I don’t know when it happened.
There isn’t a specific moment I can recall or a singular life event that I can attribute to it, but at some point along the timeline of my life, I stopped needing to be liked.
The realization was more of a surprise than anything else, especially when I realized I had gone years without noticing that the opinions of others regarding myself had stopped fetching any reaction. I looked back on people, circumstances, situations and was shocked to see that the behavior I had demonstrated was markedly different from who I thought I was.
And who I thought I was, in fact, happened to be the exact opposite. I remember a time when I felt an inexplicable urgency to please others and earn their token of approval. I needed to be the perfect friend, the postcard family member, the ideal love interest, the best employee, the most valuable asset to my peer group. I often went well above and beyond the call of duty to maintain an exhaustive ritual in pursuit of being liked, accepted, loved or respected by others. I had this agonizing, intense fear of being disposable. It was so palpable that it fueled me to do things that, in retrospect, make me cringe… like giving away my belongings, pretending to be interested in things I wasn’t, agreeing to things I disagreed with. Worse than that, it deluded me into building one-way friendships, accept being taken advantage of, tolerate verbal and physical abuse all while being complicit in my own reduction. My need to be everyone's cup of tea brought out the ugliness in others who may have never intended to exploit my eagerness to win them over, but leveraged the invitation to do so. It also brought out the ugliness in me.
I remember being so disturbed that the consequences I paid for being “A good person” were always the same that I’d sit and cry for weeks and talk about it to anyone who would listen until I was blue in the face. I couldn’t reconcile how people could so quickly turn on me, become inhumanely cruel or dispose of me altogether- the thing I feared most- after I had worked so tirelessly to earn their favor. I’d convince myself that all these people in a myriad of situations were simply awful. I’d feel so sorry for myself that I’d sulk about, whimpering like a scolded puppy. The harsh reality that I recognize now, in hindsight, is that I unknowingly undermined my own intentions. What I demonstrated wasn’t the pattern of “A good person” but instead a projection of who I believed I needed to be and what was required of me in order to be perceived as one. In true form, like a puppy, I’d roll over, play dead, whatever was necessary to earn a firm pat of approval on the head. It’s fun for awhile, but eventually people grow tired of it. When others realized that my own ability to like or even respect myself was contingent on whether or not they do, it created an imbalance of power; An unhealthy co-dependence that held others to an unreasonable expectation and set me up to be disappointed. I’d end up blaming them and feeling sorry for myself, failing to appreciate that I, alone, created the dysfunctional roles that played out predictably.
So, it’s a little difficult to characterize myself as a victim; When you roll yourself out like a red carpet, how do you justify being angry at those who walked all over you? It’s psychological blackmail, handing someone sovereignty over your own self-worth, and then holding them accountable if they don’t make you feel worthwhile. It’s a machination in which failure is guaranteed. Making anyone beyond yourself the determining factor in your self-love or self-care is your own negligence. It was certainly mine. In most cases, my effort to be valuable to others while possessing none for myself never made me the best of anything to anyone, but instead a liability to everyone, especially me. This is where I think the old adage applies most; You are your own worst enemy.
I cannot say I remember learning that in the same way one might memorize an inspiration proverb in Sunday School or the mathematics table in first grade. There was no trigger effect or light bulb that suddenly illuminated my own ignorance. It was a slow manifest of indifference that never even occurred to me was happening. Although I was oblivious to the shift in my developmental growth, I stopped emotionally investing in what other people thought of me, how they viewed me, their agreement with me or approval of me.
That isn’t to suggest I became some embittered, arrogant beast with no regard for those in my company. I became self reliant- not superior. I found that my relationships flourished in the afterglow of my emancipation. I was freed from the burden of expectations I placed on myself and those around me. I redistributed the weight of my value to my own perspective rather than trying to control how I appeared from an outside gaze.
Perhaps is this a natural evolution. Like age, it creeps up on you until one day, you catch your reflection in the mirror and wonder aloud, “When the hell did this happen?” Is this just me, getting old?
When did I start speaking without policing how my words, my opinions, would be received? When did I stop negotiating my choices and instead just do an about face and walk away from potential conflict when I’m uncomfortable? I can’t say for certain, but it’s lovely.
Today, I’m not bothered by criticism, judgement or callous words hurled over my fence by a malcontent. I don’t care if anyone finds me unintelligent, dull, lacking talent or falling short of their standard of acceptability. I see the line between being “A Good Person” that everyone likes, and being the “Person I Like” by being an individual of authentic character.
Regardless if people love you or they loathe you, at least let them come to that conclusion honestly. And plenty of people dislike me- maybe because they find I’m too forward with my thoughts, or because they disapprove of any number of aspects of my life that lean away from tradition. How outsiders observe me is irrelevant. My actions reflect the person I know I am; and for those things that unequivocally represent who I am, I don’t apologize anymore.
Neither should you.
Being disliked- or, unfollowed, unfavorited, whatever the equivalent is today- has it’s value as long as it’s not the result of intentional provocation. Sure, there are those who deliberately stoke the ire of others. Milo Yiannopoulos, Katie Hopkins and Anne Coulter are a few examples of public figures who revel in being despised. They make calculated efforts to do and say things that most of those with out feet still on the ground find utterly despicable. They’ve tapped into the pearl clutching shock-value of being venomous. I’ve often wondered if these people mean what they say, given they’ve managed to monetize it. Being disliked, for them, is a lucrative business. Does it represent who they are when they clock out? I can’t say. But there is an exchange when one reaches so far to be universally hated because it’s not easy to come back. They will always be that person who did… that person who said… their legacy will be that of an agitator, a conspirator against society. Which would be tragic if their abhorrent views published in bestselling books and atrocious public statements forever preserved in the annals of history were all performance.
For those who have no platform and intentionally reach to be disliked, it’s more often disingenuous than not. It’s an act of rebellion. “I’ll make you hate me before you can decide for yourself.” It’s a concerted effort to alienate others by posture themselves for rejection. That says far more about them than the treacherous things they say. People who do this are not indifferent to your reaction, but actually invested wholly in it. It’s a method of control. It’s easier to make people hate you than like you. The middle ground of indifference is unacceptable to these individuals. They have an inherent fear of people simply not caring, they’re terrified of irrelevance. They are the polar opposite of those needy flagellants willing to turn cartwheels for a moment in the swaddling warmth of approval. Bottom line, they’re typically a fraud. If their contentious missives were by any means aligned with how they really felt, at least the hatred they generate would be earned honorably.
I’d rather people dislike me as a result of who I am, rather who I pretend to be. In that context, I take great pride in being disliked. I have not compromised who I am. I have not wavered my opinions in favor of a seat at the table with the popular kids. I have shown people who I am, take it or leave it. Some leave it, and I’m completely okay with that. That’s an incredible place to be.
The younger me wishes the destination of this particular journey had been reached much sooner- or at minimum, realized I had arrived whenever it was I did.
Maybe that’s not an indicator of growing old, but growing up.