The Eternal Anxiety of Being Liked

I’ve always liked having friends, and for a long time I thought that my happy buzz when it seemed people enjoyed spending time with me was just that. It’s nice to be surrounded by other people who you like and who like you. It didn’t really hit me that I had this anxiety of being liked by everyone until my latter years of secondary school, even though I know that I am not alone in this feeling.

If I find out that someone doesn’t like me, or if I’m around someone and get the feeling that they don’t really like me, I obsess over it. For hours and days and maybe even weeks I’m thinking about what I did wrong, what it was that made me unlikeable, whether I should have acted differently – and it goes on. Of course you are never going to go through life being liked by everyone, and that’s something that I’ve come to terms with over the past few years, especially in university, but I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to avoid coming to this realisation.

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I think back to my first year in secondary school when I talk about this anxiety of mine. I think of how I didn’t really have a specific group of friends, and instead I flitted from one to another – which, for a while, I enjoyed. I liked having the ability to strike up a conversation with anyone and everyone, and the fact that at lunchtime it didn’t matter who was in the form room because I could just sit with whoever was there. I liked being friends with everyone, because in my head it meant everyone was friends with me. Then, one of my most embarrassing memories comes to mind – and this in particular really shows off that crippling anxiety of not being liked.

In my class, when I was about 11, we were given a seating arrangement for our form time, which was just at the beginning and end of the day for maybe 10 minutes. I was sat next to a girl who was incredibly popular, and she was one of those types who was good at everything; she was sporty and on the hockey team, musically inclined and could play the piano, was cast in all the school plays and musicals because she was a great actor with a great voice, was incredibly intelligent and aced every test, and, what was sometimes the most frustrating quality, she was also infuriatingly nice. Seriously, she was so nice you couldn’t get angry that she was brilliant at everything, and that just made you even angrier. Anyway, we were placed next to each other for the first term and we got on well – or, rather, we were both nice and friendly and acted that way with each other. We never really hung out that much outside the classroom, just did the usual of inviting each other to our birthday parties and things like that. But then, lo and behold, the following term we were told we could sit next to whoever. And what does 11 year old me do? She sits there and says something along the lines of “I wonder if anyone will want to sit with me. I think I’ll probably end up sitting on my own” and, although I don’t remember exactly, I’m pretty sure I even went on to say how much I liked sitting next to this girl and may have even dramatically sighed. So, this girl being the nice girl she is, plonks her arse back down and sits next to me for the following term.

Mortifyingis the only word that comes to mind when I think back on this. I’m pretty certain this girl doesn’t even remember this incident, but dear lord do I remember it. I knew what I was doing, sitting there acting all dramatic and sullen and ridiculous, hoping that she would sit next to me again. Yet, I also think how upsetting it is to think that, even though 11-year-old me knew she was manipulating a situation, 11-year-old me thought that that was her only good chance of sitting next to someone because there was a voice in her head saying “No one actually likes you. No one actually wants to sit next to you.” Of course this wasn’t helped when the popular pretty girl kept sitting next to me, because it meant that this voice told me she was only sitting there to be nice, that she didn’t actually like me but sat there because I acted like a drama queen.

Then I think of the following years, up until the age of about 16, and how I acted with my friends. Even though they chose to hang out with me and be around me, there was still a part of me that felt that I needed to prove myself, be that extra bit likeable. I would change depending on who I was around – with one I would talk about music I knew she liked, another I would talk about completely different music and claimed I only liked that music too, or with some friends I would just try to be the goofy one, the funny one, the one that everyone likes. It wasn’t until I was in sixth form and developed a very bad relationship with another girl who was one day a bully and one day a friend depending on what suited her, that I realised that there was no point. Why should I change depending on who I was with? Why did I crave being liked?

