I had a feeling she didn't like me, but maybe I was just in my own head again. Or maybe it was me? Was I not being warm and kind enough? As she walked towards the group, I could feel the panic rising in my chest and, with it, the need to know. I decided to stand my ground: to keep my body language open, to seek eye contact, to listen actively.
I got nothing.
The woman spent the next five minutes chatting with everyone in the group, including the person to my right and the person to my left, except me. I sat, physically leaning into the situation, smiling, nodding my head, doing everything a friendly, good listener should do, and I got nothing.
As the door shut behind her and my friends returned to our previous conversations, I started to feel my mind close in on me. The sounds of the room became muffled by the stories I'd started playing in my head. Stories of inadequacy, imperfection, social isolation, worthlessness, and doubt. What did I do? What didn't I do? Why aren't I good enough for her?
I had just decided to pause my therapy subscription with TalkSpace that day and felt a pang of shame as I reached into my purse for my phone. I opened the app and tapped the talk bubble. "Haha, well that was a nice experiment." I messaged to my therapist, who was offline.
Just as I was about to relay the incident, a friend of my placed her hand on my shoulder. "You ok?," she asked.
I thought about it for a moment: I was not okay, and this was my chance to own that. In the spirit of vulnerability, I told her I was having a moment. I told her I was frustrated by the feelings of being disliked and that those feelings of frustration made me even more upset. I didn't want to let it bother me and cause me this much anxiety. I told her that I was trying to tell myself that it was all in my head, just like everyone had told me the last time this happened.
"Actually," she said. "I noticed that too. She's not usually like that with people". My friend, who knew the woman better than I, added to my suspicion: this person might not like me.
At first, I was annoyed. I hadn't done anything to this women to deserve being disliked by her. I felt this tightness start to form in my stomach, the same feeling I'd get when starting at an insurmountable to-do list or when a wrench was thrown in my plans.
When I woke up the next morning, I had a notification on my phone from TalkSpace. It was my therapist... she wanted to know what happened. I had left her quite the cliff hanger, after all.
I hesitated to recount the incident because I was embarrassed by how much it had bothered me. I was embarrassed that the opinion of someone I barely knew had driven me to restart our therapy session at 11pm on a Friday night. Then it hit me: my anxiety and feelings of shame around this incident weren't a result of being disliked by that woman. They were coming from feelings of failure, and my lifelong fear of it. I remembered the work I had been doing to claim my fear of failure rather than be ashamed of it and decided to tell my therapist anyway.
As we discussed the incident, and I told her about my realization that this was related to fear and a need to be validated, she asked me: If I hadn't done anything to hurt this person and if they weren't a close friend or acquaintance, did it matter that she didn't like me?
I told her no. Then I told her yes. (and this is why I love therapy, because there's always a "both" option) It didn't matter that this particular woman didn't like me, but it mattered that I could be disliked. This was important, because it meant that I can't control everyone's reactions and every situation. It mattered because it meant that disappointment and failure is inevitable. It mattered because it meant that being perfect not only isn't possible, but that its possibility was never up to me in the first place. Even if I had attained some self-set point of perfection, it was only such from my perspective. No amount of active listening skills and inviting body language could have fixed this situation, because we can't always be in control of both the action and the re-action.
In the months that followed, this truth proved pivotal in managing my anxiety and examining the pressures I put on myself. I began to explore relaxing self-imposed deadlines and setting new non-negotiables, ones that served me and not my need to serve others. I wrote less blog posts to fuel my deep desire to read and sleep more fervently. I said no to freelance projects in order to preserve energy for existing clients. Maybe I disappointed others, but I defended my sanctity. As much as I'd have liked to be able to do it all, I couldn't. And if someone was going to be let down, it damn well wasn't going to be me this time.
What would you do if you didn't care about disappointing others?
If you knew that no-one would be disappointed, or perhaps that everyone would be disappointed no matter what you did, what would you do? or what wouldn't you do?