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The Paradox of Being Likable

Exploring the tension between authenticity and acceptance

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We are prosocial beings. Evolutionarily speaking, it is important to have others looking out for us and want us around. Together we can protect each other and increase our ability to pass our DNA onto the next generation. It is built into our being to bond. Even preverbally, infants are deeply attuned with whether or not their caregivers delight in their presence (1). When experiencing pleasure on their mother’s face they take more risks, explore more widely, and express more joy. Encouragement and attunement from others allows us to feel safe to explore the world around us. Acceptance and being cared for is crucial for our survival. Thus, it makes sense why being likeable can feel like it is of paramount importance. 

This is a concept I understand as fundamental and yet every day I see, in myself and with my clients, the ways in which yearning to be accepted causes us to deny or sever essential parts of who we really are. I am a psychotherapist and I work with people who are experiencing a variety of issues. Depression, anxiety, grief, anger, behavioral problems, relationship struggles- you name it. Despite how varied their particular points of suffering are, there is a common thread that I undoubtedly see with each of my clients. At some point in our work we must address their fear of being rejected, misunderstood, and criticized. And ultimately, how that fear comes to inhibit their life. This commonality can be distilled: at some point in our lives we meet a place where being likeable, flexible, easy, and affable becomes suffocating. Instead of helping us thrive, it results in pathology. The inner-conflict between being truly who we are versus who we deem most desirable is more common than we think. Nearly everyone I know struggles with this issue. On a daily basis. 

I, myself, have been in therapy for many years and am still regularly confronted with the ways in which I feel scared to truly be who I am for fear of being deemed undesirable. An example: As a child, still very unaware of my own needs, I would be exhausted after a long day at school. Looking back now, I can see that the combination of trying to be socially desirable and maintain my status as a proficient student was quite performative and draining. My ritual after returning home from my duties as a student looked like this: sitting in a plush club chair with my brother to my right, watching Saved By The Bell, and snacking on something delicious. I often eschewed eating throughout the school day and was ravenous upon returning home. This practice has become deeply intertwined with what it means for me to unwind, relax, disconnect, nourish myself, and experience pleasure. It is still something my inner child yearns for after an activity where intense amounts of energy, focus, and giving are required. And yet, due to what I’ve internalized from our society, I had come to feel somewhat ashamed of this desire of mine. I tried to fight it. I sometimes found myself hiding this behavior from people in my life if I didn’t feel I’d “earned it.” I believe this shame is a product of a combination of factors: our capitalist society, how much we are told that our value is directly related to our productivity, and comments I have internalized from well-meaning friends and family over the years. Even with the awareness I have cultivated from dedicating my life to understanding the psyche, I still find myself grappling with what it means to give myself permission to be who I am and allow others to witness it. I still fear being judged and that fear leads to secrecy. Secrecy and loneliness are the best of friends.

Recently, I was working with a client who is very dear to me. He was sharing how ashamed he is of his own need to turn away from the world, shut down his phone, and play video games for hours. He has confessed many times that he believes that if anyone saw him acting in this way they would be disgusted and he would be excluded from their love toward him. Over many sessions we explored his need for reprieve and his fear of being exposed. His dedication to caring for others and his idea of how he must behave in order to be attractive is quite depleting. The act of literally “drawing the blinds” is a way for him to momentarily relinquish the responsibility he holds for others and the performance of “being good.” As he confided in me I felt a wave of compassion, empathy, and fierce protection flood my system. I wanted him to know that it was more than okay that he needed this time to himself. Beyond it being acceptable, it was endearing. My heart was warmed thinking about him taking this time to play and to be free of obligation. What was especially important was for him to recognize that I saw this behavior and I loved him more for it, not less.

I’ve come to understand that this is the place where true intimacy is built. 

My clients teach me powerful lessons every day. Through my relationship with him, I was able to find tenderness and freedom for this previously concealed part of my own being. Once revealed, I found that few judged this part of me as harshly as I did. And those who might, did not need to remain a permanent fixture in my life. Sharing brought me levity and liberation.

We all have ideas of what it means to be likeable. They are formed over years of input from the world around us: friends, family, media, culture, etc. But we must remember that such ideas are merely beliefs we have. Well-informed beliefs, perhaps. Yet, if we cut off important parts of who we are for fear that those parts will be deemed unacceptable, we will never trust the care and love we receive. And we will perpetuate the belief that any acceptance we do garner is because of the charming facade we have built. It is only when we risk sharing the parts of us historically hidden in the shadows that we make the bid for true acceptance. 

I was once at a lecture given by Brene Brown where she said (to the best of my memory), “Share your vulnerability with the ones who have earned the right to hear your story.” I agree. In recognizing the tenderness of unveiling our hidden parts, we must be discerning with those we choose to venture into the emotional unknown with. I hope each of us has at least one person we can trust to be non-judgemental and receive our whole self with warmth. 

Spending our energy trying to be palatable to everyone may have some roots in our base survival instinct, but it is an emotional, spiritual death. As one of my teachers, Diana Fosha PhD, writes, “In communicating affective experience, the discovery that an other is ready to receive the formerly unthinkable and previously unbearable creates an enlarging, endless universe” (2). To me, this means that when we are finally able to communicate our full, truthful experience to another and have them receive it, the possibilities of our life become infinite. And this is vital for our soul, not just our body, to be able to endure. 

  1. Sorce J, Emde R, Campos J, Klinnert M. (1985) Maternal emotional signaling: Its effect on the visual cliff behavior of one-year-olds. Developmental Psychology. Pp. 21:195–200. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.21.1.195.
  2. Fosha, D. (2000). The transforming power of affect: A model for accelerated change. Basic Books.
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