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How do I overcome the fear of not being liked?

A reader asks our agony aunt how to tackle self-loathing and stop worrying what others think – especially her friends

How can I convince myself my friends like me? Is there a way to know for sure? I sometimes ask my roommate if she and our other friends hate me and even though I always feel bad about it afterwards, I can’t be okay with not knowing. I hate myself a lot. I do a lot of dumb shit, I’m very bad with people and I have a lot a lot of trouble trusting my gut. I try to think of reassuring things that I’ve read online, like “bad people don’t worry so much about being bad”, but I still always manage to wriggle my way out of validating myself. Because how can I trust that I’m good or that people like me when nothing out there in the world or in my brain is telling me that? There are wrong choices and someone has to be making them: how do I know it’s not me? How do I know I’m not wrong? I feel like if this is what it means to be a person I need to live alone at the top of a mountain and scream every morning for 45 minutes.

What if I’m just unlikable and obsessive and overwhelming and intense and unlovable and too much? What if I’m tricking people into liking me? I feel like any time I’ve been personable was a lie.

I know I base too many expectations on friendships in shows and movies but I don’t know what it means to be liked, to believe I am liked, and to be comfortable in myself.

You’re overly concerned with your goodness as though goodness is a fixed state of being, a place that you arrive at and then never have to leave. Give yourself a fucking break, dude. Humans are more confusing and complex than that. Let’s take you for example: you’re a good and earnest person who wants the best for their loved ones but treats themselves like shit. You love your friends and want them to be happy, but your constant self-flagellation and approval-seeking puts them in an uncomfortable position. LOOK HOW YOU’RE BOTH THINGS AND MORE ALL AT ONCE.

There is no pure and definite good. There’s no certainty, no little certificate that says YOU ARE LIKED. YOU HAVE ARRIVED. YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH NOW AND FOREVER. There is only where we are now and where we want to be. And where you are now fucking stinks. You’re miserable. You’re scared and depressed and you feel like an old bag of milk that someone left in the sun. 95 per cent of you is convinced that you’re a wretched, odd, unlikeable person. But I’m not talking to that majority right now. I’m doing what you’re unable to do: I’m totally ignoring that part and I’m talking to the other five per cent – the little part of you that thinks maybe there’s a way through this.

That five per cent is right. Hi five per cent. How you doing? Great weather we’re having, right?

Now buckle up. Because to get through this there are things that you are going to need to stop doing. First, you have to stop asking your friends and roommates to validate that they like you. It’s an unfair exercise that will only make you and them unhappy. It doesn’t work and you need to quit it.

Secondly, you need to forgive yourself for being an odd, dysfunctional, spaghetti-brained person. You are one of millions. And I promise you that it doesn’t mean you’re unlikeable – it just means to you need to work to find your own pathways in the world.

Thirdly, I want you to recognise the value of liking yourself. And to know that to like yourself you first need to tolerate yourself. To tolerate yourself you have to stop hating yourself. To stop hating yourself you need to do some seriously hard work. I would do this for you but I’m very busy painting my nails and eating a scone. So it’s on you. But you’ve got this. It’s a one step at a time, minute-to-minute kind of deal AND YOU CAN DO IT YOU BRAVE BRILLIANT EGG.

The most selfless thing you can do right now is be selfish. Other people are not going to save you. You’re going to save yourself: through slow, deliberate action you’re going to feel better. You have too much time to think, and your patterns of thinking are distorted and dysfunctional and will only ever lead you back to the same conclusion: “I am a milk bag who is not good enough”. So disrupt that thinking with some new ideas.  “I am good enough”. “I am healing what’s hurting”. “I’m fixing what isn’t working right”. “Where I am now is bad but where I end up will be good”. And you can’t just say it. You have to start acting like you give a damn.

“Do the work, ask for help rather than reassurance, and eventually you’ll be a technicolor badass, a strong and joyful noodle, a glorious and resilient egg”

Because when you act all doubtful and needful and desperate your personality has absolutely no room to grow. You pre-emptively shut yourself down and make yourself the wretched nobody that you’re scared of being. The sad prophecy fulfils itself and you feel like the worst person in any room. To be happy you need to let your personality stretch and run and dance and romp around a cornfield. Maybe you are intense and obsessive and too much for some people. Guess what? Me too. I found myself unbearable for a long time. I asked too much of other people and I burnt bridges doing it. But then I learnt better. I lived a little longer, I ate a tiny quiche, I found out what I loved, I learnt how to provide for myself and I fucking owned the brooding, anxious, noodle-head that I was.

And you can too.

I want you to get out more. On your own. I want you to go and see a movie or a gig or just for a long walk in a nice part of town. Make this a part of your routine. As you walk list the things that you know about yourself. What do you like doing? What are you objectively good at? What music makes you feel the most alive? What are you afraid of? What do you know you need to work on to be a happier person?

And then you just start doing it. You start digging. You dig for what makes you special. You tear up the years of violent self-shaming and you drag those little jewels up out of the dirt. You’re smart. You’re a good listener. You can make great macaroons. Whatever. You dig them up and you polish them and you commit to taking care of them and looking at them as often as you need to.

You just need to fill your time with doing better things – with learning, with running, with writing, with gardening, with working hard with a therapist if you can. You need to be strict in your interactions with your friends, too. You need to accept that if they didn’t want you there: you wouldn’t be there. If they didn’t like you: they wouldn’t spend time with you.

Ask these questions instead:

What do you like about them? Are they kind? Are they funny? What are they working on? What are they struggling with? Celebrate them. Ask them what’s new. Buy them a delicious health juice and for once don’t talk about your fears. Instead tell them what you’re planning, tell them you’re taking an evening class, or about a movie you went to see the night before.

There’s no great secret. You get busy. You do less harm and more good and you hold yourself accountable. You accept that these are the hard days, the sad days, the days when you don’t want to try. These are the black and white days. Do the work, ask for help rather than reassurance, and eventually you’ll be a technicolor badass, a strong and joyful noodle, a glorious and resilient egg.

So good luck milk-bag. I believe in you.