Time to talk about something that might make people a little uncomfortable! My favorite thing to do, right?
Everyone wants to be liked. I think especially women feel this need to not ruffle anyone's feathers and to make everyone happy and to be as likable as humanly possible. In general, this is a GOOD desire, but it's also one that can quickly derail into the realm of unhealthy worries and behaviors. At least it has for me at times, and I've had to make a concerted effort to pull myself out of the death spiral of trying to get everyone in the whole entire world to like me.
So today I wanted to talk about some of the red flags—the signs that you might be taking the good desire to be likable to an extreme that becomes detrimental to you and those around you. (And of course I'll be talking about this in terms of writing, though I believe it's applicable in all aspects of life.)
1. Letting other people's opinions determine how much you value yourself and your work.
We all want validation for who we are and what we do. I certainly do, and I'm not above admitting that I feel really good when people say they like me or my writing. It makes me all warm and fuzzy inside, knowing someone connected with me and my work the way I hoped someone would.
And, yes, it stings—and even so much as hurts—when I hear that someone doesn't like me or my work. I think this is a fair and natural reaction for anyone who creates things. We create something because we LIKE it, and when someone else doesn't get it or even goes as far to say that it was stupid or cliche or just plain horrible...it's really hard not to feel that to some measure.
The issue arises when we allow validation—and as a result the criticism—to determine what we think of our own work. I often think of my young daughter when I ponder this topic. She is so confident and proud of the person she is. But she is not yet in school, not yet around media and other things that will tell her she's not good enough. I'm so afraid someday she'll go to those sources to determine her worth instead of holding on to her own belief that she is awesome.
It's hard for a writer to be confident. And at times it even seems that those who do act self-assured will be disliked and criticized that much more. But the truth of the matter is this: True validation only comes from within.
If you allow yourself to LIKE who you are regardless of what others think, happiness follows. As does freedom to do and create what you want to, what makes your heart sing. And that is far more important than anyone's approval.
2. Thinking in black and white. As in, "If this person doesn't 100% love me or my work, then they must HATE me or my work."
The biggest life lesson I've learned from writing is that people are not one-dimensional creatures. Everyone is flawed. When we focus on someone's flaws, we tend to dislike them. When we focus on their merits, we tend to like them. When we look at them as a whole—we tend to understand them.
When I get consumed by the need to be liked, one of the biggest problems I have is seeing people in black and white instead of the true grayscale they are. It becomes easier to think that if someone isn't my bestest friend in the whole wide world, then they MUST hate me. With no middle ground. No allowance for indifference or general good will or a variance in opinion.
And that's not fair—to me or them. Just because someone doesn't like an aspect of me doesn't make them a horrible person. And just because someone loves everything about me or my work doesn't make them a perfect person, either.
This can be especially important to remember when interacting with other writers/agents/editors in the "workplace." For example, do you decide another writer hates your book because you never got a reply for that blurb request? Do you assume an agent hates you because they rejected your query/partial/full? Do you figure an editor will never like any of your books because they passed on one of them?
These negative thoughts can be a slippery slope leading to my next red flag:
3. Beginning to vilify people you don't know based on little information.
When you start to draw arbitrary and harsh lines based on who likes you and who you think hates you, it gets easier to take the next step—making people into either allies or villains in your life. And if that happens, you will constantly be on the look out for things that support your idea of the roles these people play in your life.
So if you view someone as your ally, you might start seeing only their positive attributes while turning a blind eye to the things they may do wrong. And if you see a person as your enemy, you will hunt down all proof that they are, indeed, out to get you.
This can cause a ridiculous amount of stress and paranoia, which I'm ashamed to admit I've experienced. You start to feel uncomfortable everywhere—online, at signings, at conferences—because surely your enemies are judging you and you must stick with your allies so that you can protect yourself.
Stress. Fear. Anger. When you assume people are out to get you, you create unnecessary conflict in your life. I think this is especially easy to do as writers, because we are constantly hunting for stories and sometimes our imaginations bleed into reality. But the more I work to restrain myself from the tendency to vilify those I don't know well or who may have poor opinions of me, the more at peace I am with myself and them.
4. Disruption of your creative work process.
Putting your confidence in other people's hands and the resulting stress can really jack up your creative process. Because when you write for validation—or in attempts to avoid criticism—you stop writing what you love. You try to write what you think other people will love.
This has a few results. One, you freak out and freeze up because how can you possibly please everyone? So you just can't write anything. Two, you end up writing something you think other people will like, but you don't really love it. And it shows, thereby people aren't happy anyway. Three, you get so angry and overwhelmed by expectations that you go all JD Salinger and screw everyone.
I've done one and two. I've dreamed about doing three but it hasn't happened yet. Thank goodness.
I'm sure you've all heard the expression: Too Many Cooks In The Kitchen. When it comes to creating, this is so applicable it's not even funny. Art, in whatever medium, becomes diluted when too many people put their opinion into its creation. The beauty of art is that it's a window into the creator—a way to see how another person sees the world. When you try to make something that everyone understands or likes, it becomes a window to nowhere. It becomes boring.
It takes courage to keep creating what you see in your mind, to block out the other voices and stand tall and say, "This is MY work. I LIKE it. You can think whatever you want."
But I promise it's worth it.
5. Coming to situations with criticism and skepticism, instead of understanding and trust.
Oddly enough, the need to be liked can lead to the exact opposite feeling. By trying too hard to be likable to for too long, you can come out the other end completely jaded. Because, let's face it, it's impossible to get everyone in the world to like you. Not even the most giving, saintly religious leaders have managed to win over the entire world.
And being jaded is an ugly thing. Instead of going into situations with positivity, you start to look for the bad. You become skeptical of any good feedback or compliment because surely that person is just saying that to your face, but behind your back they are telling their friends how dumb you are. You start to view everything with the taint of negativity.
That is not a fun place to be. And not only is it a disservice to you, but you are in effect accusing everyone you know of being two-faced liars. You start to say everything is disappointing or lame or not what you wanted it to be. And then you become the very critic that so scared you in the beginning. A critic of yourself. Of your work. And everyone around you.
The line between wanting to be liked and needing to be liked is a thin one. Wanting to be liked leads to kindness and the desire to understand and love people—all their facets included. Needing to be liked leads to a desperation and dependence on validation that can turn ugly fast.
I'll be the first one to admit it's hard to stay on the good side of trying to be likable, but I don't think it's impossible. And I know for a fact that the time I spend on that side is MUCH happier than the times spent greedily hunting down approval from every soul I know. And happiness is such a valuable commodity these days.