Why Am I So Afraid of Being Disliked?
From the time we’re young, we’re expected to conform. We’re born into societies that often place grand expectations on its members. And we’re taught that violations of their rules lead to punishment, entailing an outcome that can be construed as social-death. Fundamentally, our cultures have a multitude of ways of instilling intense fear, and all of them (e.g., liberal, conservative) expect compliance.
My clients often come to treatment to attempt to work out their place in the world, to discover who they are. Sometimes, the ways in which they were raised could be considered counter-culture, in that their environments went against contemporary social norms. Some of them were physically, verbally, and/or sexually abused and made to believe in the legitimacy of their suffering. In those contexts, they may have wanted to be like the apparently normal children in their schools but, at home, their version of normality was abhorrent. So, being different and, in their cases, normal would have been precursors to further violence; therefore, paralyzing their development.
But overall, regardless of its context, culture is a powerful tool, possessing the ability to mold our very existence. Through guidance and intimidation, it teaches us how we ought to live and who we ought to be. In it, we discover our values and, thus, ourselves. We use it as a mirror to evaluate our actions and to assess our own morality. And the pressure to conform is extensive, portending social isolation with each misstep and misdeed.
The Social Animal
In an evolutionary sense, conformity means survival. For, when humans huddled together in groups to survive, social exclusion meant abandonment, concluding with an inevitable death by the elements. So, the humans who didn’t mind being disliked were naturally selected out of existence, at least for the most part. The rest of us, well, we inherited this lovely fear of rejection, without which our ancestors would not have survived to give each of us life. Consequently, a long time ago, and even for some people still, people-pleasing was a highly adaptive trait, helping its keepers fit right in.
How Does Conformity Serve Us Now?
As we get older, we begin to examine our values: what we like, what we dislike, how we’re supposed to be, and what’s important for our lives. We may even use newly learned critical thinking skills to question long-standing and wide-ranging social-norms, asking why socially-constructed inequality and sorrow have to continue to exist. Conformity, then, becomes a barrier, not from others, but from ourselves. In the moment of revelation, of our acceptance of our own, separate values, we stand at odds with our progenitors, in the literal and figurative senses of the term; we become our own parents.
To say and be who we are is anathema to those who loathe independent-thought; therefore, the free-mind can become a captive in its own body. And, it may wait to be rescued, to have its values validated by a greater body in order to give itself permission to express them.
For this individual, the one who genuinely thinks and feels, and who reasons morally, conformity is a trap from which a social-death may feel as a sweet release.
Becoming Who We Are
This brings us to the concluding question: How can I stop pleasing others and become my real self? If we know that social rejection is a mere evolutionary remnant that helped our ancestors survive and remain aware of the legitimacy of our values, we can begin to build up the courage needed to be shunned by others.
Social acceptance is only worth a damn when we’re accepted for who we are; otherwise, it’s hollow. The pressures that popular teenagers and celebrities experience are well-documented, and it’s been argued that some have taken their own lives because they believed that they could never have became the individuals that they wanted to be. In their cases, social acceptance wasn’t an achievement; it was a tyranny.
In The Politics of Experience, Existential Psychiatrist and Social Critic R.D. Laing wrote:
True sanity entails in one way or another the dissolution of the normal ego, that false self competently adjusted to our alienated social reality… and through this death a rebirth and the eventual re-establishment of a new kind of ego-functioning, the ego now being the servant of the divine, no longer its betrayer.
Here Laing meant that mental health equated with the exhibition, and presentation, of who one truly is. He believed that our false-selves were barriers to intimacy, with others and ourselves. And to him, the goal of any psychotherapy worth being called a healing process was self-discovery, and as significantly, self-disclosure. Happiness, in a major way, is related to authenticity.