Whether we know it or not, the basis for our self-esteem is normally founded in our expectations of interpersonal acceptance. If we believe we will be accepted by those we encounter, we feel good about ourselves. If we imagine that we’ll be rejected, we feel bad. Of course, this is quite a generalization but, as you may have already concluded, generalizations are my thing. Anyhow, as simple as this sounds, there is a little more to it.
How do we decide if we’re being accepted by people? I think it all comes from past experience. Those who have been burned repeatedly by people they thought were their friends tend to be skeptical of what may appear as acceptance. This makes sense – it’s a defense mechanism. We see this in individuals who carry around insecurity, always offering caveats to their expressed ideas and always claiming to be neutral when the decision to choose a restaurant comes up. Though the individuals in their midst may truly like them, they maintain their skepticism – “I wonder what he’s really thinking” is always on their minds. Some folks get this way by spending too much time with duplicitous people. Even if they have faired well in the acceptance game, being exposed for too long to people who don’t really mean what they say has distorted their ability to trust their perceptions. It’s sad but it’s EVERYWHERE. Mistakes in perception of acceptance also happen on the other end of the spectrum.
Those who have always been accepted will almost automatically expect acceptance, even when the evidence is pretty clear that they aren’t well-liked. We all know people like this, people who act like jerks but are then astonished when they learn that most people don’t care for them. I have found that this presents itself most often in people who are quite physically attractive. My next book will deal with looks and how our minds are tuned to pay deference to the most attractive among us, even though it now makes no sense at all. For now, suffice it to say that it is ironic for some people that the characteristic they have that should make life easy for them ends up making it much harder.
So what’s the point of all this? Simple – there’s an easy solution to the interpersonal acceptance problem. Truth. For those who carry around feelings of insecurity, try this: take EVERYONE at their word. If they’re your family or close friends, tell them that this is your policy. What you get from this is immense. You get out of from under wondering what people are really thinking. If someone tells me they’re neutral and I’m not, we’re eating where I choose. Period. I can’t read minds and it’s too stressful to try. Of course, with people you don’t know, you should never put yourself in a position to be taken advantage of. I’m not saying believe everything someone tells you. I’m just saying don’t try to put other words in their mouth.
Over time, people who don’t mean what they say will get on board with your policy or separate themselves from you. It’s a self-correcting system. (If you do this and find that you still don’t have lots of friends, you’re a different kind of person – not any better or worse than any other, just different. That means you need to pack your crap and find the people out there who are different like you. No matter what, however, do NOT give in and try to fit in where you don’t. It’s not worth it. I promise.) The bottom line is that worrying about what other people are thinking is crazy. Not only does it place unneeded stress on your interpersonal situations, it causes your personality to become too heavily filtered, which is visible to anyone paying attention. Consequently, you may find that people who would normally accept you do not – because you’re not you, you’re the person you think they want you to be. Oh, what an ugly, vicious circle. Take them at their word, trust your gut, and do your thing. Believe me, it works.
And for people who expect too much in interpersonal acceptance, ask yourself these questions: do I automatically think of myself as better than someone because I am more attractive than they are? Do I give preferential treatment to people I believe are “in my league” looks-wise? This is where truth comes in. Be honest. If the answers to these questions are yes, there’s a good chance you’re a jerk and most everyone who knows you thinks so. Get over yourself and recognize that though your looks may confer some perks in daily life, the real litmus tests for value as a modern human being have nothing to do with physical attractiveness. Trust me on this.
This brings me back to the original idea of self-esteem. If you must connect it to expectations of interpersonal acceptance, there’s only one way to do it. Be concerned about being accepted by good people, people who live up to your ethics (this presumes that you’ve reasoned your way to a set of ethics – more on this later). With regard to all others, interpersonal acceptance is irrelevant. In fact, we should want things to be a harshly truthful as possible – that way we know where we stand. If I go to a hoity-toity party and some lady is going on about how the trim on her Mercedes seats was supposed to be white but it turned out to be black, I simply about face and head for the bar. That generally doesn’t go over well, so my acceptance there is probably nil. But that’s OK. I have no interest in acceptance in that kind of environment. Alternatively, if I’m with someone I deeply admire and I get the impression they are disappointed in me, I pursue it. Fortunately, the situations that don’t matter are far more frequent, so, for the most part, interpersonal acceptance is rarely a consideration. Those who think like this are drawn to one another – the discourse is BS-free. As the philosopher Dan Dennett is fond of saying, “You can externalize most anything if you make yourself small enough.” True dat.