I've been scared my entire life
How I overcame my fear of people
“Why do you care?”
It’s 2020, and I’m in therapy for the first time. I’ve just admitted to my therapist that one of my biggest fears is people not liking me. Now she’s asking me why I care about that, and I’m lost for words. Why do I care?
I didn’t know it then, but I’ve figured it out since. I, like most women, was taught to care. I was raised to please, and every time I failed to do it, I was met with disapproval or, even worse, disappointment.
If you teach girls to always be pleasant, always be polite, to take abuse from boys uncomplainingly because they are actually compliments (he’s kicking you in the shins because he likes you), you teach them that the approval of others, particularly men, is more important than their own feelings.
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He’s rude to you? Boys will be boys.
He made a sexist joke? Just smile and nod, don’t be a spoilsport.
They’re saying mean things about you? What did you do to provoke it? Did you dress provocatively, opened your big fat mouth again, tell him off? Well, what do you expect? If you act that way, of course they’ll say bad stuff about you. You brought in onto yourself.
If girls are taught that their value depends on how well they are liked, is it any wonder that we crave approval?
We are taught that we need to care. But listen carefully now: don’t care about yourself, that’s selfish and unbecoming. No man wants a self-absorbed woman. Care about others, care about your man, your children, your parents, your neighbours, your co-workers, your friends, your friends’ kids. Care about how your behaviour reflects on all these people you should care about. Don’t be an embarrassment to them! It’s your job that your husband’s buddies like you, that he’s the envy of the neighbourhood for having a beautiful, accomplished, nice wife. Care about being liked, for his sake.
I didn’t have an answer to my therapist’s “Why do you care?” three years ago.
But I do now:
Because I had been taught I was worthless if someone didn’t like me.
Because I had been taught that I had failed if I wasn’t likable.
Because I believed that the highest compliment was to be regarded as nice by others.
I believed the goal was to be what others wanted me to be, to make them comfortable, to make myself fit in with them.
It was my job to make them feel good, even if it came at the price of feeling bad myself.
It is, of course, an impossible task. You set yourself up for failure if you try to be all things to all people. We have no power over how other people see us, and trying to influence them into liking us will drive us insane.
How do you deal with that pressure?
One word: alcohol.
Alcohol is the ideal substance to shut women up. It makes us mellow, more agreeable, and with the right dosage we’ll laugh about everything, even your terrible jokes. The next day we’ll feel terrible, needy, often tearful and filled with shame. That’s the perfect state to keep us humble, grateful for having you, and too preoccupied to plot a rebellion.
The entire time I was drinking regularly I didn’t know what was going on. I had this persistent nagging feeling that something was off, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Using mindaltering substances will keep you too distracted to recognize patterns in your life, too busy to change, too ashamed to think you deserve better.
(Btw, dieting does the same, as does telling women that they need to work on their beauty consistently to be worthy. Being constantly hungry and worried about our looks keeps us nice and distracted from real issues.)
I drank to numb the discomfort I was feeling, to drown the voices in my head that shouted at me “YOU ARE NOTHING IF THEY DON’T LIKE YOU!”, to make unbearable people more bearable. I used alcohol as tranquilizer to take the sharpness out of the acute pain of feeling like my existence depended on the approval of others.
Then I quit.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve never done. Not because I was so addicted, or because society shoves alcohol down our throats, or because I had gotten so used to the crutch that I was stumbling without it (even though all of those played a role).
No, the hard part was taking the protective shield away I had put up between me and the world, and to experience it in technicolour and at full volume. It was a lot. I was completely overwhelmed at first.
I had to face all my problems without my little helper to soften the blow. I had to take stock of my life, overhaul the inventory, get rid of some things (and people) that didn’t serve me anymore, and I had to take action where I had previously been pleasantly indecisive, always postponing it for tomorrow. Well, tomorrow had finally arrived.
That’s the hard part about taking the sedative away: you’re finally wide awake, and you can’t ignore your problems any longer.
But here is the good part about taking the sedative away: you’re finally wide awake, and you don’t need to ignore your problems any longer.
You finally have the mental clarity, the physical energy, and the time to address your problems and start solving them one by one.
(So.much.time: it’s insane how time-consuming drinking, being hungover, and maintaining shame and self-loathing are.)
Quitting drinking was an awakening. I feel like I’ve sleep-walked through my life before, believing things I’d been taught without questioning them, and accepting the inherent unfairness of life as inevitable. Not anymore.
Over the past year and a half I’ve been looking at the world with new eyes. I recognize the patriarchy now, and once you start seeing it, you can’t unsee it. It’s everywhere, and most uncomfortably, it’s been inside me as well - in my own beliefs, actions, and as one of the causes contributing to my unhappiness. I didn’t have boundaries, I said yes to things I didn’t want to say yes to, I took the blame when it wasn’t my fault, I was always the first to apologize to keep the peace.
I have done a lot of learning and growing since I quit. And most importantly: I’ve grown some balls. The amazing thing about having a sharp mind 24/7 and learning some handy tools like boundaries is that you will get to know yourself properly. You will figure out what’s important to you, not anybody else, and once you start acting accordingly, guess what happens?
You’ll learn to like yourself.
And once you do, you will stop caring about what people think of you.
You don’t need their approval anymore because you have your own approval.
You finally understand that the only person you live with is yourself, and that you are the only person you are accountable to.
It doesn’t mean that you should be cruel or thoughtless towards other people. Everybody deserves kindness and respect. But what they don’t deserve is more of you than you are willing to give. You don’t have to agree with them; you can politely disagree. You don’t have to say yes if you don’t want to; you can say no, and you don’t have to justify it (no is a complete sentence). You don’t have to make yourself smaller for them to feel more important. And you don’t have to care what they think of you.
I’ve been afraid of other people my entire life. They had so much power over me, scared me, made me insecure, made me feel as if I wasn’t good enough. Drinking only intensified my fears and anxieties and incrementally made them worse over the years.
But their hold over me loosened the moment I put the bottle down. And it’s gotten weaker ever since that fateful, glorious day back in December 2021. It’s not been easy to get here. On the contrary: liberating myself from lifelong lessons and old beliefs has been the most difficult task of my life. Relationships had to be reexamined, and some have been lost. My marriage is still navigating these new waters where the rules have changed - but we are getting there! My husband, who inadvertently has been part of the problem, is exceedingly proud of me for how far I’ve come, and he’s transforming in ways I didn’t think possible.
I never thought I’d get here one day. I also never expected that the key to getting here was giving up my beloved wine.
Has it been worth it?
If you are familiar with the fear of other people, you know the answer to that one. If you, like my husband, are in the enviable position of living a life largely free of fear, let me explain what it’s like.
Even the most carefree person has something they are afraid of. It could be spiders, failure, he world ending tomorrow. Everybody has something (and us lucky ones have a wide variety to choose from).
My husband’s something is a crippling fear of public speaking; so much so that he choked when trying to give a father-of-the-bride speech at our daughter’s wedding and sat down after barely 20 seconds. When I explained to him that I feel like that all the time, horror and understanding dawned on him. He finally got it. Being afraid of people, constantly agonizing if they like you, avoiding confrontation, bending over backwards to do everything you can think of to be liked - it’s an exhausting, terrible way to live. And to top it off, it’s doomed to fail.
Back to the question if it’s been worth it. Yes, it has been. A thousand - no, make that a million - times over.
I’m still scared a lot. I still have anxiety. But my default is no longer to be automatically scared of everybody. I no longer base my selfworth on whether someone else thinks I’m a nice person. I stand up for myself now. I have boundaries. And I’m not afraid to enforce them.
I wish you a week filled with courage and balls!
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