Feminism: Why Do You Care?

[Content Note: Anxiety, Religion, Parenting, Sexism, Bullying, Rape, Violence]

An Emoter's Story

Ever since I was a small child, I've been seized with bouts of anxiety and trepidation based on the fact that someone, somewhere, very possibly doesn't like me. Maybe they don't like how I look. Maybe they don't like how I act. Maybe they don't like who I am or how I think. Maybe they just really, really strongly disagree with my opinions. But they don't like me and they're angry with me and oh my god, here comes the vomiting and the stomach cramps.

Parents and lovers have persistently failed to understand this response to what would appear to be a universal constant. After all, if you searched long and hard enough in this wide world, you would quickly find someone who doesn't like them. And you don't seem them getting all bent out of shape over it, do you? In their well-meaning, loving, kind way, they attempt to rationalize away the fear: Why do you care? Why does it matter what they think of you? Why can't you just ignore it?

I don't know why some people react in the way that I do and others react in other ways to the universal constant of being not-universally liked. I wish I did know; I have spent hours of my life fervently wishing to be Just Like Them, those lucky ones who seem not to care, who seem to be able to go days, weeks, months, or even years without evaluating what others think of them and being reduced to tears at coming up short. But I can tell you why I care. And maybe this will help someone else, like me, explain to another.

I care what others think of me because I was raised in an environment where the judgment of others affected my life more strongly than anything I could say or do. A man I'd never met and only seen once or twice in the mall decided what sorts of gifts I would receive each year, based on whether he judged me to be naughty or nice. My parents, who I loved dearly but rarely understood, monitored my behavior seemingly constantly and bestowed rewards and punishments based on their evaluation of my actions. A distant god, who I loved but had never actually seen, would one day take me to heaven and if my soul wasn't sufficiently clean from sin, then I would spend eternity separated from my family and burning in eternal torment. There was no appeal process for these judgments; no way to explain or justify or even prevaricate. The decisions handed down from God, from my parents, from Santa Claus were final and unflinching, and all too often came down to how likeable I was.

I care what others think of me because I was raised to understand that anyone older than me held authority over me as judge. I was repeatedly taught, by word and deed, that it wasn't just my parents who were in charge of me, but a seemingly endless line of adults. The pastors and Sunday School teachers were to be obeyed, the teachers and principals were to be followed, even the parents of the other children at church were to be deferred to as though they were proxies of my own parents. Some of these adults were capricious; some were outright cruel. Their natures had no effect that I could see on their fittingness to command me: if I could see their cruelty plainly, then surely my parents (so much wiser and more intelligent than I) could see it, and if they could see but still believed them to be appropriate guardians in their absence, how could I argue? The only way I could see to survive these adults was to be as likeable as possible.

I care what others think of me because I grew up in a world where being liked and being loved determined whether or not I was bullied. For more than a decade, I attended schools where I was bullied for speaking with "big words", for having glasses, for having frizzy "afro" hair, for being too skinny, for being too fat. I was pushed, punched, kicked, and my glasses were broken. I was ostracized and verbally abused. None of the adults in my life did anything to stop or prevent these actions, despite occurring over multiple schools and over multiple years. One year, in high school, a boy decided to harass me by following me around saying "penis, penis, penis" over and over again. Our teacher didn't tell him to stop when I complained; instead, he put us on a team together with two other people for a group project. The concept was literally beaten into me, through physical and verbal abuse, that what other people thought of me affected my physical and emotional safety. Being likeable was linked inextricably to survival.

I care what others think of me because I was raised in a religious order where the personal was public property. I went to a private Christian college -- one that was valued as being socially liberal and 'relaxed', not like those other colleges that we spoke of in hushed tones -- where minor accusations, no matter how unfounded, could result in your expulsion, in massive student debt, in complete destruction of your future career. When I failed to respond to the advances of my boyfriend's roommate, he falsely reported to the school authorities that I was sexually active with my boyfriend. My dorm mother -- a woman who was new to our school, and was in charge of over one hundred girls -- was assigned to secretly follow me around town to gather evidence of sexual immorality for expulsion. When I loaned my car to my boyfriend and it stayed at his apartment complex overnight, I was very nearly expelled permanently. The administration was against me, for I was perceived as being critical of authority; my saving grace was the friendship of a teacher, who threatened to go public if the school carried through on its threat to expel me. If the administration had liked me more, I'd never have been in danger; if my teacher had liked me less, I would have lost everything.

I care what others think of me because I live in a world where sexual violence against women is common. I've been raped on three different occasions, each time by men who claimed to love me but apparently didn't like me enough to not rape me. I've been betrayed by a counselor who reported my rape to school authorities in another attempt to get me expelled. I've been disowned by friends and family who didn't believe me when I shared with them my stories of sexual violence. The first week at my first serious job, a co-worker spitefully told me that I was "too nice" and that "girls like you get raped". I didn't tell him that I'd already been raped twice already; I couldn't have told him that I would be raped once again before the year was out. Sometimes I wish I had told him, that maybe he would have realized how hurtful his words were, but other times I wonder if he wouldn't just take that as confirmation of his assessment. It was from these men that I learned that being too nice was just as dangerous as not being nice enough.

