I recognized the defeated look on my daughter’s face as she descended the boxy stairs of the school bus. It was a look that I had held on my own face on more than one occasion.
“Suzie didn’t want to play with me on the playground today. She said that she only wanted to play with Sarah,” my daughter whispered as she climbed into the car.
“But you play with Zoey, Chrissy, and Ellie too,” I say. “Yes, we were still playing our game, but Suzie just wanted to play with Sarah. She said that she didn’t like to play with me.”
The conflict she held in her eyes was all too familiar to me. From a young age we get the message in many subtle ways that everyone should like us, all of the time, and if they don’t there must be something wrong with us. But this is a lie. Of course we want some people to like us, but it’s not possible or really even desirable to be liked by everyone. I wish someone had told me sooner, and I wanted to find a way to convey this to my daughter.
I thought back to a time, years ago, when I was upset from a long day of teaching and frustrated over a mean comment that a colleague had made about my appearance. A friend told me something that stuck with me. She looked at the dejected expression on my face and said, “Girl, you might be the perfect peach, but some people just don’t like peaches!”
I smiled because it was a flawless way to convey the message that, sometimes people’s criticism of you is actually more about them. In fact, if you can take yourself and your emotions out of it, liking someone is a personal preference similar to liking or disliking a food. Not everyone has to like you because really there is nothing that every single person likes, no matter how great it is.
I thought of a conversation I had with another friend a few days ago that would illustrate this point perfectly for my daughter. We were discussing one of my favorite topics, dessert, when my friend said, “I don’t really like chocolate, never have.” I was astounded. “You. Don’t. Like. Chocolate?” I said punctuating each syllable to appropriately convey my disbelief. How could this be? Clearly everyone knew that chocolate is delicious!
But maybe it is just that simple. We all have the right to our preferences, things that we like and dislike. But guess what? After that conversation, I didn’t wonder if there was something wrong with chocolate because there was one person who said, “No thank you, I really don’t like chocolate.” So, why do we do this to ourselves?
Just like chocolate or peaches, we can’t be liked by everyone. “It’s not even about you, it’s about them,” I tell my daughter.” “They would just rather have vanilla ice cream or candy canes,” I elaborate. “But they might change their mind. Remember when you were four you didn’t like ice cream, and now it is your favorite.” “I just thought it was too cold, but now I love it,” she says.
“But it is not your job to change people’s minds, and that doesn’t mean that you should change anything about yourself,” I add, warning her that if you change based on every person’s preference, you are in danger of diluting what makes you special and unique. You risk becoming something indistinguishable, so far from yourself, that one day you don’t even recognize your own reflection. Because if you always think first about whether someone will like who you are or what you do, you can never do anything significant. Doing big things involves risk, and your fear of other’s perceptions with keep you paralyzed in place.
“Because let’s face it, there are millions of opinions in the world and you can’t please everyone. Actually it is not your job to, or really any of your business what other people think,” I say knowing my daughter will like this. Since she is in elementary school, my daughter is keenly aware of what is and is not her business. She smiles, understanding that clearly other people’s thoughts do not fall in this realm.
“When some people dislike you,” I continue, “it is actually more like a compliment.” She looks perplexed. I elaborate, “It means you are doing something right. You will run into all kinds of people, some who are cruel, intolerant, or just plain mean. You don’t want to be liked by people like that, and you might not like them very much. Recognizing this is the key to doing what is right.”
“Let’s face it” I say, “Sometimes you will just be being you and someone won’t like it. And that’s okay, they don’t have to. Because at the end of the day, feeling happy with yourself is the most important thing,” I say. I hear my words echo back to me against the cold glass of the car window. There is no response. I turn to see my daughter staring out towards the busy street. “What are you thinking about?” I ask. “Did you say ice cream?” she replies with a smile.
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