What should you do if you have a quality or characteristic that other people dislike?
Knowing that another person dislikes us usually evokes the same emotional responses in most people -- usually sadness, disappointment, anxiety and even anger. Such experiences can also get you thinking about whether there is something more fundamentally wrong with you -- something that is not only undesirable to this one person, but others as well?
If true, the question would then be -- should I change a perceived flaw to maximize being liked by more people?
Unfortunately, many people who fear rejection and negative evaluation make many changes to their behaviour, thinking, appearance, and even personality in order to avoid instances of rejection and the knowledge that someone dislikes them.
Constantly trying to avoid being disliked can take its toll on one's mental health. Indeed, most of the people I have seen in therapy with such an issue were more harmed by the worry and anxiety caused by the possibility of being disliked than by actual instances of rejection or negative evaluation.
So, we return the question of what to do with characteristics that may result in being unaccepted, rejected or disliked. Should we change something about ourselves?
To help answer this question, try the following exercise:
Imagine that you could spend time with every person on the planet -- all 7 billion of them. Now ask yourself two questions:
1. What percentage of them would say they "like you" following this time together?
2. How did you arrive at this number?
The goal of thinking about these questions is to facilitate the process of accurately evaluating who you are and how you function interpersonally. Instead of considering likeability in an abstract way (i.e., will someone reject or dislike me) and unrealistically (of course, someone will dislike you), answering these questions makes the issue more concrete and allows you to accept the reality that many people would not like you.
Allow me to elaborate on how answering these questions could be helpful, using myself as an example.
I often do this exercise with clients I work with, and I honestly believe that at least 20% of people in the world would dislike me. This means that 1.4 billion people probably do not like me.
Now, why do these 1.4 billion dislike me? I assume that a good proportion would not like me for simply superficial and demographic qualities (skin colour; religious beliefs; the fact I am a huge Steelers fan, etc.). This would apply to everyone as various regions and cultures both favour and dislike a range of qualities.
Let's now examine more personal qualities, which can be divided into two broad categories. First, there are qualities about me that a lot of people like, but that other people really don't like. For example, my style of humour tends to be on the dry and sarcastic side. This quality would certainly be rejected by a certain proportion of the world's population. Which creates a dilemma -- do I change my style of humour to maximize being liked by the greatest number of people? Well, that would just create a whole new category of people who dislike me for being disingenuous and insecure. Also, constantly changing who you are from person to person is wrought with the potential for long-term problems to your mental health, such as problems with clarity of your self-concept.
The second category of personal qualities would include those that most people probably don't like -- in other words flaws. Now, the fact that I have flaws is not surprising or unexpected. Based on feedback I have received over the years from friends, family and even strangers, my sense is that the flaws are not deal-breakers for most people. But there a number of people who simply could not be around me because of one of these flaws. Indeed, when considered on a worldwide scale, it would probably include hundreds of millions of people.
Now, if there were critical flaws that caused significant problems with most relationships, I would certainly be forced to consider making changes in this regard.
What can I conclude from this exercise? I can conclude that I have a mix of good and bad qualities that would probably lead to 5.6 billion people liking me -- generally speaking. Even if my estimate of 20% is too generous, it is still probably the case that billions of people would accept me as I am.
It is also helpful to accept that 1.4 billion people do not like me. Rather than waste time and energy worrying and modifying who I am to make everyone like me, it is simply easier to accept that there are lots of people who dislike me. In fact, of the 1.4 billion people who dislike me, I assume they are interspersed throughout my day -- a few at the grocery store, the Tim Hortons lady I see everyday, and the guy who thought I was driving too slow on the highway, to name a few. Knowing that they are all around, and yet rarely cause much in the way of direct problems or stress, helps reduce the worry of being rejected and disliked.
Rather than feel anxious about the possibility of someone disliking you, it can be empowering to accept that hundreds of millions and even billions of people dislike you, and yet you are still a fairly likeable person to most. In this way, we can treat a complex issue (likeability) fairly, without having to resort to absolutist thinking by trying to squeeze ourselves into a likeable or dislikeable category.
You don't have to be liked by everyone, and the next time you learn that a co-worker or peer dislikes you, just think "I am not at all surprised and it is completely OK."