Although we may not like everyone, we want everyone to like and accept us. We raise our eyebrows suspiciously if someone treats us with indifference or, worse, with hostility. We feel misunderstood and rejected. And the feeling of rejection is as intense as physical pain.
The desire to be liked is a normal aspiration. The appreciation of others lets us know that we can be ourselves without being cast aside; it offers us a warm place among the people we care about: friends, acquaintances, or colleagues.
The need to be liked, however, is not as harmless. It stems from fear and insecurity, from a permanent questioning of one’s self-worth. In the absence of self-validation, we long for people’s approval to confirm that we are good, smart, and beautiful.
The need to be liked, by everyone and at any cost, gives us anxiety at the thought that we might be criticised, subjected to collective judgement, and rejected.
In such cases, we tend to resort to strategies that alter our true nature in order to get into the good graces of others. We force ourselves to be what we are not and end up displaying behavioural patterns that betray constant efforts to please others, willingness to make compromises, and fixations on people who reject us.
The need to be safe
These behavioural patterns originate in childhood. Most children learn that the most important way to stay safe in a world of all-powerful adults is to please their parents. The approval reactions received when they obey reinforce the idea that obedience guarantees relationship success, as obedience is rewarded with affection, praise, or even material rewards.
Other times, the patterns come in response to certain traumas experienced in the early years of life (emotional neglect or emotional, verbal and/or physical abuse), which later lead to extreme sensitivity manifested in delicate situations, such as receiving criticism or engaging in conflicts. Out of the desire to avoid such situations, sensitive people prefer to comply with the requirements, minimising the probability of contradicting someone or hurting the feelings or interests of others. In this context, the need to be liked hides an acute need to be safe.
Social anxiety disorder and depression can also cause us to seek the approval of those around us and accept their standards in order to not be negatively evaluated by those whose approval we seek.
Lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem also lead to the tendency to judge our self-worth based on the opinions of others, which over time can lead to the development of what is called an “external locus of control”. The phrase defines the situation in which an individual generally believes that the course of their life is dictated by external factors beyond their control. Therefore, they need to be liked by as many people as possible in order to feel good in their own skin. This category of people lack autonomy, independence, and the conviction that they are strong enough to improve their condition.
Another source of self-doubt is the time spent on social networks. The constant presence in the virtual space reflects and, at the same time, fuels the need for acceptance. A 2006 study links the time spent on social media to a tendency to seek social validation, which leads to the progressive loss of some of the standards which were built on personal, intrinsic values.
The need for comfort
When we are always trying to please others, a common issue that arises is a difficulty or inability to say no. Whether we are talking about small things, like being asked to let someone cut in front of the line, or about something serious, like lending someone a large amount of money, the desire to decline certain requests is often overshadowed by the desire to avoid putting ourselves in a negative light because of the inconvenience caused to the person we refuse.
An experiment conducted in 2014 shows that people are often willing to take actions they disagree with (telling a “white” lie or vandalising a book) just to avoid responding unfavourably to a request.
“[M]any people agree to things—even things they would prefer not to do—simply to avoid the considerable discomfort of saying ‘no’.” says Professor Vanessa K. Bohns.
Another study, based on the brain activity analysis of subjects invited to express their agreement or disagreement with certain given statements, suggests that making the decision to disagree elicited greater cognitive dissonance (discrepancy between values and actions) in those individuals who usually disagreed less often.
On the other hand, Lauren Appio, PhD in psychology, believes that, over time, consensus has been a good survival strategy for humanity. Therefore, we unconsciously fear separating ourselves from others by assuming differences of opinion and behaviour. It seems risky to us to distance ourselves from the crowd through a series of deliberately placed barriers.
