The great leaders in history, it seems, have been adept at going forward in spite of having political enemies. They willingly speak their minds and stand up for what they believe even when others get alienated. But most of us limit just how much we speak out. We’ve learned “pleasing behaviors” at a young age so that other people will like us. We smile even when we aren’t happy. We learn to keep our mouths shut when our opinions differ sharply from those of the popular people in our crowd, or when our first attempt at voicing our views meets with anger. We learn to monitor how others receive our comments or behavior, and then we adjust accordingly.
And that’s because it hurts so very much to be ostracized from the group, to be rejected. A study just published in the journal Psychological Science reported that social rejection actually affects the heart. When subjects were told that others didn’t like them, their heart rates plummeted. In other words, the body seems to carry programming which influences it to try to fit in with the herd, and when that isn’t happening, the body goes into shock mode.
Yet some people manage to move outside the herd. They say their truth and either don’t care how others react, or are willing to live with the consequences. Maybe they feel popular enough with the few supporters they do have to risk rejection by the masses, or maybe truth matters more to them than popularity. In any event, they have embraced what I’ll call “elective unpopularity.” They have alienated others based on choices they’ve made—by joining certain groups, or wearing their hair too long or too short, or by espousing unpopular views--and could probably win those same others back by making other choices.
But then there’s “non-elective rejection,” and that’s where the pain of rejection stings the most. That’s when others just don’t like you because you happen to be you. They don’t like your personality, your being, your presence. Maybe you did something bogus in the past and they can’t and won’t forgive you. Maybe they don’t like how you look or talk or smile or think. Maybe they don’t like the fact that you like someone they don’t like, that you hang out with Joan instead of Joanna, that you defended someone they were angry with, that you (God forbid!) once set a limit, said “No,” or got annoyed with them. Try as you do, you can’t get these people to accept or forgive or understand you. Even those who handle elective unpopularity just fine can find this non-elective rejection intolerable. While you might be fine with the idea that some people reject you because your politics or religion or other group identifications, you might find personal rejection intolerable.
And yet, tolerate it you must, because it’s nearly impossible to make everyone like you. If you make an attempt at it, you’ll exhaust yourself, but that’s just what lots of us do—exhaust ourselves trying to please others. We go into a near frenzy trying to please our detractors in order to turn them around, and we may not even know we’re doing it because our “pleasing behavior” is so automatic—smiling and yessing and staying silent when we have important things to say and doing things for other people instead of caring for ourselves--trying, trying to keep everybody in our fan club.
Of course, to some degree, all of these behaviors are essential in order for us to have a civilized society. I personally don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with stifling yourself to fit in—it’s what your biological nature tells you to do—but the question becomes at what cost do you try to make others like you? No matter what you do, there will always be those who just won’t bite your bait; there will always be those who won’t forgive or accept or love you. And the harder you try to win them all over, the less of yourself will be left for you to love, the less of you there will be to contribute your little authentic piece to the world tapestry.
The bottom line, I think, is that we all need to learn how to live comfortably with the fact that some people just plain don’t and won’t like us-- if we are to retain any integrity. And, we need to know what to do with the sting of rejection should we encounter it, where to put it, how to nurse the ache. Nothing in life prepares us for it. There are no courses in school that teach, systematically, how to be yourself even if it means surviving unpopularity. There are no fail-proof manuals that point out places to store pain and hurt so that we can forge ahead in spite of those feelings. There are no perfect instructions about how to stand up in a crowd that disagrees with you and speak your mind without fear of humiliation or ostracism.
But there are people to look to for inspiration—public figures who have risked all to say the truth; or closer to home, individuals who consistently try to be honest and transparent with us, even at some risk. If you want to stop mindlessly “people pleasing,” you might begin by assembling a support team. First notice who invites you to be yourself and to say what you feel and believe, versus who tries to shut you up. Who, when you have a difference of opinion, has the courage and integrity to work it through with you and listen to your point of view? Who encourages you to speak the truth as you see it? Those who embrace honesty and open communication you can celebrate as true friends—your support team; those who shut it down you can mourn.
And should you encounter rejection, or if you’re living with the hurt of rejection now, ask those on your support team for help. Ask them how they handle such things. Ask them to keep you honest, in spite of the hurt. If you need additional help, you can use techniques that reduce fear and hurt and anxiety—things like meditation and EFT and TAT—to stay on course.