Why Do We Care So Much What Strangers Think of Us?

D.R. McElroy

Hint: It’s in our genes. 5 min read

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Photo by Gaetano Cessati on Unsplash

I recently posted an article that has done well for me elsewhere to a subreddit group I belonged to. I believed at the time (and still do) that there were salient points made in it, and that we could all benefit from a discussion about the topic. I knew the article would be controversial and there might be some blowback from it.

Boy, was I right. The story was up for less than ten minutes before being taken down — and I was booted from the group.

*Names were called, poop was flung, fur flew.*

Even knowing that it could stir up controversy I still wasn’t prepared for the extreme reaction to my posting. Names were called, shit was flung, fur flew. Worst of all, I got my feelings hurt.

The Need to Be Loved

There are lots of people in the world who could care less about what other people think of them. Whether it’s a strong sense of self, social indifference, or even some kind of pathological disorder, many of us are perfectly happy with ourselves and don’t care about outside opinions.

I’m not one of those people. There are innumerable reasons why I need approval from others, but knowing the reasons doesn’t change my desire. I want people to like me. I admit it. I want to be thought well of even by people I don’t know. And I never get enough of people telling me why they think I’m awesome (though in the moment I will usually deny or even rebuff those compliments).

The Influence of Social Media

It took me a while to have a presence on social media. The Apple Macintosh was released to the public the year I graduated from college; personal computers were not something I grew up with. Even after I got a Facebook account, I rarely posted on it and didn’t understand its possibilities for sharing ideas with other people.

Eventually, all that changed. As a writer, I have come to realize the necessity of social media in making publishing contacts and putting my work in front of readers.

*…it is a fundamental part of the writing life that you’re going to get rejected.*

It was putting my work in front of those readers that got me bounced from that Reddit subgroup and wounded me. I took a chance on something and it blew up in my face.

Now, it is a fundamental part of the writing life that you’re going to get rejected. Every writer who publishes knows this. Even Stephen King was famously rejected over a hundred times before his book Carrie was finally accepted for publication. If you can’t handle rejection, keep your writing secret.

I know this and accept it empirically. But frankly, my work doesn’t get rejected a lot. I know that this statement sounds like bragging, but it’s also true. I’m a very good writer. Not the best, certainly, but definitely above average. I take assignments and deliver work that is timely, informed, and practically error-free. Of course, I do get rejections from time to time, but I don’t take a lot of risks with my work so I’m less exposed to potential refusal.

The Risk of Being Vulnerable

I occasionally, however, choose to write vulnerable stuff, from personal opinion to true stories of my life. The reasons for such decisions vary, but usually, it's because I have a desire to share my life experiences with others who may have felt the same.

Maybe I want to be liked; maybe I need humanity more than I want to admit sometimes. There's a driving need in all of us to form bonds against the strangeness and cruelty that life can sometimes dish out.

Hierarchy of Human Needs

I’m not alone in my desire to be liked, of course. For every person who doesn’t care what others think of them, there are two or three more who care desperately. In his famous and oft-quoted paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation” (Psychological Review, 1943), psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed his hierarchy of human needs. This illustration summarizes his theory.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=15waZh_0Xn9MT2O00FireflySixtySeven, MaslowsHierarchyOfNeedsEd, CC BY-SA 4.0

Right after our basic (Physiological) requirements for food, water, shelter, and safety comes the need for belonging and love. The last three levels of Maslow’s pyramid are all psychological: love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

These last three needs directly contribute to that basic requirement for a sense of safety. If we feel that we belong, that we have some standing in the group, and that we are fulfilling our potential as a person, then we subsequently feel “safe” in that community.

*For every person who doesn’t care what others think of them, there are two or three more who care desperately.*

We Need to Belong

Wanting to be loved and accepted is more than just okay; it’s locked in our DNA as humans. The need for love helps drive the biological imperative to reproduce and keep our species alive. The desire to belong ensures that we keep together in groups (the larger the better) which provides safety in numbers against outside dangers.

In our modern world, this group mentality can sometimes get out of hand, like when “mob mentality” causes increasing numbers of users to pile-on in abusing someone online. (See my article on Cancel Culture)

As long as we don’t allow our need to be loved to morph into some kind of multi-headed media monster (like certain celebrities), there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be popular.

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D.R. McElroy is a published author, writer, and copy editor with 15 years professional experience. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Masters in Environmental Resources. A conservationist, naturalist, and environmental advocate, she spends her time writing nonfiction articles on a variety of topics, as well as writing books on contract for publishers. D.R. wants to build a community of people who love nature and wildlife as much as she does, and who want to help protect our resources for public use.

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