We all long for acceptance. It’s human to want to be liked, accepted, and even be popular. Ask yourself this: do you feel accepted? We wanted to dig deeper and take a look at the ramifications of seeking acceptance and being popular can be.
- How do we measure our acceptance by the world?
- More importantly, does it matter?
- Is it dependant on conformity?
- Is it synonymous with likeability?
The main difference between acceptance and popularity is that acceptance generally refers to being liked by a large quantity of people, but popularity incorporates “visibility, prestige or dominance” – therefore you can be popular without being liked.
Most of us want to be liked. There is a psychological term for this: belongingness. It refers to the motivation that causes us to find meaningful, ongoing relationships. According to Psychology Today: “Satisfying this need requires (a) frequent, positive interactions with the same individuals, and (b) engaging in these interactions within a framework of long-term, stable care, and concern.” When people don’t have that sort of deep bond in their lives, studies show that they are more likely to suffer from psychological illness and physical ailments.
Teens who are accepted by a community in high school are less likely to become victims of bullying. Studies show “social competence” to be an active part of acceptance by peers, for instance being able to talk your way into a bar or manipulate adults to do what you want.” Being able to function that way elevates the individual with those qualities to be seen as beneficial to their group, so while they might not be seen as a nice person, they are still welcomed. This unearned popularity can reward bad behavior, causing the teen to escalate in their manipulations. At that point, the teen might seek out unpopular, vulnerable teens to target in order to build themselves up further. How many teen movies display this exact dynamic?
So, in a certain way, acceptance can increase instances of bullying. A study from 1998 by Parkhurst and Hopmeyer “found that adolescents who were popular but not accepted were more aggressive”. That makes sense, because if you know that you behave badly and are rewarded for it with power, why would you not escalate? Teens generally have to answer to teachers and parents, which can cause their world to feel small and powerless. At school, popularity gives them dominance.
In Clueless, for instance, Cher realizes that she doesn’t want to just be popular; she wants to be popular for the right reasons. To quote: “Later, while we were learning about the Pismo Beach disaster, I decided I needed a complete makeover, except this time, I’d makeover my soul.” Cher wanted more than to be simply likable for conforming to her high school’s coveted social norms, she wants to find a meaningful bond.
A lot of our feelings about ourselves and how we are accepted form during childhood through to our teenage years. As an adult, I might feel a bit shit when I see a picture of my friends hanging out at the beach without me, but I can rationally see the extenuating circumstances: it was posted on a Thursday and they know I work Thursdays. Why would they invite someone they know can’t come? But in the microcosm of high school, so much is still being explored and discovered – emotional overload can be easy to come by. And social media is very good at showing people all the fun that they are missing.
Another complication is the inclusion in an unwanted group which can cause an individual to feel trapped, hostile and resentful. There’s the old Groucho Marx quote, popularized by Woody Allen in Annie Hall: “I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Though the joke is self-deprecating (something is wrong with them if they want me), it also connects to the idea that social cachet can get us into a group we don’t personally relate to. This can lead to the resentful person to “psychologically distance themselves from the accepting group and therefore feel licensed to aggress …”
With all these potential complications, how does anyone find acceptance anyway?
I have always been good at making friends, and my firm belief is this: be your damn self. I’m an anxious person with a tendency toward impromptu dancing and any friend of mine will experience that sooner or later, so it might as well be sooner. It also helps me weed out turds, because if you don’t like my dancing then you are not someone who is meant to be my friend.
Confidence begets confidence – when we believe in ourselves, it convinces others to believe in us. That isn’t always easy – especially when people have life experiences that cause them to falter in their own self-love – but I do believe it to be worth striving for. According to Bernardo Carducci, director of Indiana University Southeast’s Shyness Research Institute:“We assume that confident people were born that way.” Usually, though, people who do well socially have trained themselves to have certain skills such as:
- when you speak to someone, try to focus on the topic of conversation and not on anxieties about what they might be thinking of you
- learn welcoming body language
- embrace small talk with new people. It isn’t always the most stimulating conversation, but it gives you a starting point wherein you might find a more interesting connection
Just like with any skill, working at it will improve your performance. You can sign up for a public speaking class or event to practice speaking in front of large groups. You can ask for advice from confident friends. You can read books on confidence or body language. Shyness is normal and many people struggle with it, but, the more confident your behavior, the more positive feedback you receive from others and the more likely you are to repeat the behavior that got you that reaction.