There is one thing we humans crave above all else, and that is the feeling of being loved. To know that others appreciate us, look up to us, and respect us.
Essentially, we crave a social safety net we can fall back on.
This craving for a social safety net is programmed into our DNA for a good reason. If – 50,000 years ago – your tribe decided that you were a “bad” person and excluded you from the group, that meant almost certain death. On the other hand, if everyone in the group appreciated you as a person, you knew that, even if you got sick or screwed up, the group would be there for you.
But this need for a social safety net has a dark side. It will make us withhold truths, put up fake facades of perfection, tell lies, develop eating disorders, fret over what others think of us, and beat ourselves up for not being good enough – all because of the fear that others won’t love us.
I am no different myself.
- When I wanted to open up to my parents about my career plans but I didn’t, I stayed silent because I was afraid they wouldn’t love me as much if I chose a different career than they wanted.
- When I pushed myself so hard at my studies in 8th grade that I almost burned out, I did it to maintain my status as the “straight-A student” so that others would look up to me.
- When I told the teacher that it was my group members fault that we had handed in our assignment late, I blamed them to protect my own reputation of always delivering perfectly that I believed made others respect me.
- When I compulsively counted calories and ate less than I should have, I constrained myself because I was scared of that others wouldn’t like me if I became overweight.
- When I lied straight to my own brother’s face to make myself look better, I did it because I was afraid that he wouldn’t love me anymore if he found out the truth.
In all these examples, I just ended up hurting both myself and the people I cared for. All because I was afraid that I otherwise wouldn’t be loved. That I wouldn’t have a social safety net to fall back on.
At the heart of this fear is a flawed belief – that people will only love us if we are smart enough, strong enough, rich enough, perfect enough. Therefore, we can’t allow any weakness to show. We work ourselves to death trying to live up to some perfect ideal. We withhold those uncomfortable conversations because we are afraid of being judged. We tell others everything is great only to come home crying in front of the mirror.
This belief of a perfectly polished facade is not only wrong. It’s completely backward. When popstar Avicii, actor Robin Williams, or billionaire Jake Millar committed suicide, they each had millions of admirers. But tacit admirers aren’t the ones who will be for us when we fall.
We too often confuse being envied or admired with being loved. People may envy or admire you because you are smart, pretty, hard-working, talented, or rich. But they are not going to love you for these qualities. If anything, your perfect facade will likely make them more distant to you, because you become unrelatable. Others will see a perfect shell, but there is nothing they can connect with on the inside. In fact, your success will likely make them feel worse about themselves.
Sandra is the typical “popular” girl at high school. She is smart, funny, and blessed with good looks – the girl that everyone wants to hang out with. But in her heart, she believes that people like her just because she’s smart and pretty. So she spends hours each day in private fretting about her looks, carefully eliminating every single perfection, and half-killing herself to hand in A+ on every assignment. When she shows up at school, she appears as if she has everything under control. Her peers look up to her reverently, she is the golden student amongst the teachers, and her parents are immensely proud of her and repeatedly tell her so. But inside, Sandra is tormented by anxiety, feels a constant pressure on her chest, and sometimes cries herself to sleep to numb the overwhelming stress. Every compliment she receives always seems to be about her smarts and her looks. Her friends tell her she’s “gorgeous”. Her teachers praise her for her “excellent work”. Even her parents appreciate her with: “How did we ever do to deserve such a beautiful and hard-working girl?”.
If all you heard was that you were a good person because you were intelligent and pretty, then your entire self-worth would be wrapped up in just these two qualities. Sandra honestly believed that everyone would stop loving her – that the social safety net she craved would vanish – if she didn’t keep up her smart and good-looking facade. While all the people in Sandra’s life meant well, their compliments only reinforced her belief that people loved her because she was the “perfect” girl. Their compliments only made the pressure worse.
And while Sandra struggles in secret, her friend Joanne is depressed because she feels nowhere near as perfect. It’s a twisted form of irony. In her attempt to be loved by Joanne, Sandra believed she had to appear perfect. But while Joanne might envy Sandra for being perfect, she is actually less likely to love her for it. Sandra’s facade only made her feel more unrelatable to Joanne, distancing their friendship, and it made Joanne feel worse about herself.
So what does make people love us?
Being authentic means that we are honest about our imperfections and open about our uncomfortable feelings. For Sandra, an authentic conversation about her parents might have been:
“This is a very difficult conversation for me, but I can’t hide it anymore – I’m afraid that you only love me for my good looks and great grades at school. I am miserable and stressed out all the time because I feel I have to appear perfect for you to like me. Every exam feels like a test to see if I am still ‘good enough’. I can’t stand the pressure much longer. But I’m scared that if I don’t keep it up, you won’t love me anymore.”
Having such a conversation is so difficult because we are afraid of what we will hear. What if our parents really do love us only because of our looks and smarts? What if they do stop loving us if they find out we are not perfect?
Living in uncertainty can feel like the safer option. But it’s debilitating in the long run. And the truth is that no one loves you for being perfect. They love you for being authentically you. Imagine how much closer Sandra would be to her parents if she opened up about her fears. Imagine how much stronger her friendship with Joanne would be if she stopped hiding her insecurities and showed her imperfections. By being authentic – not a perfect facade – Sandra would get all the love she wanted. And what’s more, Joanne would also stop feeling so pressured by Sandra, knowing that she too is an imperfect human with her own doubts and insecurities.
Which qualities do you believe are the reasons people love you? Is it that you:
- Always have all the answers?
- Always deliver with excellence?
- Always say “yes” when asked to help out?
How is your belief that you are loved because of these qualities harming you? Are you:
- Burning yourself out to perform perfectly?
- Saying “yes” even when you don’t want to not disappoint others?
- Avoiding difficult conversations for fear of being judged?
But what if you let go of your facade and be the authentic you? What if we could love each other for who we are, and not who we pretend to be?
Isn’t that authentic love the love you really want?