I care what others think of me because I've lived through an abusive marriage. Whether my (ex-)husband was angry with me or not meant the difference in whether or not I was punched in the face, or pushed down a flight of stairs, or threatened or belittled or berated. I've lived through the emotional abuse of believing that I was the 'real' abuser for trying to protect myself -- that striking someone in an attempt to get away from being struck made me a bad person, as bad or worse than my actual abuser. Leaving my husband required leaving my religion and everything I had ever been taught or internalized about marriage, and when I was finally able to do so, it was only through the significant aid of others that I was able to get away. My being likeable -- or, at least, my being liked -- saved my life.

I care what others think of me because I move in a world where I am not advanced by merit. The difference between a meaningful job and a terrible one has always come down to whether or not my boss likes me. I have had bosses who thought I was hilarious and delightful and jovial and good, and these bosses have taken care of me through hard times and given me recognition for my work. I have had bosses who thought I was lazy and irritating and frustrating and bad, and these bosses have publicly screamed at me, berated me, given me heart palpitations, and made me fearful for my safety. The world I live in and the jobs I've moved through have persistently made it clear to me that my abusive bosses will not be countermanded from on high; when I have tried to work within the system, I have been told plainly to find a new job instead. I have learned through experience that my ability to make a living in a safe environment depends on my being liked by the 'right' people.

I care what others think of me because I have a body whose existence depends on the people around me. If I am not likeable, who will come to pick me up when I fall, who will bring me food when I am bed-ridden? Doctors who do not like me, who dismiss me as whiny or a waste of their time, fail to help me with my chronic pain. I bounced around for ten years between dozens of doctors and specialists before I found one who liked me enough to look closely at my x-rays and diagnose my problem. Nurses who do not like me argue with me about my medications, about how and when to apply them. Pharmacists who do not like me may deny me my medications. Administrators who do not like me may refuse me access to handicap parking, or may deny me access to elevators reserved for people with medical needs. I have experienced all these potentialities first-hand. Being liked means not being in pain, means having people I can depend on, means not hurting my body further.

I care what others think of me because I live in a world where I feel that I am constantly being judged by the people around me. If I come up short, if I'm found wanting, that judgment may be as innocuous as their personal dislike, or it may change my life in ways that I vehemently do not want. I may be hurt, raped, or killed if the wrong people decide they do not like me. I may not be able to bring my attackers to justice if I'm not judged sufficiently likeable, or if my past actions are evaluated to mean that I'm unworthy of justice. I am bombarded by advertisements that promise to make me more likeable (Prettier! Thinner! Sexier! Fuller eyelashes!) and underscore the vital importance of that constant likeability (Promotions! Relationships! Protection!). I care what others think of me because I have been plainly told to care, by almost everyone I have ever met from my first and earliest memories. If I have internalized the wrong message, then surely at least some of the blame should fall on the hundreds of parents, teachers, doctors, administrators, religious leaders, and employers who helped me to internalize that wrong message?

Perhaps not. I don't know.

In Margaret Atwood's short story collection "Wilderness Tips", she has a story called "Uncles". The story is about young Susanna, a little girl who craves male attention for the validation it confers.

   When she was nearly five, Susanna did a tap dance on a cheese box. The cheese box was cylindrical and made of wood, and decorated with white crêpe paper and criss-crossed red ribbons to look like a drum. There were two other cheese boxes with girls on them, but their decorations were blue. Susanna’s was the only red one. She was in the center, and she was also the youngest and the smallest. She had to be lifted up. In the back, behind, there were three rows of other girls who were not good enough to be up on cheese boxes.
   [...] These women, and these outfits, were said to be cute as a button, which was what was said about Susanna also. Susanna didn’t see what was so cute about buttons. She found them hard to do up. But she knew when something good was being said about her.
   It was the aunts who said it. They came with their husbands, the uncles, and sat in the front row, and hugged and kissed Susanna insincerely with their stiff arms and powdery faces. The uncles said little and did not hug or kiss. But Susanna wriggled away from the aunts and ran to be taken out of the auditorium in glory, swinging like a monkey between two of the uncles. It was the uncles that counted.

Susanna builds an entire career around being interesting, dazzling, and absolutely perfect -- only to break down when a male friend betrays her with a jealous tell-all memoir that paints her in the worst light possible.

