Painting of a heron perched on a branch against a gold background. The bird is depicted in fine detail with white feathers and a green beak, while the branch is rendered in dark, bold strokes. Traditional Asian calligraphy with red seals is present in the lower right corner.

丸山応挙 (Heron on a Willow Branch) by Maruyama Ōkyo . Late 1700s. Courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art


What to do when you’re feeling upset about being disliked

丸山応挙 (Heron on a Willow Branch) by Maruyama Ōkyo . Late 1700s. Courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art

by Ahona Guha + BIO





It’s an unavoidable part of life. Here are some tried and tested ways to get more comfortable with someone not liking you

To be liked by others is often treated as a paramount aim. The quest for social approval begins in childhood, and it continues in a range of ways throughout the lifespan as people try to find their friend group, hunt for a partner, seek promotions at work, or organise playgroups with other parents. Most of these activities are predicated on being accepted and liked by others.

So, for many of us, there is little that’s more unsettling than learning or suspecting that someone dislikes you. The signs of dislike could be subtle or overt. You might find that you are being excluded by a group you thought you were friendly with. Or you might notice that a colleague is suddenly giving you the cold shoulder. More overtly, a friend might reveal that some behaviour of yours annoys or upsets them, or even tell you that they no longer wish to be friends.

In my work as a clinical psychologist, it’s common for people to come in for help with social anxiety – a debilitating fear that they will be evaluated and found wanting. Approximately 12 per cent of adults will experience social anxiety disorder in their lifetime, and many others experience subclinical social anxiety. Numerous people have also spoken to me of pivotal moments in childhood and adolescence: times when they were bullied, ostracised, picked last for team sports (this is an experience I too recall, with a twist of anxiety), left to work on a group project alone, or had friends turn against them. The impact of experiences like these – when many of us first realise that we might be disliked and even treated cruelly by some – can bleed into adulthood, through ideas about not being ‘good enough’ or not fitting in. Early experiences are often at the root of the distress felt by someone who is especially worried about being disliked. But anyone can occasionally experience such worries.

In many ways, being disliked is inevitable. Most of us interact at times with people who are very different from us and hold views that diverge from ours, which can make friction more likely. Even if you have only good intentions and carefully manage your behaviour and words, there are various potential reasons why someone could still dislike you: sometimes people unwittingly step on each other’s boundaries; personalities clash, such as when a very anxious person spends time with a very direct person; or, maybe there’s a hidden undercurrent of jealousy or rivalry.

If everyone liked you, that might indicate that you are hiding what you really think

Feeling dread about being disliked makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. For our distant ancestors, being disliked and ostracised from a group that provided support and protection might have amounted to a death sentence. While it’s difficult to conclusively prove evolutionary assumptions about psychology, you can use this hypothesis as a springboard to explore your own feelings about being disliked. The world has changed a lot since the days of cavemen, but our brains have not, and the same neural pathways are likely activated by signs that someone dislikes you.

Being disliked is no longer likely to mean death, but it can still have painful effects such as exclusion from a friend group or the denial of a promotion. Sometimes it is what someone’s dislike seems to highlight about you that causes pain. Maybe something that you perceive as a flaw and have worked hard to hide has been exposed, or a secret doubt you’ve had about yourself (Am I too loud? Too shy?) has started to crystallise. It’s often not just being disliked that is the real issue, but the meaning we make of it, what we think it says about us, and the implications it might have for our future.

At the same time, the way an anxious mind perceives the costs of being disliked is often unrealistic and unhelpful. Being disliked by one colleague, for instance, might not actually inhibit your progress at work. Similarly, if a certain friend or acquaintance turns away from you, there will likely be others who stand with you. And if someone on social media thinks you’re the worst, you can always tune them out with the click of a button. Being disliked is, ultimately, tolerable – and perhaps even healthy, in a way. Because if everyone you ever met liked you, that might indicate that you are hiding what you really think, have a lack of boundaries, or never stand up for yourself.

When the discomfort with being disliked runs very deep, is underlain by traumatic childhood experiences, or is at the threshold where it leads to a diagnosable clinical disorder, then therapeutic assistance is vital. For everyone else, however, a few simple steps might help smooth the pathway to acceptance. Accepting the possibility of being disliked by some people can enable you to tolerate specific instances without catastrophising (This will be disastrous for me), globalising (Everyone dislikes me), or experiencing more distress than the situation warrants. You can soothe your unease about being disliked, recognise and remedy any challenging behaviours that you might have engaged in (if relevant), and remember that encountering dislike is an inevitable part of human relationships.

Recognise and name the distress

Identifying and naming emotions can help you process them. Instead of sitting with an ambiguous sense of distress, describe (verbally or in writing) what you are feeling and why. For example, you might say, ‘I feel sad because my friend said no to catching up, and I worry that they don’t like me anymore.’ Or, if a colleague is visibly displeased with you or seems to be ignoring you, you might recognise that it evokes memories of being bullied in school and brings up worries about whether you’re ‘good enough’ and whether you will succeed in your career.