I’m only fully able to say with certainty that I don’t do this anymore. In my first year of university I definitely adapted with the different groups I was with, trying to fit in and act cool and be likeable. Now? I really don’t have the energy to be anything other than myself, and have found, to my great relief, that it didn’t really make much of a difference. It seems people like to surround themselves with people who they like for being themselves, which is a terrible way of trying to say that others don’t give a shit. If you don’t like their music, so what? It’s something to discuss and talk about. It ties in with having the confidence to be yourself and not be self-conscious about every little thing.

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I’ve always been a ‘worrier’, and this anxiety of being liked is one of the many things that have plagued my mind daily for years. I’ve talked previously on this blog about my anxiety over my weight, my skin, my looks, my talents – and it all boils down to having the self-confidence and self-worth to know that none of it matters. It comes to remembering to think of yourself, and not of other people, when you’re looking at your skin/face/clothes/body. If you’re happy with yourself, then why worry about anyone else? You shouldn’t have to change for someone else, from styling your hair a certain way to saying you like a certain kind of music. I obsessed over my acne because I thought it made me look ugly, and part of that was because I obsessed over what other people saw when they looked at me. She just looked at me, and I bet she saw my spot on my chin. I bet that when she smiled at me she was laughing at how awful I look. Etc, etc. I could go on.

So the reason I’m trying to get to amongst all these ramblings is that not everyone is going to like you, and that’s ok. What’s important is your own happiness, and that happiness will never come from making sure everyone else likes you. I learned the hard way that you just can’t keep up all the various personas you put on to please everyone else. Be yourself, be healthy, be happy, and try not to worry about everyone else, because they’re probably worrying about the same things.

Issues of Self-worth

Every time someone expresses an interest or intends to do something similar to what I wish – be it writing a book as millions of us (wish to) do, go into publishing, or even something as simple as taking the same class as me in university or going to the same kick-start your career talk – I deal with what I original shrugged off as unnecessary envy. It’s that strange, irritating mix of envy and possessiveness I suppose, but promoted by fear rather than selfishness. It’s the kind of feeling that washes over you and you immediately fight against it, plagued with guilt for those unnecessary emotions. It takes me a while each time to actually go through why I feel this possessiveness over certain things, to understand what the real root of the issue is – and that is my own fears and anxieties on inadequacy.

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Take writing a book, for example. If a friend of mine says to me that they plan/hope/have an idea for writing some great fantasy novel or modern take on an ancient classic, I’ll of course smile and say something along the lines of “that’s great, so awesome, good luck, I also have that dream” with a self-deprecating laugh and shrug on the side. Yet inside, I’ll have this voice screaming “but that’s MINE”, as if only I can have that dream. Completely ridiculous, when you consider the vast amount of people who write and want to write books.

In actuality, it’s not because other people want to write books that makes me want to act like a petulant child. It’s really due to a fear that if they do the same thing that I want to do, it will mean that mine won’t be as good – as if another person wanting to write a book will immediately make mine so much worse, and really why bother if every extra author-hopeful makes my own work worse and worse?

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It’s not just fear of competition, although that does play a huge part, but mainly the complete anxiety that I, along with what I do or create, just isn’t good enough. But I assume that’s a problem that we all have, in some way or another, that we are just not good enough. That our self-worth and self-esteem aren’t soaring high in the clouds, but instead are under several layers of concrete and emotions and some other powerful metaphor.

And, in an almost-but-not-quite ironic end, I have no idea how to wrap up this post or add in a hopeful note in a way that seems adequate enough for me. Instead, I’m feeling a bit like a certain Game of Thrones character only hoping to one day know better, or at least feel better about my own achievements.

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Guide to University: stress

Let’s talk stress.

The education system these days is built to be stressful, and my particularly secondary school excelled at creating the most stressful environment – and that was just for the end of year exams when we were 12, let along the actual GCSEs or A levels when we were 16-18. You could say that I’ve experienced a lot of stress, just as most people have, but when it comes to university it’s very different – at least, that’s what I’ve found.