   “Why did he do that to me?” she said. “I was always so nice to him.”
   “Tell a skunk about nice,” said Bill. “I warned you, if you’ll recall. Come on, buck up, you’ve had bad press before.”
   “Not that bad,” she said. “Not from a friend.”
   “Some friend,” said Bill. “Face it, Susie. He’s jealous of you.”
   “Why is he jealous?” said Susanna. “Men shouldn’t be jealous of women.”
   “Why not?” said Bill.
   “Because they’re men!” Because I’m the smallest, because I’m the youngest, she was thinking. Because they’re bigger.
   “Everyone in the universe is jealous of you, Susie-Q,” said Bill in a tired voice. 
   [...] When Emmett came home he found her in the darkened bedroom. She held on to him, and cried and cried.
   “Honey, what’s wrong?” he said. “I’ve never seen you like this.”
   “Do you think I’m a nice person?” she said, while he cradled her and stroked her hair. She on longer trusted herself to know how he felt about her.
   After a while she stopped crying and blew her nose. She asked him not to turn on the light; she knew her face was all puffy. “Maybe I’ve remembered my whole life wrong,” she told him. “Maybe I’ve been wrong about everyone.”
   “I’ll get you a drink,” Emmett said, as if to a sick child. “We’ll talk about it.” He patted her hand and left the room.

Not everyone is affected by the toxic elements in our culture in the same way. Certainly, I don't think everyone should be. There are people -- or, at least, there seem to be people -- who genuinely do not give a fuck what other people think of them, not if they don't respect those peoples' opinions. Frankly, that seems a lot more healthy than my approach.

This is not a post that attempts to justify why I care. It's an attempt to explain it.

I don't care because I should or because I want to care. I care because I've been told to care. I care because I've internalized that being liked, being likeable, is a survival trait that cruelly and callously separates the safe from the unsafe. I care because I want to be safe, I want the security that comes from being liked. I want smooth relationships, a good job, what health I can cobble together. I want approval and validation, not to "get ahead" but to stay safely in one place, without being jostled or torn down. Like Susanna, I just want to be liked. That is why I care.

It just so happens that, at least for me, once I started caring, I found I couldn't turn it back off. 


RedSonja said...

To a fellow emoter, this a really powerful post. It probably doesn't hurt that I've lately been trying to get to the bottom of my own need to be liked.... In particular, the bit about your parents and other adults who make (apparently) arbitrary decisions and judgments. Wow.

For what it's worth, I like you, and send you ALL the hugs if you want them!

Elodie Under Glass said...

The part with "caring about what your boss thinks of you as a very necessary method for your safety and survival" is a huge one for me, and it's something that I struggle to explain to people who tell me not to stress about my work. My current boss has even scolded me for "being so American" in my work ethic, i.e. feeling so tightly wound and insecure that I end up treating all work mistakes like a life-or-death situation where his displeasure will kill me. However, I previously had an abusive and a not-so-abusive boss - both temperamental, mercurial, difficult men who weren't very good managers and kept toxic workplaces. As I had just graduated, I had no previous work experience to compare it to. I was very poor, and the workplaces did not offer insurance because I didn't have a contract, so it was very necessary for my bosses to be pleased with my work - if I wanted food and medicine and shelter. To cap it all off, my former state has at-will termination (dismissing an employee with no warning or severance, for any reason the employer cares to make up.) So I really did get trained to behave a certain way, and it really did affect my work performance negatively, complete with terrible skippy-heartbeat and shaky-hands syndromes and throwing-up-at-work. This really resonated with me; thank you for writing about it.

chris the cynic said...

I like you. I like you a lot.

There's not a lot less I can say, I wish I could hug you and make everything better, but alas there's only part of the equation that I can pull off. I offer you hugs, if you would like them.

It's an attempt to explain it.

Pretty sure it's a successful attempt.

Nathaniel said...

Damn. This post gives me something to chew on. I'm one of the Lucky Ones you mentioned: I don't give a fig about some random person's opinion.

Thanks for some view from the other side.

Will Wildman said...

I mostly trend towards the 'who cares about strangers' opinions', but there are aspects of life where I don't (I've been thinking about that lately; about how threats that I haven't actually encountered for over a decade still shape my thinking) and this makes so much sense. It's kind of terrifying to imagine living through so many environments where that's always the case. This is a good dose of perspective.

(Meanwhile I'm thinking "How could there be people who do not like Ana this does not compute", but that's not quite the topic you were on anyway.)

chris the cynic said...

(Meanwhile I'm thinking "How could there be people who do not like Ana this does not compute", but that's not quite the topic you were on anyway.)

I have similar thoughts.

Maartje said...

Jedi-hugs to all those who care, and anyone who cares about a person who cares.

I'm another person who cares about what strangers think. I didn't start out the most charismatic of kids (shy, bookish, always in my own head unless I came out and said something that scared people) and I often felt the negative effects of that. My younger brother was and is VERY charismatic, and the same teacher who hit me gave him presents, the same people who thought I was too intelligent for my own good loved how clever he was, and he just fell in with people much more easily than I did.

My mother used to be very worried about my future, and tell me that a) being likeable is the MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER AND NOTHING CAN COME CLOSE! and b) that I was NOT likeable and would never BE likeable so I had to hide myself and not ever show anyone what I thought, because faking likeability was my only option.

