Social Anxiety and the Drive to Be Liked
Social Anxiety is pervasive. We want to be liked. But is wanting to be liked the same as being liked? Can the answer reduce our social anxiety?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 12% of Americans experience Social Anxiety Disorder at some point over the course of their life. “Disorder” is the key word. Twelve-percent of people experience social anxiety to such a degree that it disrupts their daily activities and obligations and is outside the range of normal worry and fear.
Let’s assume that another 10%-12% of people are at the other extreme of the anxiety continuum: they never experience social anxiety. This segment of the population may suffer from other mental health issues, but they are not going home after a party wondering if they made a good impression.
That leaves 76%, or, if you prefer fractions, ¾ of Americans who feel some level of social anxiety at various times over the course of their days, weeks, months, and years. And it’s NORMAL! And the anxiety is even USEFUL if we leverage it well.
During a recent session, a client identified social anxiety as a topic to explore. This client more often than not automatically says “Yes” to requests/opportunities/invitations before gathering all the information needed to make an informed decision. The results aren’t always great. When I asked the client to list contributors to his tendency to rush in, the desire to be liked made the top five..
We all want to be liked, right? We exert efforts to be liked in our workplaces, in our homes, in our social organizations, at parties, at informal gatherings, and even with strangers we may never see again.
Think about it. When was the last time you agreed to something, said something, did something because you wanted the other person to like you? Did you feel remorse about it later? Did you wonder why you did or said something so out of character for yourself? More than that, did you achieve your goal? Did you get people to like YOU? The real YOU? Or did you just end up feeling used, taken advantage of, or inauthentic? Are these grounds for building lasting, strong relationships with others? Did your social anxiety decrease with your increased effort?
I’m going to pose to you the same question that I posed to my client: What is the difference between “wanting to be liked” and “being liked”?
On the surface, this appears to be a somewhat existential examination of the human condition in which we conclude “I am liked, therefore I am.” I encourage you, as I encouraged my client, to delve deeper, to truly think it through in terms of thoughts, emotions, behaviors, motivations, outcomes, and so forth.
To do your own examination, make three columns on a piece of paper. Use the header “Questions” in the first column, the header “Wanting to be Liked” in the second column, and the header “Being Liked” in the third column.
In the first column, under the “Questions” header, list the following questions, providing enough space between them to create room to answer each question in columns two and three:
1) What is the source? From where does it derive?
2) How does it make me feel? What emotions do I experience?
3) What behaviors do I typically do in response?
4) What are my typical thoughts when this is happening?
5) How would I create more of it?
6) How would I create less of it?
7) What is the typical outcome?
After listing the questions, move to the “Wanting to be Liked” column and begin answering the questions. What is the source of “wanting to be liked”? How does “wanting to be liked” make you feel? And so forth. Then do the same for the “Being Liked” column. Take your time. Think deeply. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Write down your truths even if they’re uncomfortable.
Read through your finished product and again consider the question: What is the difference between “wanting to be liked” and “being liked”? What evidence do you have that “wanting to be liked” actually leads to “being liked”? Which one contributes more to achieving goals? How do your old way of thinking and your new understanding relate to your general experience of social anxiety? What would you do differently going forward?
While your answers and your conclusions are your own with revelations and epiphanies individual to you, I do have some thoughts to share: Social anxiety is a normal part of human existence. The more time we spend in the state of wanting people to like us, the more social anxiety we are likely to feel. And finally, the opposite of wanting people to like us IS NOT not caring what people think of us (popular but heavily flawed advice). The opposite of wanting people to like us is being liked.