As soon as we can hold up our little-girl heads, those heads start getting filled up with ideas on how to be a good girl. Nice, helpful, selfless, generous, available, caring, generous, self-sacrificing—we learn quickly that it’s best to have no needs of our own; the better we are at having no needs, in fact, the more we’re valued, respected, liked, and loved. We learn that our needs should be fulfilled by taking care of other people’s needs; other people’s happiness should be enough to make us happy.
As a result, we get really good at focusing on other people, and giving others a positive experience. In short, being pleasing. We decide (without knowing we’re deciding) that being pleasing (likable) is the most important thing we can be and do, and thus begins our lifelong pursuit of likability.
It’s not our fault. Being liked is all about safety and survival, which according to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, is our primary drive, just above food and water. To be liked is to get to stay with the herd, and thus survive. Simultaneously, being liked provides belonging and self-esteem, which we also need. But as long as survival relies on being liked, it makes sense to pursue likability, whatever the cost.
Much has changed for women in these last decades, but our relentless pursuit of likability continues to run as a background program behind everything we do and say. Social media tells us, “You be you,” “Do you,” but what it leaves out is, “Do you—as long as you’re still likable!”
In the thick of the pandemic, my friend Ali met a colleague in town for the day. When he greeted her, despite coming straight from the airport, he wasn’t wearing a mask. Instinctively, Ali removed her own mask, so as not to “make him feel dangerous.” She wanted to ensure that he would enjoy his time with her, and ultimately, like her. Ali then lived with fear and self-recrimination for the following week, not knowing if she had made herself (and her family) sick. Just last week, a woman told me that she didn’t ask the flight attendant for a blanket because she didn’t want to be a “bother.” Once again, she wanted the flight attendant, whom presumably she would never see again, to like her. In a particularly poignant example, a dear friend’s nineteen-year-old daughter was date-raped this semester. She didn’t report the incident because she didn’t “want to be seen as a Debbie Downer,” and consequently disliked. She chose to stay likable and suffer in silence. Yes, we’ve come a long way as women, but we still abandon ourselves every day in small and profound ways, and still believe that safety and likability are a package deal.
It’s remarkable: we’re compelled to be liked, even when we don’t know or don’t like the people we’re trying so hard to get to like us, and even when being pleasing comes at the cost of our own wants and needs and basic well-being. Without knowing it, we function from inside a likability cage, living off the fumes of being well perceived while still expecting ourselves to create bold and authentic lives.
As women, we have a profound capacity for empathy and kindness, and these natural aspects should be celebrated. But we need to—also—include the parts of ourselves that might not be so likable or well received—so easy to enjoy. Ultimately, we need to welcome and be able to express the whole of us—the full miracle and catastrophe that we actually are.
We might not realize that we’re living inside the likability cage until we start to feel the exhaustion and dissatisfaction that results from relentlessly pursuing likability. Constantly managing ourselves; sweetening, distorting, and apologizing for our truth so as not to be labeled and dismissed, drains and stymies our fundamental energy: mental, emotional, physical, and sexual. It leaves us disconnected from our authentic self, and therefore from our primary vitality, which can only arise from our truth. We end up in a suspicious and adversarial relationship with ourselves, vigilantly monitoring, managing, and controlling what we want and need so as to make it work for other people. Still believing that the best way to take care of ourselves is to abandon ourselves.
At the same time, we imagine that someone or something else must open the door to this likability cage, to let us out so we can live as our authentic selves and not just our likable selves. What we don’t realize however, is that the door to the likability cage opens from the inside.
Like every change process, liberating yourself starts with baby steps: respectfully sending the food back that you didn’t order, saying (out loud) that you’re not okay (when you’re not okay), admitting that you don’t want what you should want. Shifting the question you’re asking, from What do they want and need from me?—to—What do I want and need from me? And furthermore, from What do they think of me—to—What do I think of me?
In truth, we’re frightened of the risks that come with not being so likable—with good reason. We don’t want to be labeled selfish, difficult, demanding, controlling, bossy, hysterical, needy, high-maintenance, angry, and all the rest of the judgments we encounter when we show up authentically. We don’t want to be dismissed and rejected. And yet, when we start experiencing the mountain-like strength and immeasurable self-confidence and clarity that come with choosing authenticity over likability, we realize that it’s worth the risk.
When your self-esteem no longer depends on being liked, and your truth is not a threat to your internal safety, then your relationship with yourself can heal—you can join your own team, get interested in your own experience, and welcome all of yourself to the table. This is real safety.
Give yourself a whirl—your authentic self. See what it’s like to shift your goal from being liked to being real. Remember, baby steps; you didn’t choose likability as your North Star overnight, and you won’t give it up overnight. That said, it’s important to celebrate when you tell the truth and don’t apologize for it. Each time you show up authentically, no matter the contents of the truth you tell, it’s always a big deal. It may feel scary at first and for some time, but it gets easier and (spoiler alert) it gets great. Eventually, telling your truth, without managing everyone else’s experience of it, becomes empowering and self-loving, like coming home to yourself after a long journey away. Experiment for yourself—see what it’s like to open the door to the likability cage and step out. Ask yourself, your own still small voice, how you want to live this, as Mary Oliver puts it, “one wild and precious life.”