Now I'm almost thirty and I can tell she meant well and loved me, but this approach really screwed me over in many areas. It's not good to be fake with your friends. It's not good to be fake with your husband. It's not good for business either - I need to impress my clients with my expertise, but I keep hearing the same old refrain in my head of 'nothing YOU are good at will ever be important, and you shouldn't like yourself or be proud of yourself or even mention that you're good at stuff, because it will remind people of how unlikeable you really are.'

On good days, I can manage to be unaffected by people's opinions. But on bad days I either desperately want to be liked or want the world to fuck off and leave me alone forever.

redsixwing said...

I like you a whole bunch, and I like your writing (regardless of whether I agree with it; your craft is obvious and superb) and I understand where you are coming from.

I too am one of those people who worries horribly if someone doesn't like me, and who treats the dislike of a coworker or (worse) a boss like the End Of The World, because I have had bosses who did not like me, and they routinely threw me to the wolves.

This is playing on some of my other Stuff. I apparently need to think about it some more.

Thank you.

MotherDemeter said...

I relate to what you say a lot. I certainly do care quite often, but not always. I grew up similarly to you, fundamentalist Christian home, bullied in school. I think what was different for me is that at some point in high school I reached my limit of fucks to give, if you will. I was brought low, depressed and felt like i had lost every last piece of myself (partly teen angst but it was the shittiest time of my life regardless). But then I felt kind of free, like no one else could possibly hurt me anymore so nothing mattered. It isn't true of course, and I certainly don't feel that way now, but it gave me a bit of armor I can wear if I need to. Many call me cold, aloof or snobby unless they get to know me well. It is helpful in many ways, but I think it rebuffs a lot of people who might otherwise like me or be more helpful to me.

I care about what people think of me, but only if they think something about me that is not true or that falls outside my ethical standard. If someone hates me because of my hair style, or clothes, or because I am pagan, or they don't like how I raise my kids, I couldn't care less. If someone doesn't like me because they think I am rude, or a liar or that I cheat on my spouse, I care a lot. I don't want to be thought of as being an immoral person (by my standards) so if my behavior there is wrong I will try to fix it. And I care about lies being spread about me for the reasons you explain - what people think of you can have a lot of power over your life.

With strangers or acquaintances, I tend to give up quickly if someone doesn't like me. I avoid them as much as possible and try to mitigate confrontation so they don't have cause to dislike me more, but I don't have it in me to try to change their mind.

Where this changes is when I create something. I try not to care if people like it or not, but I really do. I know I paint and draw for my own pleasure only, but I still want people to like it and fear very much that they don't. I think because that one way that I am vulnerable and open about myself when I am otherwise very guarded and private. Rejection of that sort is quite painful

Lonespark said...

Beautiful synchronicity, this. I was just thinking on how I need to practice The Fine Art of Not Giving a Fuck. In regards to work. And marriage. And childrearing. And depressive thoughts generally. And...

Plus, in line with the discussion in another thread, I have two modes: Doormat and Nuke. Carefully calibrated Reasonable Caring seems to take waaaay too many spoons.

Lonespark said...

Oh, wait. I think maybe that wasn't what I meant to say about the bi-modal FEELINGS distribution. More like the two modes are "Fuck you, I do what I want," (which often applies to strangers, and applies to people I do care about when I'm depressed/tired/cranky/really sick of their crap) and "OMG paralyzed by the idea of screwing up and/or provoking negative reactions."

depizan said...

Our society teaches people in so many different ways that they have to care what other people think, then turns around and periodically has the gall to either ask why people care or tell them they don't need to. It practically amounts to gaslighting.

And the further down on the societal ladder you are and/or the fewer privileges you have, the more you have to care. A person with a professional job can probably pull out hard evidence if they want a raise or want to contest a claim that they don't work hard enough. A fast food worker or retail sales associate, not so much. A person who owns a home -hires- people to fix it, a renter has to hope their landlord either fixes everyone's stuff or likes them well enough to fix theirs.

The people who don't give a fuck have to find other ways to manipulate circumstances.

Makabit said...

Another one for whom it resonates. I grew up in an entirely different religious culture, but the bullying at school rings a perfect bell. I was different, I was wrong, and a long line of well-meaning adults tried to show me the error of my ways in standing out, because if I were more like the other kids, they would leave me alone.

I think that the worst of it was that what they were telling me to do had no moral aspect. If they'd been telling me I should be nicer to some of the other kids who weren't in the bullies' group and form allies, or that I should be more assertive, that might have been something. But it was all about changing who I was, accepting that talking weird and reading books was going to get me attacked, and pretending to be like my attackers so they would...not appreciate me, not learn to like me better, but simply allow me to go down a hallway without being mocked and assaulted.

