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By David Sack M.D

To feel accepted is a nearly universal human desire. After all, we evolved to survive better in groups, where fitting in and having the trust and respect of our peers are the measures of success. The need to belong is in our DNA.

But sometimes that need takes center stage, and what others think about us takes on more importance than what we think about ourselves.

We may analyze each look and word that comes our way for clues that we’ve been judged and found acceptable or lacking. Someone passing in the hall without a hello may leave us red-faced and convinced we don’t deserve notice. We may people-please, always putting others first, which leaves us open to being taken advantage of while we chase praise. We may exhaust ourselves trying to be cool enough, hard-working enough, attractive enough, or successful enough to feel valued.

What’s behind this anxiety about being liked, and why are some of us so much more vulnerable to it than others?

In many cases, it’s a type of echo from the past. At some point in our lives, something or someone may have made connection and affection seem conditional, something we have to fight for and don’t really deserve. A sense of shame develops as we inevitably fall short of perfection. Author Brené Brown, who has spent her career studying shame and the ways in which we can develop what she calls “shame resilience,” writes of this in her bookThe Gifts of Imperfection:

“Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think?”

Perhaps your childhood caregivers were emotionally distant, physically or verballyabusive, or set impossible standards. Perhaps you were bullied at school. Perhaps you felt as though you never measured up in our competitive comparison culture.

Or perhaps you can’t pinpoint an explanation. You just know you feel insecure and unworthy, and that leads you to count on others for reassurance that you matter and belong.

To be sure, wanting to be thought of positively isn’t a bad thing. We all need a little awareness of how others view us to keep balanced and attuned to how we affect others. But too much concern about what people think can lead us to value only what others want from us, rather than what we desire and need. And the irony is that what starts out as an effort to ensure our happiness and acceptance can end up doing the opposite.

Creating a New Mindset

If you recognize that you are someone who’s anxious about being liked, there are steps you can take to get back to a healthier relationship with others and with yourself.

1. Keep things in perspective.

It’s said that people would care a lot less about what others think about them if they knew how little others think about them. And it’s true: Everyone has enough to occupy their mind. They also have their own insecurities. If you’re worried about how you come across to someone you’ve just met, keep in mind that they’re probably doing the same.