Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Q: I've always considered myself a well-liked person, so I was shocked and hurt when I heard another mom from my son's soccer team describe me as "awful" (and the person she was talking to agreed). As soon as she realized I'd heard her, she started apologizing, but I was so upset I just grabbed my son and left.
Part of me would love to use this experience to open a dialogue with her — "What exactly is so 'awful' about me?" — but I fear the answer would really hurt, and I'm not sure I can handle it. What would you do in this situation?
A: Well, it's also pretty awful to talk openly about how awful someone is — so you have their awfulness to console you. Doing it not-openly won't win anyone any prizes, but at least it allows people to save face.
I realize that's not much comfort; what you just went through, I wouldn't wish on anyone. I've been in a similar place, and I just felt physically sick. We all live on a slim cushion of illusion about ourselves — we'd go mad without it — and man it hurts when it slips.
The thing is, though, that even "a well-liked person" is going to be meh, or annoying, or awful to someone. You knew that before this poke in the eye, at least intellectually.
And, you probably also would have said before this that everyone can stand to hear a little constructive criticism, since no one gets everything right.
The trick is now to turn this destructive criticism into the constructive kind. What of your typical behaviors could someone tag as obnoxious? Would you even be able to admit such a thing, or do all of your conflicts originate in someone else doing something bad to you?
I don't recommend spending a whole lot of time in this mode (see "go mad," above), but a quick run-through can be very instructive. "Maybe when people are complaining, I shouldn't tell them what I think they ought to do unless they expressly ask my opinion," for example. "Maybe I should bite my tongue when the refs make a bad call." "Maybe I should stop … " talking so much about my kid, telling off-color jokes, complaining, humble-bragging, whatever social tar pit you might have landed in.
After that quick but sincere exercise, spend some time with people you can count on to think you're great company — the ones who actively seek you out. Be good to them. It'll help wash the awful away.
If at this point you feel you're ready for, or would benefit from, a conversation with this woman, then, yes, ask her for a moment of her time. "I was saddened to hear your opinion of me. If there's something I did to offend you, then I'd be grateful for a chance to make things right."
To disarm her completely, there's also this, with a smile: "Well, you can also just not like me, and that's okay, too, since we can't suit everyone's tastes."