I’m not a likeable person. It took me a long time to understand that. Even longer still to accept it.
For years, I couldn’t fathom why. I’m a decent person. I try to be good to people. I listen, with genuine interest, when people talk. I care. I do my best to help. But turns out, all this is not enough to be the most popular person or even moderately popular person in the room. I have my flaws, just like everyone else. But I’ve tried to the best of my abilities to not hurt people. I’ve apologized when I have. I always took that as a yardstick to test myself against: I’m not doing bad things so I’m a good person. If I’m a good person, other people will like me. Right? Wrong.
No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t hack it as a fun, carefree, chilled-out person to hang with. I remember having a rousing discussion at university about a contemporary political issue and on my way home, receiving a text from a friend who hadn’t even been there with “sincere advice” to not be so “vociferous” when debating. The words evolved over the years –nerd, loser, teacher’s pet, angry, opinionated, stubborn, loner, bitch. The message stayed the same: I’m not the first person you invite to a party.
I’d make friends, I’d mingle for a while, but eventually, I’d fall out with people or I’d find myself drifting away. With time, I found myself becoming self-conscious when introduced to new people, knowing already that I wasn’t going to make any real friendships, none that would last anyway.
If you’ve struggled with being unpopular or falling out with friends, it hurts. Because as humans, we’re hardwired to seek out company. It’s biology, it’s survival instinct at its most primal: there is safety in numbers. Rejection stings, FOMO is real. If you go looking for advice from the Internet, it’s couched in gentle words that suggest you’re not intentionally making these ‘mistakes’. But boy oh boy, you must be doing something wrong for people to not like you. Maybe you’re too nitpicky, too bold, too vocal, too cold? Tone it down, sweeten it up, soften yourself.
And what if you can’t fix it? Don’t you still deserve to be happy? You do.
If I want something, I don’t see why I shouldn’t go for it. If I get upset about something, I don’t see why I should hide the fact. If I’m denied something, I’ll accept it but I need to know why. People have mixed reactions to this. Friends admire me for fighting for what I love. Well-wishers think I take on problems that aren’t mine. A mentor jokes about my hero complex and the need to save the world. Critics observe a tendency to force preexisting simmering conflicts into the open because I ‘enable’ others to be ‘more like me’.
All of these assessments are valid. The irony is that what makes me a good friend also makes me not very friendly. And to get to the ‘good friends’ stage, people need to go through some time being friendly. See the catch?
But why does it happen? Why do some people coast through life, instantly connecting with everyone they meet? And why do others, like me, go through life with a furrowed brow and some irritation gnawing at the edges of who we are?
Because there are two kinds of people: people that choose honesty and people that choose harmony. I want to say that one is not better than the other. I don’t write this from a place of value judgment. Human relationships and society need both honesty and harmony. It would be ideal if we could all be both, all of the time. But it’s rarely that simple, is it?
Given what we know about the human need to be liked and maintain relationships, most folks tend to prioritize harmony over honesty. Again, I must emphasize, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Harmony-seeking people want to keep things simple, not ruffle feathers, and tend to avoid conflict. They tend to be more easy-going, agreeable, and peaceable. It’s not to say that people who prioritize harmony over honesty are passive: it is just that they choose to put the greater good over the individual experience.
On the other hand, people that prioritize honesty over harmony are more vocal about what they’re thinking and feeling, and because human experience is so varied, voicing differences means inviting conflict. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. It is what it is. Honesty-seekers tend to shelve comfort in favor of transparency. They’ll say the embarrassing thing, they won’t adhere to tradition for the sake of it, and they’ll ask you what your problem with them is. They can’t ‘make peace’ – they tend to fight for it. They don’t avoid conflict – they embrace it.
And so, I was that kid. And now I’m that adult. The one that never quite fits in anywhere. I tell friends when their partners are not good for them. I talk to my parents like teammates and we’re honest to a fault. I don’t do well at family gatherings when politics and religion come up. If a colleague interrupts me, I check them and ask to be given my time. I tell friends when they’re being unfair to other friends. I pick sides and find myself on the outside more often than not. And I no longer mind the outside.
It’s taken a lot of growing up for me to realize that somewhere in the middle of the spectrum you find a blend of harmony and honesty when you start adopting practices like discretion, expressing your truths gently, not seeing every conflict as a fight and above all else – being okay with who you are.
Harmony-seekers will always be more popular. They’ll always be easier to like. Majority culture exists everywhere. At home, at the workplace, with friends. If you don’t naturally belong to the majority, you’ll find yourself having to work twice as hard as others to make your way in. Don’t. You don’t need to perform for applause.
I have learned that trying to suppress my honesty is going to suffocate me. Living authentically is the only way to have peace. Not caring what people think and caring about people don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I am discovering ways to give without giving in. It’s a good idea to voice your truths in a way that doesn’t necessarily always challenge others’.
You can be assertive without being aggressive. This takes a LOT of work because you’ve to learn to rebrand yourself without diluting your truth. Show people you mean no harm and are just being good to yourself and not bad to them. Giving people a chance is possibly the biggest lesson I’ve learned. Other people are capable of appreciating honesty too! Give people room to express themselves and respond to you. Don’t assume you’re fighting/ disliked unless you’re told so.
And most importantly, understand that it’s okay to want to be liked. But you have to remember that it cannot come at the cost of your identity and authenticity. Chasing after likeability is a trap. You’re going to end up giving up pieces of your core and while there’s nothing wrong with working on yourself, it can’t be because you want people to like you. It’s got to be so you can become someone you like.
At the end of the day, I have simply accepted that not everyone is going to like me. We can’t control people and make them do things. And we shouldn’t want to! The way you value your agency, you must respect it for others. Relationships that start with people-pleasing are based on fear; real bonds are safe spaces.
And remind yourself: the right people aren’t going to like you; they’re going to love you.
Featured Artwork: https://dribbble.com/milicas