Likeability is a strange concept. After all, who is to say if you are likeable or not? If you strive your whole life to do everything in your power to be likeable (and avoid being unlikeable), you won’t truly be living your life. You will be living the life that others deem appropriate.
As a recovering people-pleaser, I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around what makes someone likeable or not, and how to maintain strong interpersonal relationships without abandoning myself in the process.
Below, I asked an expert to better understand the complicated nature of likeability:
Why is it so hard not to care about what other people think?
I used to contort myself into a pretzel to make myself as likeable as possible so I could avoid dealing with the judgement or disappointment of others. You can imagine if you spend your whole life trying to please others how hurtful it can be when, even after you’ve sacrificed your happiness for those around you, it still doesn’t seem like enough. I desperately wanted to figure out how I could start prioritizing my own happiness but couldn’t figure out how to magically stop caring about what other people thought of me.
According to Talkspace therapist Joanna Filidor, LMFT, deep down, everyone cares — at least a little bit — about what others think of them. This is why she argues it’s not helpful to focus on “not caring about what others think of you.” Rather, she finds it’s more important to identify the root of your people-pleasing tendencies. Is it that you are a perfectionist and like to present perfectly to others? Or perhaps you struggle with control issues and get triggered when you are not in control of how others perceive you? “Once the root is identified,” explained Filidor, “it will be easier to learn how to cope with conflict and differing opinions from others.”
How do you know if you are doing something unlikeable?
I worry all the time that I am doing something unlikeable and am completely oblivious to it. Filidor finds that most people are aware of behaviors they are engaging in that make them unlikeable, but choose not to listen to their instinct for a variety of reasons, such as not knowing how to trust themselves or trauma.
So, instead of worrying that you are doing something unlikeable, it’s a better use of energy to focus on cultivating trust in yourself. When you have a greater sense of inner trust, you will be able to make more accurate assessments of yourself and your behavior. Filidor recommends asking yourself questions like: was there any part of you that felt off/wrong when you were doing X? “More often than not,” shared Filidor, “people engage in behaviors not because they are bad, but rather as a way to deal with difficult interactions.”
Won’t there always be people who find you unlikeable?
Part of what I have had to accept on my recovery from people-pleasing is that there will always be people who find you unlikeable. It still makes me squirm when I bump into someone who doesn’t like me, but I’ve been working hard not to internalize what they say and instead stay true to myself.
Filidor recommends identifying what leads you to be authentic versus inauthentic, arguing that this is the first step in being comfortable with yourself. “Because sometimes even surrounding yourself with positive relationships may still make someone be inauthentic,” said Filidor. “For example, if you surround yourself with people who are successful and you don’t feel successful, you may be more likely to lie about your own success.”
Are you more unlikeable if you don’t feel your best?
I know if I haven’t had a good night’s sleep, feel over-extended, or drag myself to an event I don’t want to go to in the first place, I am more on edge and perhaps less “likeable” because I don’t feel my best.
“Certainly poor self-care will impact a person’s ability to relate to others in a healthy way,” explained Filidor. “When your cup is not full, it will be difficult to be your best.” According to Filidor, a good way to ensure that you are not breaching your integrity when interacting with others is by taking care of yourself and by being mindful of your own set of values and act from those values.
How important is setting healthy boundaries?
Filidor recommends setting healthy boundaries as a way to make sure you are taking care of yourself and not acting out of resentment (which others may find unlikeable). She finds Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills dealing with interpersonal effectiveness helpful with boundary-setting because you learn how to properly express your needs while discussing problems and challenges with others. She also recommends books on codependency like the two following:
Whether or not someone finds you likeable is a many faceted question. Some elements of likeability are in your control and others are not. At the end of the day, you can only control your own actions and work to heal yourself so you show up in the world as authentically as possible.
To that end, perhaps a better question is how do we become likeable to ourselves and trust that, when we act from a place of integrity, we will be likeable to the people who matter?