One of the best things anyone ever said to me just came a couple of years ago. My boss, at a teaching job I was about to quit because it was triggering my depression to unmanageable heights--I was so messed up I was losing weight, which is NOT a normal response for me--said, "I think you would be a better teacher if you were more authoritarian and meaner, but that would do violence to who you actually are. It wouldn't be natural to you. A job is not worth going against your essential being like that."

Like, holy hell. If someone had said that to me when I was eleven..."Your classmates would like you more if you were less bookish and more savvy about pop culture, but is it worth it?" that would have been a lot more useful than "Adapt or don't come crying to me."

FrenchRoast said...

I identify with a lot of what you wrote. Caring too much is part of the reason I left teaching after this past school year--I wrote a student up for completely losing it and running out of the class after I told him to put his phone away. His mother said I wrote him up because I was a "racist b*tch", and threatened to sue the school even though running out of class OR having a cellphone out=automatic write up. I was lucky--after interviewing other students (of varying ethnicity) in the class about what had happened, my principal backed me up, and the mom backed off. My fate relied on the students they chose to interview, and how they perceived me.

But even though/probably because it was a completely unfounded accusation, it broke me, because this random person I'd never met before and who I harbored no ill will toward wanted to get me fired. There was nothing I could do to make her like me--and all I wanted was for her son to do well in my class. Even after that incident, that was all I wanted--but the joy of teaching completely left me. It's hard to love doing something when you're constantly scared you're going to say/do something and have it misinterpreted, or feel like you can't reprimand a student because you've already been accused of being racist and what if the admin changes their mind, or what if some other parent tosses another baseless accusation your way. The stress of that was unbelievable, and it was only slightly lessened when a couple of other teachers told me it wasn't the first time that particular parent had made that accusation.

Teachers are supposed to be aware of and catch EVERYTHING going on, and you just can't do that. You can't really care and do everything you have to do. Not with 30+ kids in every class, 7 classes a day, less than an hour of prep per day for 4 different classes to be taught, plus grading, overseeing extracurriculars (definitely not a voluntary thing, btw), professional development, and I had a 45 minute commute on top of that. Something has to give, and I didn't want to drop any of those balls, but you need to be a superhuman to do all of those things all the time without turning into a crying mess. It's impossible to do them without making some parent angry because their child failed a test that they had a detailed study guide for that we went over in class. And...I couldn't handle parents getting angry at me for things that are Not My Fault. I also couldn't handle the idea that I might miss something important that a kid needed me to catch for their sake(depression, bullying, abuse, etc.)--I tried to deal with what I encountered the best I could, but I'm sure I missed things.

Ultimately, I care because it matters. It matters what other people think of me. In situations where other people have no power over me, I care because it can matter for them. In the rare situations where neither of us is affected by what the other thinks, then it's true, I don't care as much. But I'd say it's completely logical and understandable to care what others think.

Also, Ana, you are awesome.

Silver Adept said...

This does sound familiar. Although I came at it less as "I have to be liked!" as a younger person, but instead basically shelled up and said "None of the people here are really worth getting to know, because they won't like me." (With retrospect, and a certain amount of stubborn persistence, some of them did break through and were great friends.

Now in my adult life, where there isn't a safety net, I've got basically two defensive postures against new situations - "Ohgod please please don't let me do anything stupid or embarrassing or they'll all hate me forever." Or "With this icebreaker/conversation hook, I can Rule The World!" Option one tends to dominate. I'm working on expanding my repertoire of useful props so that I can switch to option two faster.

And I definitely feel the fear that accompanies the boss not liking you regardless of what you're doing. I still think I'm employed because the boss that went on an seemingly-uncharacteristic mean streak at the end of zir career simply decided to stop caring at a certain point and was phoning it in. Since reason, logic, and trying to do what zie wanted had all failed, the only thing left to do was cower in fear and hope that I didn't piss anybody off to the point where that boss, or the boss that came afterward, would fire me.

How much worse it must be for someone who has it repeatedly confirmed in violent ways that the opinion of others is more important than anything, including the truth. Solidarity hugs for those of us still here, relatively functional, and flipping off all the things that hurt us (when we're alone, because, y'know, Consequences).

Thomas Keyton said...

This sounds familiar to me as well, although the times I worry about not being liked I don't think it comes with a "I MUST MAKE THEM LIKE ME" response - whether that's resilience or apathy I don't know.

Hugs for everyone who wants them.

bekabot said...

Sucker punch:

1) People spend weeks/months/years/decades schooling you in a specific branch of lore: to believe a certain thing, to act in a certain way, or both. For the purposes of this argument, content does not matter. Like Makabit says, there's no moral aspect to it. You might be taught to believe that the moon is made of peppermint ice cream or that it's important to always be able to walk around with a Sevres teacup balanced on your head; the more absurd the exaction the better, because the goal of the exercise is to tire you out and wear you down and get you to take orders. That's not the primary purpose of the training, it's the only purpose of the training.

