Okay, confession time: I definitely struggle with feeling like people don’t actually like me and are pretending.
Yes, really. Yes, even my friends.
I have this persistent fear that people don’t actually want to be my friend and are just being nice to spare my feelings.
I’ve given a lot of thought to this over time, and as best I can tell, this part of my issues likely stem from the fact that I’m perfectly capable of being pleasant to people even if I don’t like them. I’ll admit it — I’ve been nice to people who were annoying the heck out of me.
Sometimes when this happens, it’s because of professionalism. I used to work in retail and food service — and I can’t tell you how many times someone was being an absolute monster, and I couldn’t call them out on it, lest I risk losing my job (and by extension, my home and safety). So I’d have to be as polite as I could be while rectifying the situation. I was so good at defusing angry customers and difficult situations, I would sometimes become their favorite employee. The Karens and Todds (Karen’s husband, who coaches football) of the world would come and ask for me by name.
They were under the distinct impression that I liked them, too. They were giving off all the signs. I did not like them at all. I dreaded them.
But if I’m being honest with myself, I know that this isn’t just something I’ve done at work. I’ve been in social situations — particularly when a friend brought another friend with them that I do not like — where I’ll just be polite and friendly even though I dislike the other person. Mostly because I don’t want to ruin the vibe by fighting with someone. That sort of thing. And I’d notice over time that after a long while of running into each other because of this mutual friendship, they’d assume I was their friend, too. Even though I didn’t particularly like them.
And a third case emerges, too — the safety fawning. As I mentioned in an earlier post, fawning is the fourth response to dangerous situations (the first three are fight, flight, and freeze). I have certainly had situations where someone, especially a stranger or someone I don’t know well, is being really creepy, and it can be safer to act pleasant and then run away at the first opportunity than it is to confront someone.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I can’t call people out on bullshit. I do have a mode like this. It comes out especially when I feel like someone else is being a bully. But the other person has to act pretty trashy for that mode to active. The vast majority of disappointing behavior doesn’t meet that threshold.
The “Do You Keep Spending Time with Them?” Test
Anyway, I was discussing this the other day with a friend — how being able to be pleasant to people you actually dislike muddies the waters.
And my friend pointed out that when I dislike someone, I don’t keep putting myself around them. They suggested that I can tell the difference between “fake nice”/prosocial behavior that means nothing and friendship by whether people choose to spend time or to interact with me.
I have to admit — it’s not a bad place to start. However, as I thought through that for a bit, it became a difficult metric. Because we’re all adults with busy lives. And at this point, my friends live all over the country. This means that I sometimes don’t speak to my close friends for a while (and vice versa).
The fact that I don’t seek them out or spend time with them doesn’t change the fact that I adore them.
Maybe Whether They Like Me Isn’t Important
I talked to some more friends about the situation — and another theme emerged: Maybe it’s not an important question. Maybe whether other people like me isn’t important.
One friend put it to me this way: If someone is faking nice and they do in fact like me less than they’ve acted they do, it can be disappointing, yes. It can hurt. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t change who I am — for good, bad or neutral. And it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with me. Not really. This one person just doesn’t like me as much as I thought they did.
It did give me pause that this wasn’t something I thought of on my own. Because as I hear it, I see exactly what she means. It does make me wonder why I’m so worried about being liked. I suppose it doesn’t help that people who were raised in abusive homes learn to take huge responsibility for whether other people like us. It’s tied into taking responsibility for other people’s feelings. This isn’t a healthy state of affairs — but caregivers will often train their charges to do this. And it does follow you into adulthood.
Even Good Friendships and Relationships Can Fluctuate
As we talked through things more, I also had another thought hit me. Good friendships and relationships can fluctuate. You can absolutely have times when someone you adore is irritating you for a bit because they’re just too much in some way. But other times, that quality of theirs is exactly what you need. So just because someone rubs you the wrong way at a certain time, it doesn’t mean that they are too much. And turning it around, that means that I’m not a worthless person because I’ve momentarily annoyed someone — yes, even someone I am extremely close to.
It’s definitely not a lesson I learned growing up because of dysfunctional dynamics. And we don’t do a good job talking about that culturally. But it’s important to keep in mind.