversational gaps for the benefit of other participants, and you're making these choices purely on the basis that doing otherwise is going to cause somebody to dislike you, then again that's not a not-being-authentic thing, that's a you-making-a-choice thing. In the moment, you're prioritizing being seen as pleasant and non-threatening over whatever outcome you're guessing will flow from letting that other thing you just thought inside your head out into the world.

But the thing about that is that even with all your highly developed social skills, you can't control what other people actually think of you. All you can do is read the cues that they choose to let out into the world.

The other thing is that changing a habit, especially a social habit, always feels really risky. Human behaviour, always and everywhere, is almost completely dominated by habit. It takes focus and application and persistence to change a habit, and courage as well to change a social habit. But perhaps it's time you did look at experimenting with changing a few of yours. You might well find that you've been putting far far more work into maintaining good relationships with those around you than has actually been required, purely as a matter of habit; perhaps because the set of habits you've been using for that got their start when you were a kid in a completely different and way less safe social space. And doing more work than is actually required is always going to be tiring. That's the nature of work.

But just toss out this whole idea that choosing one's words with an eye to minimizing social risk amounts to not being authentic. Whenever you notice yourself telling yourself that, you can just counter with the observation that people who readily self-describe as authentic will generally count a tendency toward brutal honesty as a marker of that authenticity, but that being brutally honest and being a bit of an arsehole are more often than not the same thing. There's not usually much to be gained by behaving in a way where you actually are the arsehole.

It takes months of deliberate retraining before any new set of modified behaviours beds in as habitual, and for all that time you should expect to feel a bit weird about what you're doing. That's not inauthentic either. Because when it comes right down to it, the only way for a breathing talking embodied social human being to live an inauthentic life is to spend the whole thing convincing yourself that what is so, is not so and vice versa. The only authenticity worth pursuing, to my way of thinking, involves caring far more about being brutally honest with yourself than with your attitude toward other people.

it worked like a charm, a fact that I find deeply disturbing when I examine it too closely

For the first few years of being a parent, I used to feel badly weirded out about the fact that transparently obvious psychological manipulation techniques are so effective at getting small children to do what is good for them. Appreciating the degree of power that well-honed manipulation skills give you over another person is disturbing. And that is as it should be; that disturbed feeling is the only thing standing between power and abuse of power.
posted by flabdablet at 6:56 AM on February 14 [5 favorites]

it's not a direct answer to your question, but: the grass is, apparently, always greener.

I've been dogged my whole life by my lack of any instinctual ability in the sphere you excel at. I've read (ok, well, I've bought and begun) any number of books to try to teach myself how to keep other people feeling good. I have both an inability to dissemble and a reflexive hostility to arbitrary authority which show through even when I'm trying to be ingratiating and politic; and which have served me poorly in any number of social and professional settings.

Don't knock what you've got, is what I'm saying.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:42 AM on February 14

“There's always a little script running in my head asking the question, "how good does this person feel about themselves as they are talking to me?" I want mentor figures to feel happy and good about themselves because they feel they are helping me. I want new possible-friends to feel comfortable and not exhausted by me. I always try to give my therapists the experience of being component and making this big impact on me even though it's totally ridiculous and clearly not my job (and my most recent one was very good about not letting me do that.)”

I find that these sorts of things really aren’t about them at all, but about me. That is, caring about what others think just reveals to me my biggest fears of what I’m afraid I am or am becoming.

For example, if these were my words (and many of them have been), it’s more like, “I’m worried that I’m not giving my mentors what they need to help me, or that I’m a lost cause to them, I’m hopeless.” “I’m afraid I’m too much and I exhaust my friends, the people I care about the most.” “I’m not worthy of receiving help and therefore must prove my competence to others first to make it worth their time.”

Truth is, you will never know what others think, and chasing this is pointless and unsatisfying. But you DO have control over what you think about yourself, and about managing your fears.

If you start to notice these thoughts you have about what others think about you and begin seeing them as clues to what you are trying to avoid becoming, and work on addressing THAT, the whole rumination cycle will slow down majorly.

You can do this, it’s about your relationship with yourself and it’s within your control. I don’t mean that in a patronising way. It’s that you don’t need validation from others about whether your fears are true or not, they can’t give you that either way. You can recognise the fears and work on quelling them. Again, you can do this. Good luck!
posted by iamkimiam at 1:49 PM on February 14

So I used to have a best friend who moved through the world explicitly with the goal of Being Liked By Everyone (he even called himself a Manic Pixie Dream Boy at one point). He took "maxing out the Charisma stat" to the next level. He was very good at talking to people and would shamelessly network.

Thing is, his approach always had a manipulative disingenuous undercurrent to it - which I didn't really reckon with until I received news of him being an emotionally manipulative predator. Hell, some of the things I thought were "effective networking" was really him just talking at people without any regard for their own boundaries. After multiple reports of this, I confronted him about this, and it turned into an utter nightmare where I could see clearly him trying to manipulate me into avoiding all accountability because I didn't want to play by his rules anymore and how everything was about him & how people are maligning him rather than the effect he had on others.

Ever since then, I've had a bit of an allergy to people who are trying to Be Liked By Everyone. The people I am now close to are also charming and likeable for the most part, but what set them apart from that guy was that they didn't approach things with the primary end goal of making sure the other person liked them. They did things for others because they felt it was the right thing to do. They struck up conversations because they were genuinely interested in what the other person had to say. They weren't completely selfless, and sure they would still like to be liked, but they approached the world from a more collaborative, sharing mindset - building a good experience for all involved. Which meant that if there were deep disagreements or even if they fucked up, they were more willing to accept criticism and work on anything that needs work, or stand by their perspective without demeaning the other person - because they knew that this wasn't a condemnation on their likeability. They weren't using others for their own gain, unlike that guy.

I'm not saying you're anywhere near as manipulative as my ex best friend, I don't know you. But your account sounded super familiar and I wanted to chime in.
posted by divabat at 9:17 PM on February 15

Something else worth pondering is the trustworthiness of the company you choose to keep. If you're constantly feeling compelled to show the people around you your best face and are generally unable to relax into a non-exhausting level of self-censorship when in company, then it might be that to some extent your concern about other people choosing to read you in bad faith is well founded and that what you actually need is better friends.
posted by flabdablet at 12:26 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]

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