2) At length — and, depending on how stubborn and/or obtuse you-the-subject are, your indoctrination may indeed take weeks or months or years or decades — you do indeed become well-versed in the branch of lore in which you have been schooled. Your knowledge of said branch of lore becomes one of the central organizing principles of your life; it ends up tinting/inflecting most of what you think and just about everything you do. You might expect that at this point your many instructors would reward themselves with a collective clap on the back and congratulate themselves for a job well done, wouldn't you? You would? Silly you: you would be wrong.

3) The people around you notice that you have something on your mind. The fact that whatever you've got on your mind (because, remember, content does not matter) is only what they've spent years and years and years and years and years and years and years putting there does not impress them. They know themselves best and they know intimately how little worth listening to they are, and they simply cannot believe that a strong-minded person like yourself could have been so affected by anything they had to say. (Even though they said it, like, a couple of hundred thousand times, occasionally reinforcing their words with heavier fare.)

4) So, of course, eventually you get asked, and maybe asked more than once, how it is that you're either so needy/whiny/clingy/hungry-for-validation, or so morose/sarcastic/uppity/aloof and frantic-to-be-left-alone. (Champion-level targets can manage to be quizzed on both these bases simultaneously. I've seen it happen.) You might anticipate at this point that your inquisitors desire an honest reply and you might even try to furnish them with one — but, once more, silly you: you would be sailing off-course, you would be making a mistake. Do not attempt to go this route; be advised: these people don't want a response and never wanted a response. They're uninterested in anything you've got to say. What they desire is what they always desired — a show of deference. Temperaments vary: for many years I've been thankful to a God in Whom I believe, but Whom I do not trust, that shows of deference come easily to me. I've had plenty of opportunity to notice how hard life can get for people whose instincts instruct them to balk.

(It's not like I imagine I'm telling anybody in this community anything they don't already know. It's just that, in my own personal life, I've often found it helpful to have things plainly spelled out: this is my own attempt at plain language.)

Isator Levi said...

For my part, I know that for most of my life, I truly didn't care what other people thought, and acted like it.

For a while, it was due to the autism; didn't really notice or understand what or why people noticed anything about me.

As I got older, I became more... spiteful. I still acted unfiltered, but was discerning enough to see the reactions of others, and I got off on playing off of them.

Even when there was some trouble in the last few months of secondary school over some... unfortunate comments I had made, I wasn't really concerned, because I had the means to keep it from hurting me.

Then I got two years in college with hardly any other company but myself (not so much for driving people away as for never going near them). It turned out I wasn't a very pleasant person to spend that much time with.

So now I endeavor to care what others think (albeit carefully selected others) because it helps... moore me outside of myself, I suppose.

Yes... not caring might not have mattered so much if I were less inclined to somewhat unpleasant, miserable behaviors, but I'm not, so I must.

I've been a much more well-adjusted person since then, I think.

Aidan Bird said...

I can really relate to this. I tried for years to get my family to like me as I am. To get old friends to like me as I am. I kept breaking down because they wouldn't. They said they loved me, but they didn't Like me - especially since I wasn't who they wanted me to be. I reached a point where I gave up. It's like something in me just broke, and I had to find a way to heal and just let go. It was awful and hard.

I still try to find ways for people to like me. Sometimes I try too hard. Like when I was at the university, I tried so incredibly hard to be likeable to my professors because as one of the three girls in the program, I needed their support to get into the undergrad research projects so I can be better prepared for grad school. I need them to like me so I can receive recommendations from me. I don't know if I succeeded however. I do this at work as well; being extra funny, offering to give coworkers rides if needed, bringing in some tea to share with them, folding peace cranes to bright up their days -- because I need them to like me so I can keep my job.

I got myself to stop fretting about my family, but I can't seem to stop with anything else. But then, I think with the family it was that I gave up. And the worst part was the realization that if it weren't for two very nice friends who like me, I could have been homeless, living out of my car with no where to go. Those two friends saved me this summer, and it's all because I go out of my way to try to be good friends to them. To be liked.

This is such an harsh world we live in.

Thank you for writing this, Ana.

Asha said...

Let me start by saying: I like you very much, Ana. And if I don't like everyone, I respect the hell out of everyone here because nice, civil conversation is awesome.

This is very familiar. I also join in the 'raised fundamentalist and bullied' background, and the fear of being disliked still follows me. Being disliked is why I lost my first real job after college, and being liked is why I have been able to leave and come back to the one I'm at. Being liked means people who are terrible team players can get away with murder at my current job, and being disliked is why good workers are ignored.

I remember feeling very lied to, as a kid. I was repeatedly told "Be yourself and people will like you for who you are." When that person was very bookish and shy... well. That went over like a lead canoe. I had to learn how to be likeable, after using being unlikeable to scare off bullies. That was my major defense. When I was bullied, I told everyone and everything, and I was big enough that I could be menacing. Yet the worst was being ostracized because my defense kept away any potential friends.

