This year, I’ve been feeling more emotionally secure, thanks to various kinds of internal and external work (the stuff at https://attachmentrepair.com/ being one notable example).
The effect of this doesn’t always feel like I expected it to feel.
I once thought that in order to not worry so much about whether people like me, I would need to become convinced that they do like me. Or at least I’d need to convince myself that at least some people like me, strongly enough that it would reassure me in general.
That does play a certain role. I probably wouldn’t feel the way I do now, if I hadn’t managed to internalize evidence about some people actually liking me quite a bit. And if I ended up in a conversation where it was obvious that someone hated me, yeah, that wouldn’t be fun.
But my actual internal experience of feeling more secure in interacting with other people, isn’t necessarily that I put a higher probability on the other person liking me than I did before. Often it’s more like noticing that thinking about how much the other person likes me, isn’t a particularly rewarding frame of mind to be in. And that it’s possible to sometimes at least drop that frame and let a more rewarding frame arise.
If I had to verbalize it, there’s sometimes a shift in stances that’s accompanied by a thought that goes along the lines of “it’s possible that I’m secretly annoying this person and they totally hate me without telling me that and I’m doing nothing to deny that possibility, but I’m going to get more out of this interaction if I just focus on something more rewarding – such as the general flow of this conversation – unless I get a clear indication that I’m doing something wrong”.
Except that that’s not quite right, because what I do then isn’t me trying to focus on something more rewarding. Nor is it an attempt to suppress the analysis about what the other person’s opinion about me is. Rather it’s just a remembering to inhibit the part of me that’s about to start focusing on that analysis, and then letting something else arise from that space on its own.
And that’s becoming more automatic, so that I don’t necessarily even need to do that anymore. If the thought of “it’s possible that this person secretly hates me” crosses my mind at all, it may do so very quickly and then be gone.
(I originally wrote large parts of this a month ago, for the forum of Michael Ashcroft’s Alexander Technique course; if I had written it from scratch now, I’m not sure I’d have been able to verbalize that shift in stances anymore, because it has become automatic/subtle enough to miss.)
All of this is not to say that I wouldn’t still feel significantly anxious in some social situations that happen to trigger that. Just that there are increasingly situations where I don’t, where I previously did.
I recall a conversation I once had with someone, when I was still a lot more worried about this kind of thing. When I said I was worried about what other people think of me, she said “but you can’t actually know what others think of you, so why focus on that?”
From where I’m at now, I can understand her confusion.
If you’re feeling secure, what others think of you is just a question like any other, such as “I wonder what they had for breakfast today”. You can choose to think about it, but it’s not intrinsically compelling. If it feels like an unanswerable question that it doesn’t give you any benefit to think about, you can just… not think about it. Why wouldn’t you think about something else? There are lots of more fun things to think about!
But if you’re feeling insecure, you can’t just choose not to think about it. Someone not liking you, or even possibly not liking you, feels on a deep emotional level like danger. It’s much more like “is my partner going to abandon me” than it’s “what did these people have for breakfast”. Because you’re so sensitive to rejection that even a stranger disliking you feels a little bit like being abandoned by a loved one, like nobody will ever love you.
From that frame of mind, my friend’s question of “you can’t know, so why care” felt incomprehensible. There was a sense of “yeah I can’t know, and that’s exactly what’s horrifying and it’s why I have to keep worrying about it”.
Because “you can’t know what other people think of you” felt, on some emotional level, a little bit like “you can’t know whether anyone will ever truly care about you”.
So from that frame, I thought that when I’d get to the point of feeling more secure, it would feel like putting a higher probability on “the people who I’m currently interacting with like me”. Since emotionally “other people liking me” and “I’m worthy of love” felt like the same thing, even if I intellectually understood that this doesn’t make sense.
But while feeling more secure does also somewhat involve putting a higher probability on other people liking me, it also involves that question becoming separate from the feeling of “I’m worthy of love”. A lower probability on being liked, doesn’t necessarily imply lower worth.
And that’s something that I might have been able to understand intellectually before, but I wouldn’t have been able to imagine what the actual experience of it feels like.