A good friend and I were having one of those conversations that you can have only with someone who really is a good friend: we each disclosed the names of people we were certain didn’t like us and what evidence we had.
What sparked this particular discussion was something I’d received earlier in the day by email. It was an essay by the late Erma Bombeck titled “If I Had My Life to Live Over,” and although for the most part it was inspiring, I told my friend that there was one point I disagreed with: the one in which she wrote “Don't worry about who doesn't like you.”
“I actually do think it’s worthwhile to pay attention to people who don’t like you,” I admitted. “In fact, I think I’ve made some very beneficial course corrections over the years based on the awareness that someone didn’t seem to like me, after considering why that may be and whether they might be justified.”
And that’s true. It’s not like I run into people all the time from whom I get a negative vibe, but it does happen once in a while, and if it’s someone I have fairly regular interactions with, I really do find it useful to think back as to why that may be the case. More often than not, I can think of a comment I may have made that wasn’t necessarily very kind-spirited, or a dismissive act related to them, or a time I was simply self-absorbed or self-aggrandizing in their presence.
“But aren’t there some people who just seem to not like you for no reason at all?” my friend argued. “What if you really can’t think of a good reason? Or the reason you come up with just doesn’t make sense?”
I agreed that sometimes this is the case, and there's always something to be said for accepting the things we cannot change. Sometimes you just have to realize you can’t please everyone. But those times when I’ve recognized the validity of someone else’s negative responses to me, it’s been valuable: even if I can’t erase what I’ve done, I can avoid making the same mistake in the future. I can be more careful not to be catty or dismissive or self-aggrandizing again.
I still have a vivid memory of being eight years old and riding in the back seat of my friend Julie’s family’s station wagon. This was in the days when kids were still allowed to ride in the cargo area behind the back seat, and that’s where my friend’s 6-year-old sister and her friend were positioned when I heard the sister’s friend whisper, “Do you like Julie’s friend?” The other 6-year-old made some kind of affirmative comment and then the first little girl spoke again. “Well, I don’t! She has curly hair! Yuck!”
You’d think this would be a traumatic memory, but even at the age of eight I realized the ridiculousness of it. Curly hair? The quintessential thing-I-could-do-nothing-about, and even at that young age I realized there was no point it letting this kind of prejudice bother me.
So, with all due respect to the beloved essayist Erma Bombeck and her generally trenchant points about living life fully, I would disagree with her on this one, at least partially. Do pay attention to people who don’t like you. Give them their fair due. Think about whether their attitude may reflect a weakness on your part that you can correct.
And if not, or if you do correct it and it doesn’t seem to help, accept that fact and move on. Focus on people who do seem to like you, and learn from them what you’re doing right. Everyone can’t like everyone. Trust me. We curly-haired girls learn fast.