Which really, really sucked. I couldn't depend on the safety of a group (I had that briefly, which made life so much better) and the people I was told I could trust to like me- kids my age, my youth group at church- were cruel and dismissive and I just didn't understand why because I had thought I was doing everything right.

Being liked IS important, and god I know how terrifying it is when you don't think people like you and they'll make your life miserable and you can't understand what you're doing wrong. I eventually created a mask to wear, one that I've worn so long now I'm not sure who I used to be. My silly cat girl is hard to take seriously, but people like her so I feel safe, even if it still chafes in spots.

Thanks for writing this, and pointing out that no matter what myths we're told, being liked is important and a real thing to be afraid of.

KNicoll said...

I think ... I think I seesaw madly between extremes on things one.

I build a shell out of, you know, "Honey badger don't care." It's not terribly reliable, though I'm getting, I don't know, "better"? Ten years ago conversations on the internet would routinely have me sobbing, dropping my laptop on my husband's lap and wailing, "Please explain these people to me! I don't know what's going on!" Because they were sounding like they didn't like me. I don't do that anymore.

And at some level, there's a part of me that thinks not caring is a kind of moral failure. That - effectively - writing those people off as people to give a damn about is something makes me a less "good" person. "Good" people care about everyone, right? It's an excellent way of beating myself up for engaging in a little self-care.

And on the flip side of all that, of course, when there's someone who matters to me, I'm kind of terrified of their disapproval.

mildred_of_midgard said...

Is this ever true. I was lucky enough to have a Don't Give a Damn personality by nature. I was lucky enough to have an upbringing that was mixed between "pleasing other people is the most important thing in life, literally decides where God sends you on Judgment Day" and "you need to be assertive so you can succeed in life," so that I was able to choose which one I liked (hint: it was the second one). I've been lucky enough to have had first teachers and then bosses (we're hiring software engineers, if you're interested) who respond to me purely based on merit. No one's ever reacted to me violently. And even so, even confident, individualist me, when put on the spot, I've been successfully socially conditioned with a knee-jerk politeness reaction that I don't like and am trying to de-condition.

I've been lurking here for a while, because your posts are intelligent and thoughtful and make me think. Keep it up!

Tigerpetals said...

I care too, and that's exactly why. I've never been in an environment where it didn't matter if anyone liked me, or if I have it's been so little I wasn't aware of it. Of course sometimes it seems I don't, or people pretend that I don't when they want to tell me off about it, partially because of my Asperger's. And partly because of my Asperger's, I often don't notice what people think. But when I do, especially when someone sees fit to tell me, especially with family that deliberately disrespects when I say no or decide I don't care about one specific thing, and make fun of me for complaining about their disrespect on top of calling me controlling and malicious and arrogant, it hurts and I can't get rid of it. Ever. It could be years and it will still hurt.

Consciously, I know that what I want and need is respect. If people respect you, that means they treat you right regardless of whether or not they like you, because they see you as human, as worthy. (At least that's how I conceive of respect, especially maybe because I've been taught that even if someone who has authority is unpleasant to me, I should respect them. Though in these cases, respect means deference, obedience, and doing what it convenient and likable, not seeing someone as human. And it's related to the whole idea of making oneself likable so others won't be unpleasan to you.)

I've gotten to think that liking someone, especially if the someone is a woman or girl - or other categories - is just a way of not having to see someone as permanently human, just when convenient. When you like them. Well of course I think I can like someone and always see them as a human, or so I hope with all the practice I've had at trying to see people as human even if I don't like them. But I'm wary of trusting that people who like me actually respect me and won't treat me badly if I do or say something they don't like. Or even when I'm doing something they do like. And obviously, acting like I deserve respect makes me unlikable. It's not given to me and I haven't been able to earn it, either.

And of course part of what goes into these mental and emotional processes is that I find it really hard to make myself likable, except the stuff I seem to do by accident, in that I'm quiet and don't always know what's going on under the surface, which other people gladly take as submission, obedience and cooperation. Sometimes even they know it's just that I don't know, and they refuse to tell me when I ask. Well I think it's hard on everyone to try to make themselves likable. I can see it all the time. But I seem to be less successful at it, from my view and from other people's view when they aren't feeling like the one everybody hates and values less than me. I do try in some ways, and hard, but there are some things I just don't do, or did and won't anymore (into this latter category fall shaving my legs, blow-drying my hair, putting stuff in it for styling that isn't about conditioning,moisturizing, and makeup. Too much work, too little return. And it's damn uncomfortable too.)

Of course in my case, it helps that even though I don't get along with my parents, they do want me to live in their house. It's part of their beliefs and customs. Other parts suck, like their not wanting me to be independent of them in the first place, but at least they don't seem to want to kick me out.

Tigerpetals said...

Of course! The people who tell you that you don't care about random things, and say it to tell you you're morally wrong for not caring. I've had that happen. And it's an excellent way to make someone who cares feel bad, so people can just pretend to think you don't care to get that reaction.

