Practicing mindfulness and meditation is like shining a light in the dark closet of your mind. You find things in there that have always existed but you never paid attention to. Emotions for example. As you practice paying attention inside, you begin to realize when negative emotion stirs up and you witness it. Then you notice patterns and common themes.
One theme that I’ve noticed is worrying about what other people think. Specifically, being liked by other people.
Where does the worry come from?
As children, when we behave well we are told “you’re a good boy or girl.” When we’re bad, we’re punished and told that we are bad. This is the process of domestication where parents and teachers were preparing us to fit into society.
Praise and Punishment
I was an artistic little boy who would lose himself in the process of creation. My artistic talent was nurtured through lots of attention and praise. My mom and dad loved my drawings and encouraged me to no end. I would feel special to my aunts and uncles and grandparents when they would show my drawings to them and talk about how good they were.
This was so much better than getting punished for being bad when I wasn’t doing my chores, my homework, or making messes. I was terrified of being punished, so I would go to great lengths to avoid it. Sometimes this meant lying to my parents and teachers because I knew if they found out I was bad I would get punished. Sometimes with my dad’s belt. I didn’t want that!
Pleasing Other People
This continued throughout high school and college when I would try to get good grades so my teachers and peers thought highly of me. I wanted to be perceived as a good kid who was on the right track in life. People told me I was the best artist in the class and I would be famous some day. It motivated me to keep creating.
Did this make me arrogant? No. I didn’t want people to think I was arrogant. I viewed myself as a nice guy; a good person, not an arrogant jerk. I stayed humble through each moment of success that I had and never bragged about it. Being nice seemed to be the right thing to do anyway. It got me further than being mean.
When I started freelancing, my goal was to enter the real world and get noticed; to make my mark. I admired other artists for their talents and popularity. They had a flock of fans who showered them with praise when they released something new. They had it all. This was my next step!
This fueled my drive to create my own freelance brand. I quit my job and hustled as hard as I could. I was making waves and getting noticed. I was building up a fan base on message boards and early social media sites.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I thrived on the attention I would get when I’d post new work. To me it was useless to create if I wasn’t going to put it out there for all to see. Those pats on the back from other designers really made me feel like I was worth something.
Then negative feedback would come about. I would feel a surge of anger and defensiveness. It would wreck my day. Sometimes it would make me want to fight someone. I would feel emotionally hurt and confused. What did I do wrong?
I would avoid conflict when possible. When people were mad at me or didn’t like me I didn’t know what to do with myself. It felt like a problem to be fixed. This resulted in over explaining, apologizing, or agreeing with the trolls just so to avoid a fight.
I got pretty good at avoiding negative situations and I thought I was doing the right thing. But emotional pain would come back and haunt me in times when I felt like my reputation was on the line. To be specific, any time the festival was judged as being exclusionary to any specific race, gender, sex, or class of people, I felt tremendous anxiety and got really defensive. I thought I was doing good yet someone would make me feel like I was bad. It was like they touched an open wound and it stung.
The same wound would hurt when I would bounce back and forth between trying to make money to survive and then trying not to be greedy. Greed was evil in my mind and I didn’t want to be perceived as such. Being associated with evil concepts such as greed or hate went against all that I stood for. And I fought like hell if I believed someone misunderstood my intentions. I would over explain and try to justify myself to the person until they saw it my way.
Addicted to Being Liked
Eventually I got used to the positive feedback and expected it. When I would only get a few comments or likes on what I did, I felt diminished. Maybe what I made wasn’t any good this time. I noticed I was ignoring the positive comments and I’d get hung up on the one negative comment.
I was addicted to being liked. I felt validated and worth something when I was making things other people liked, used, or paid for. And felt confused and worthless when I wasn’t. We would reach 1,000 likes on our Facebook page which was great. But then it soon became not enough. Then 5,000 and it was sweet for a while. But we needed more of course. We would get used to where we were at and we needed more likes to feel good. Same thing happens with subscribers, web traffic, revenue, sponsorship dollars, attendance, and on and on.
Trying to be the Best
At some point I realized that the drive to be the best seemed pointless. It’s like once I had the thought of myself as the best, I would feel inferior to someone else and I needed to try harder. My taste in what was good evolved along with my abilities so I never quite made it to how good I thought I needed to be. Despite being regarded as great by fans, I never believed them because in my mind I knew where I wanted to be and was not there. This never ending search for more/better is sometimes known as the hedonic treadmill.
This led to burnout and depression. My desire for fame and fortune was no longer motivating me and I was at a loss. Doing good without making money or getting famous started to feel more appealing to me, but it clashed against the needs of being a business owner that must make money to pay my employees. I was stuck until I discovered how my emotions worked. I learned that all emotion (positive and negative) is caused by my sense of self. My ego.
My Sense of Self
When I think of myself, I immediately think of my name, my family, how I look, my career, my passions and hobbies, the movies I choose to watch, the books I read, the bands I like, the posters on my wall, the stickers on my car, ok you get the picture. According to Sean Webb, this is called your attachment map. This, along with the equation of emotion can explain all human emotion. I’d love to get deeper into this subject in a later post. But after discovering this, I started looking at myself differently.
I realized I was controlled by my emotions and mistook them for truth. My craving to be well-liked is deep rooted in how I grew up and is not something that is easy to shake off and change. But through meditation, journaling, and practicing mindfulness throughout the day I’ve been able to notice when I’m triggered or hooked. I can sense fear, dread, jealousy, or anger right when it starts to happen and watch it. I can live with it without judging or labeling it as bad. I can just witness the pain it causes me and understand that it’s there because something about my sense of self is threatened. What is it?
Eliminating Negative Emotion
I can eliminate the suffering I feel if I break the attachment to whatever it is that has been threatened. This has led me to learn about Buddhist philosophies. How do you detach? That’s something I do not know yet. But I think the first step is realizing that you are attached and this is where the pain comes from. Then accept the pain as it is without judging. Watch it come and go and don’t avoid it.
I’ve been doing this now for about three months and I’ve dramatically seen a difference in my emotions. I no longer consider myself depressed. I feel more at peace. And happier. It seems completely silly to me that I ever cared about likes or followers or good reviews. I still do when it comes to business, but I’m not as easily effected emotionally. It’s silly to derive my own feeling of worth from what other people think.
I think it’s possible to act with kindness and love without worrying about the results or if people like me. By the way, like this post by clicking the heart at the bottom. If you don’t I promise to be just fine :-)