However, it is necessary to learn to say no when a proposal challenges our moral, physical, or emotional standards, or the time at our disposal. We can do this by practising the following methods:
- Understand that you have a choice—no one is master of your thoughts, decisions and actions;
- Sort out your priorities for both big and small things—time, energy, money, skills or opportunities are far too precious to be invested at random;
- Set some boundaries—some people can get into the habit of abusing your tolerance or predisposition to say “yes”;
- Avoid getting manipulated—you have to make sure that the situation is accurately presented to you;
- Ask for time before making the final decision—decisions made in haste often turn into regrets;
- Say no with conviction—however, without being impolite;
- Build up tolerance to the discomfort caused by the dissatisfaction of others—although you can contribute to the good of your friends and acquaintances, you are not obliged to ensure them a permanent state of happiness and contentment;
- Don’t go into too much detail—simply explaining the fact that your refusal is not malicious is sufficient;
- Don’t apologise when you are not responsible for saving a situation—some people may try to charge you with the burden of correcting the consequences of their actions, to save themselves the effort;
- Seek help, if needed—family, friends, acquaintances or professionals with experience in the field can guide you, with your consent, to make the best decisions.
The need for balance
Even at our workplace, we can run into similar problems. At work, in addition to the need to be liked by managers, colleagues or subordinates, there is also the fear that a refusal will be interpreted as a sign of incompetence or a lack of interest and involvement in the company’s projects. However, too much availability at work decreases employees’ performance because it leads to premature resource depletion by overcrowding the agenda.
A justified refusal to take on additional tasks or new responsibilities means a chance given to someone else to make themselves useful and noticed, which, ultimately, is also a form of supporting the team. In addition, declining proposals is an essential skill for maintaining balanced professional relationships.
When the requests we receive go beyond the scope of work obligations, we can say no at work by exploring some simple strategies:
- Pay attention to verbal and non-verbal cues in order to correctly understand the dimensions of the proposal;
- Analyse the proposal and decide if it fits your professional vision, long-term goals or provides career development enrichment;
- Acknowledge the opportunity;
- Seek peer support, especially when the thought of saying no causes stress and anxiety;
- Offer a thoughtful alternative or a reasoned, carefully-worded refusal;
- Be open to directing the opportunity to a more suitable person.
The need to be liked
Knowing how to say no is self-care. As much as we would like to please others, and regardless of our altruistic approach to people, we cannot give infinitely. We can’t always put ourselves in second place. We need to work on our own goals, recharge our batteries, take care of our health, and avoid being sad when those for whom we strive do not behave the same way.
When we are not concerned with social validation, our choices are rooted in the reality of our own beliefs and values. And then we can say no clearly, but with respect, offering other resources, options or even explanations, if necessary.
How can we do this? Here are a few options, easily adjustable according to people, subject, and context:
- State clearly what you have to say, in the form of a complete sentence, without apologising (“Thanks, but I can’t handle this/I can’t accept your invitation/I can’t come on Tuesday at 2:00 p.m.”);
- Answer in a vague but firm manner (“Thanks for asking, but it’s not possible.”);
- Come up with a referral (“I’m not available next week, but you can ask X.”);
- Consider postponing the proposal for a more favourable date (“It’s impossible for me this month, but please let me know if you will need help in the future, so I can organise in time.”);
- Express gratitude (“I appreciate you thinking of me, but I’m already very busy. I’m sorry I can’t help you this time.”);
- Make it clear that it’s nothing personal (“I’m not free on Friday, I’ve already promised Y that I’ll stop by.”);
- Offer a different kind of help (“The answer is no, but here is what I can do…”);
- Ask for time to assess (“I need to analyse the situation a bit. I’ll get back to you.”);
- Point out that a boundary has been crossed (“I’ve helped you with pleasure every time, I’m sure you can ask someone else now.”).
We need to learn the art of saying no without fearing that we won’t be accepted and appreciated without a big, emphatic “yes” coming out of our mouths. Other people’s opinions about us are ultimately subjective—the traits that some people like us for may seem undesirable to others. Impressions are relative, and happiness does not depend on the number of people who hold us in high regard.
Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in social work counselling.