Tigerpetals said...

Yes, I care much more if someone thinks I violate my own standards than if they think I dress badly. Though if they assign some moral value or something to the way I dress, it does bother me. At least if they say it. I couldn't care less if I don't notice, but sometimes people love to shove things in my face like they're on a righteous mission.

Tigerpetals said...

Yes. The people higher up don't have to care what those below think, which is what's behind the advice that tells you that anyone who doesn't like you just doesn't know what they're missing and doesn't deserve your effort. It's a description of how privileged people behave, with the expectation that if you don't behave that way you don't deserve to be happy or healthy and safe.

Tigerpetals said...

Yes! Well, I'm not sure about 'essential being,' but it would definitely have been healthier for people to just say why people have negative reactions without saying I or you should change. As long as it means what it seems to say, of course. I'm not sure I would have reacted well to what your boss said, because I don't like being told that it would go against my being to do something I needed to do to improve my performance. I think I prefer getting to decide that myself. But when it comes to being liked in general and how people treat you based on that, yes.

Tigerpetals said...

I get lucky sometimes and my being quiet or unsure or unaware of what's going on is taken as deference. Other times it is deference, as long as I can obey without making a big show of how happy I am to do so. But I sometimes wish it wasn't so hard to pretend I was happy to have to submit, because I can't do it well. Or at all.

Lily said...

I care what others think of me because I was raised in an environment where the judgment of others affected my life more strongly than anything I could say or do.

Being disabled all my life, this really, really hit home. I'm still frustrated at 23 because I'm not as well-adjusted socially as people my age are, but that's partly because I'm afraid of being disliked because I have CP and hyperacusis. (Info here: http://www.hyperacusis.net/hyperacusis/what+is+hyperacusis/default.asp) Mostly the hyperacusis. My family really, really pushes me to be normal. It's just hard to deal with, especially at this time of year.


me said...

I really relate to this post. And I'm tired of people telling me to just "grow a thick skin" and "stop caring so much what others think". Gee, what a novel idea, maybe I wouldn't have to have negative emotions if I just decided to stop having them! Of course I've thought of that. The reason people get upset, rather than just deciding to not feel hurt, it is that it's not that easy.

Scylla Kat said...

Yes, I've been on both sides of this. I remember having a time where "I'm going to have people shit on me, anyway, so I may as well do as I like, and then I won't feel like I'm lying to the people who DO care about me," and I've had times where "My well-being is dependent on what people think of me, so I can't blow it off--and what I think comes way far behind that." I understand the threats, the privilege (when you don't have to care), the powerlessness (when you do). Much of therapy has been balancing their needs with mine, keeping boundaries that are healthy, and recognizing when there's no winning and I should just get the hell out. I totally get you. Thanks for writing.

Karen said...

Dear Ana--
Thank you for explaining this so well. I understand myself and others better now that I've read your excellent post. In our rather extroverted culture, likeability, often based on someone's most shallow characteristics, holds frightening power over our lives. Because culture can be so insidious, it's easy to forget this.

Samantha C said...

I'll try to keep this short because I don't mean to thread-jack, but I find it really interesting coming from something of the opposite side of the coin. My mother is very concerned about how people see her - she's the kind of person who throws cocktail parties where she, as hostess, has to dress up nicer and use the good plates and do everything right. She taught me to never arrive at a party without bringing something, to dress to impress, to be sociable and polite to all your guests.

Which are good things. But even as a kid/teen, more than a few friends looked at me funny, if gratefully, for always having something to bring to the "party" that was just us hanging out watching movies.

She also once grounded me for scratching an itch on my leg in public since it looked 'wrong', and bribed me not to ask my interviewer for a college any questions about whether I would LIKE the school, but focus on getting them to like me. She forbade me from telling anyone when I left her faith, because the people at temple who we NEVER EVEN SAW outside, would think she was a bad mother for "letting" me leave.

The number of arguments we had over the years about why in any world I would want to put the effort in of wearing a skirt and heels or not talking about myself or setting the table Correctly, when I had plenty of people who like me just fine for who I really am, and when I wouldn't WANT to be around people who only like me if I'm doing it right...

I know this isn't the topic of the post, and it's sure not like I don't have anxiety about being liked by the people who I do want to like me. But I feel like I took it to the opposite extreme, and I still bristle to some extent that I'm not allowed to just wear jeans and t-shirts to work, because why should anyone care?

depizan said...

Sounds like it's all part of the same package, really. Though with "doing it right" partially subsituted for "being liked."

(Also, I have no idea why people can't just work in jeans and t-shirts. Clearly a mass revolt of casual wear people needs to happen!)

Tigerpetals said...

I've had those types of arguments so often with I think every female member of my family. Though right now it's more me taking it while still refusing to go along.

The only thing I learned was obedience, but I too still bristle at things like not being able to dress casually for everything.

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