Illustration by Maxine Crump.

Illustration by Maxine Crump.

Hey, Rookie. Is it normal to wonder if your friends actually like you and enjoy your company, or is this a sign that something’s up? This thought is really affecting my self-confidence and overall happiness. I don’t want to straight-up ask them because they’re nice people and they wouldn’t want to hurt my feelings. I just often wonder if I’m disliked or being left out, and if there’s any way to tell that [your friends] secretly find you annoying. Thanks. —Anonymous, 14

Hi, sweetheart. Yes to both questions! It is beyond normal to feel insecure sometimes—I would all but guarantee your friends sometimes have the same line of internal questioning going on about your opinions of them. But, yes: These thoughts are a sign that something is up, but what’s going on is about how you’re reacting to your feelings and not so much about how your friends are reacting to/feeling about you.

I don’t want to ask, “Is there something that happened with your friends recently to make you feel like you’re being excluded?” If you’re feeling uncertain of yourself lately, you may manage to dredge up events that UNQUESTIONABLY PROVE your friends dislike you, even if they’re nothing more remarkable than times when two friends just walked home together, both laughed at a joke you didn’t happen to get that one time around, or did any number of things that are equally non-reflective on your quality as a human being that they also happen to like.

When you start doing detective work to validate your theories about your friends’ approval (or lack thereof), you are essentially saying, “Yes, they’re bothered by me. NOW LET’S FIND OUT EVERY REASON WHY,” when that isn’t true or necessary—when people are feeling shaky, confidence-wise, they can find “evidence” supporting those nerves in past scenarios, no matter how much their friends love them. It’s not a fun or useful thought process, babe, so let’s try a different tack.

Apply your sleuthing to your own emotions. Can you try to trace this feeling of low self-esteem back to its start, as specifically as you can? What was going on in your life—in your friendships, and in the rest of it, like at school, with your family, etc.—when you first began to feel this way? Sometimes, the things that affect our confidence in one area have everything to do with the rest of our surroundings, too. So think: Did something make me feel bad about myself, how might that have affected my feelings afterward, and how can I see that situation differently?

The other day, one of my best friends and I were talking about a friendly mutual acquaintance of ours whom she had run into at a class. My friend said, “I was so excited to see her, but she kind of brushed me off!”

“That’s strange!” I said.

“Nah—you know, I could easily be like, Oh, it’s because she secretly dislikes me, or thinks I’m a pest, but maybe she was just having a bad day, or not in the mood to talk—or maybe she doesn’t want to be my pal! But any of those things are equally OK.”

I liked that mode of thinking: It didn’t presume anything about my friend or the person she had run into, based on their interaction: My friend didn’t extrapolate the encounter into thinking, She thinks I’m dumb/irritating/pestilent, which the person hadn’t actually expressed to be the case, and nor did my friend then worry that those mysterious factors meant that she was in some way unlikeable.

One really useful way to morph these sludgy anxieties into a less tormenting mindset overall, A., is also to make a pact with yourself: Can you decide that, if you like a person’s company and/or personality, that can be true regardless of what they think of you? (It’s a different story if someone is outwardly mean to you, but that doesn’t sound like the case here.) My life became a lot easier when I decided that I didn’t want to focus on whether or not the people I’m into might secretly hate me. Like all of us, I have enough momentary (and, again, totally normal!) self-esteem bummers in my life without projecting them into the brains of others. If I’m worrying that people might find me annoying or whatever have you, that’s my own thought, not theirs, and I try to recognize that. If I like somebody, I choose to focus on what it is I value about them instead of whether or not they are my #1 fan on the planet, and it eases the stress on everyone involved.

Life’s so much tougher when you try to find out all the secret ways to tell what other people are thinking, Anonymous, and that’s because there aren’t any. Be good to your friends, and if they’re good to you, that’s all the proof you need that things are going OK. No one is ever thinking about us—including our possible “deficiencies”—as much as we ourselves are. If your friends haven’t given you any sign that they dislike you, honey, it’s almost certainly because they don’t. Whenever you find yourself worrying about it, (which you still might sometimes!), try to think of all the great stuff you’ve shared for real instead of getting freaked out by imagined tension. Case closed, detective! —Amy Rose ♦

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