If you are honest with yourself, you can probably identify some of the more superficial reasons you dislike someone

You don’t necessarily need to communicate this to someone else; even writing about it in a journal can support an increased understanding of your emotional processes. As you come to understand your own emotions better and follow the trail of your thinking, you can slowly learn to separate the past from the present, and to identify and name specific emotions instead of feeling a nameless dread.

Ask yourself, ‘How bad is it really?’

The brain’s tendency to catastrophise, or imagine the worst outcome possible, can heighten your sense of doom and gloom about the possibility that someone dislikes you. A few specific questions can help you manage this thinking. Decades of research shows that when someone can reframe their thinking and reorient it toward what is realistic, the intensity of emotions often decreases.

Some pertinent questions to ask yourself might include:

  • How much would being disliked by this person/these people really impact my life?
  • Am I hyperfocusing on one negative experience and ignoring positive experiences with people who care about me?
  • Am I generalising too much from this incident? Am I telling myself no one likes me based on this one incident?
  • What evidence do I have that people do like me?
  • Do I believe it’s possible for everyone to be liked by everyone else, all the time?
  • Am I taking on full responsibility for another person’s emotions? Is it possible that someone might dislike me because of their own psychological patterns, needs and defences, rather than something I’ve done?
  • Can I tolerate being disliked?

In practice – if, say, you feel excluded from certain social activities by some of your peers – you might manage this by asking yourself whether you are assuming the worst or generalising. Is what you’re experiencing a personal attack, or is it possible that the group has just drifted apart? If there is a simple drift or lack of alignment in values or interests, might it be beneficial to let it happen, to free up space for more nourishing connections? Do you have other people you might be able to rely on? Are you allowing yourself to assume that no friendships will endure because you are experiencing troubles with one set of friends? Considering your thinking in this manner can reduce the intensity of hurt feelings.

Think about whether you have ever disliked someone

I like to think about this for a simple reason: it orients you toward the truth that you will meet many people over the course of your lifetime, and you will not like all of them. If you are honest with yourself, you can probably identify some of the more superficial reasons you might have come to hold feelings of dislike toward someone. (Was it the way they looked at you one day? An inconsiderate comment that they made years ago?) You can then apply this learning to help you recognise that if someone else dislikes you, it might be for similarly minor reasons.

Soothe the emotions

Being disliked can bring up a host of difficult emotions, such as sadness, anxiety and fear. Emotion-focused coping skills can help you turn inward, notice your emotions, and soothe them. It is different from problem-focused coping, where you try to solve the issue at hand.

Perhaps the dislike you’ve encountered is the result of different personalities rubbing against each other

Examples of helpful emotional management practices to use at times of anxiety, sadness, hurt or fear might include journaling, meditation, yoga, or breathing techniques such as controlled breathing (inhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 2, exhaling for 6), which is designed to reduce anxious bodily activation. Sometimes, you might have to ride the wave of the emotion, knowing that it will diminish with time, as all emotions do. And, if you’re feeling anger toward yourself – if, for instance, you made a mistake that led to someone disliking you – you could benefit from an emotional practice such as self-compassion meditation.

Make reparations if you’ve done something wrong

As I mentioned, there are times when people just don’t like each other, so you might find that someone is bothered by you through no fault of your own. But if you’ve come to realise that someone dislikes you because of something tangible and specific you have done (eg, saying something insulting, telling a lie, or betraying someone’s confidence), then taking action to repair the relationship, including by offering an apology, could be helpful.

A genuine apology involves saying sorry and acknowledging the impacts of one’s actions. It should not involve rationalisations or justifications, or phrases designed to shift blame, like ‘I’m sorry you felt that way.’ Also keep in mind that this apology should not be used as a means to force someone back into contact with you, and that if someone has said they don’t want to hear from you again, that needs to be respected.

Reflect on what the dislike means to you

If you are in a situation where a specific, regrettable behaviour caused someone to dislike you, you have an opportunity to learn about yourself. For example, say you’ve shown too little interest in a friend’s life, gossiped about a colleague, or teased a family member one too many times. Even if you can’t undo one person’s dislike, reflecting on what might have contributed to it can help you make changes to your future behaviour.

And what if you didn’t do anything wrong? Perhaps the dislike you’ve encountered is the result of different personalities rubbing against each other, or anxieties or rivalries that the other person has projected onto you. The meaning that you derive from this person’s dislike might be difficult to process, especially if you are tempted to extrapolate from this instance to a global pronouncement about yourself (eg, ‘I have an annoying personality, and no one likes me’). If that happens, it’s helpful to pause and return to reflecting on some of the thinking styles I’ve highlighted above, and to examine any unstated beliefs that it’s possible for everyone to get along all the time, or that disagreement and dislike are catastrophic and say something awful about you. Also reflect on how you feel about and respond to conflict, and whether you can acknowledge your own feelings of anger or dislike toward others – or are tempted to suppress them.

The possibility of being disliked is something every human being will face. Remembering this, and using techniques like the ones I’ve shared, can help you navigate the experience without feeling too much distress. Instead, you can use it as an opportunity for learning to inhabit the world with greater self-acceptance and kindness.





5 June 2024