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In secondary school, a lot of pressure was put on – and although I am talking from my own personal experience, from talking with people I’ve met it’s usually a guarantee that there is pressure. It was all about getting those GCSEs to get into a good sixth form, then getting good AS results to get university offers, then getting your actual A levels to get into university. There was a lot of pressure, talks about what you should be doing, and over-the-top comments about futures working at McDonalds if we didn’t revise trigonometry.

In university, I’ve found it to be very different. Instead of constant talks about exams and essays, they’re mentioned almost in passing. Oh yeah, you guys have an essay due soon, the essay titles are up online. Boom, that’s it, no more, move along, get to it. The stress isn’t put into you by others – no, instead, you are the one who will get stressed on your own. Personally, I worry about everything. Literally everything. I’m early, even when I’m late, and over-plan everything, double checking with friends about times and places and what’s happened and dress code and – god, it’s a stress just waking up sometimes (especially when I have 9ams). When it comes to exams and essays, I worry slightly in the run-up but the actual fear and anxiety doesn’t start to choke me until a month or so beforehand. It can be overwhelming, especially if you deal with anxiety on a daily basis. There isn’t any hand-holding at university, and dealing with everything on your own can be daunting. There’s no point lying and saying that really it’s all ok and you’ll be fine, because the truth is you need to work your arse off to even do average – at least, that’s how I am.

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The trick? Well, there isn’t one – and if there is a trick, then it’s different to everyone. Maybe you work better being in the library from dawn until dusk every day, or maybe you’re better at doing only half an hour every day for months upon end. I hate the library with a vengeance – even when I don’t have exams or essays coming up, just walking through the silent halls and creeping past people scribbling on paper or typing furiously at a computer freaks me out. I feel stressed whenever I try to work there, so normally I avoid it until I have to go to find books for said essays and exams.

My trick to combat stress? Take it one day at a time. I can’t work with timetables that map out my work for the next few weeks, it just makes me more stressed when I get behind schedule – and, trust me, I get behind schedule. I like to make a few lists of what I need to do for each subjects, and then each day I break them down. I pick one or two things to focus on each day. And if I don’t finish them? Not a problem, just finish it off the next day.

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Also use reward system – trust me, it’s a beautiful thing. You need restraint, yes, but if you set yourself achievable – let me just stress that again, achievable – goals that aren’t stupid like ‘write down the title’, then reward yourself at certain points. For example you could do so much as to say get halfway through an essay, or just write the introduction, yet for me I do it at the very end goal of finishing the essay. For exams it’s a more gradual process, so I of course celebrate when they’re over, but I also set mini goals throughout. Such as work through a set amount of lectures, or make all the notecards, or plan out as many practice questions as possible. Again, it’s taking one thing at a time.

I suppose university is only good for a certain mindset. If you need someone to tell you exactly what to do and when to do it, university probably isn’t for you. Hell, I’m at the end of my second year and I still haven’t been told how to write an essay. I’ve just been told not to write an ‘A level’ one, whatever that means.

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I’m not sure how helpful this guide can be, as really it’s just advice for a younger version of me as these are the tricks that work for me, but trust me when I say I can understand stress. I know how, well, stressful it is. It’s tiring just being stressed, and most days I just want to stay in bed and call in a sick day. But there’s no stopping time, no matter how hard you wish for the hands on the clock to just pause for a moment, so you just need to take it one step at a time. What’s that cliche phrase about how every marathon starts with a single step? You know the one. Think of that cliche whenever you’re stressed, and then laugh at yourself for being so cliche. Cheer yourself up with whatever cheers you up – whether that’s seeing your friends, eating copious amounts of chocolate, watching an episode of your favourite show, playing with your dog – and then tell yourself to just work a bit longer for that day. That’s all it takes. It’s a long haul, but in the end it’s worth it.

At least, I think it is. I’ll let you know next year.

Shit. Next year I finish university. Now I’m stressed. Again. Luckily I’ve just booked a trip home so I can play with my dog and take it one day at a time.