“It is very important to me that you like me,” admits author Alicia Menendez in the opening line of her debut book The Likeability Trap: How To Break Free and Succeed As You Are. If we’re being honest, most of us can relate. Though we often claim not to care what people think, we also really like to be liked. We thrive off the approval of others and we feel better about ourselves when people like us. But, as many of us know all too well, and as Menendez explains with flawless accuracy and honesty, this can become problematic. The deeply rooted focus on being likeable and the need to be accepted can be especially challenging for women who are trying to succeed professionally while simultaneously trying to liked by others. Juggling those competing goals is an impossible task, and it’s exponentially more impossible if you are a minority.
Women are set up to fail. Because as expert testimony and personal anecdotes can attest, if we try to please others and soften our personality so that we seem more likeable, we’re often seen as being unfit for leadership roles or unworthy of professional opportunity because we’re too nice. And on the flip side, if we are strong, tough, speak up for ourselves, and ask for what we want or deserve in our careers, we’re seen as too pushy or too demanding and not likeable enough to be rewarded at work. It’s a lose-lose scenario where we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. And it’s not fair.
Author Alicia Menendez knows this all too well, and feels it deeply in her soul. As a self-professed cryer and INFJ (Introvert, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging), she wants people to like her. As a successful journalist — she’s currently the weekend anchor at MSNBC, co-producer and host of the Latina to Latina podcast, and professional storyteller who was named “Broadcast Journalism’s New Gladiator” by Elle Magazine, “Ms. Millennial” by The Washington Post, and a “Content Queen” by Marie Claire — she knows the struggles of balancing likeability and success.
The fact that women are often set up to fail is a point that Menendez really drives home in her book. But it’s never explained with a “woe is me” tone or a sense of self-pity. Quite the opposite actually. Her book is empowering. It’s eye-opening. It’s a reality check. The Likeability Trap is a wakeup call so many of us desperately need. It’s educational. It’s inspiring. And above all, her words are a reminder that we are not alone, and that we can navigate this challenging paradox to become the best versions of ourselves, without letting go of who we truly want to be.
Breaking Down the Problem
That’s one thing that Menendez does flawlessly. She spells out the problem — spoiler, we are not the problem, we do not need to change, the system does — in a way that feels like your best friend is calling you out on your sh*t. She tells you the truth as only a trusted confidant can or will, and she explains it in such a way that you don’t just listen and pay attention, you also feel heard and seen. It’s like someone else is speaking words you have thought internally for years, and you realize that this problem so many women are faced with is not the exception, but unfortunately, it seems to be the rule. This need to be likable but the inability to be successful at the same time (and to be penalized for that likeability or lack thereof) is not a rare experience, but rather a far-too-common occurrence that we should never have to address. But here we are. And thankfully, here Menendez is.
She breaks down the problem and explains that there are several traps that hold women back. We are faced with the impossible task of striking a balance between being accepted and being assertive, between being tough and being too strong, between caring too much what others think of you or not caring enough, between being likable and successful. If it seems impossible to be able to lead effectively when you’re also trying to juggle these unrealistic demands, that’s because it is. And these traps occupy so much time and so much of our mental energy that we end up emotionally drained and wasting time that could be used on more important things (networking, learning hard skills, sleeping). Our energy should be spent on tasks that could actually prepare us to be more effective leaders, and if you’re a minority, then you’re even more penalized by this paradox.
For Latinas, the Struggle is Amplified
Yes, all people trying to achieve success and climb the leadership ladder might be faced with a similar conundrum of pleasing others while staying true to yourself and your abilities. But let’s be real — the struggle is even more consuming if you’re a woman, and even more so if you’re a minority woman. For Latinas like myself, says Menendez, “The bias is that we’re either so meek that we aren’t perceived as power players or emotional to the point of being irrational.” She explains that these biases that women of color face often stand in the way of having their voices heard, let alone rewarding them with opportunity.
These inherent biases are not new, and unfortunately, they still pose a serious threat to minority women trying to make the system work for them. Menendez notes that every possible choice is a lose-lose for women. A woman can choose to be herself or be well-liked; express her anger or be well-liked; ask for what she needs or be well-liked; be ambitious or be well-liked. You can be authentic or you can be successful. You can have one but not the other — and you certainly can’t have it all.
The Million Dollar Question: Is There a Solution?
One of the best parts about this book is that Menendez doesn’t offer any false promises or unrealistic hope for immediate change in our lives. It’s not that kind of business or self-help book. The Likeability Trap keeps it real. From tons of research, expert interviews, personal anecdotes, and conversations with female leaders Menendez notes that we shouldn’t necessarily forsake likability, we just need to prioritize other more important and more attainable qualities over likeability.
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Her advice makes a lot of sense: Look within. Focus on self-awareness. Make your vision seen and understood, rather than focusing on having others like you. Consider what your efforts to be “liked” are costing you. Understand that being relatable and likable aren’t the same thing. Focus on connection, not approval. Know whose opinion matters. And above all, know that YOU matter.
Finding a solution to this paradox we are faced with shouldn’t fall solely on the women experiencing the problem. We all, as individuals, must work to collectively address these challenges and rise up to improve our circumstances. We need to look within and identify our own struggles and shortcomings. We might not be able to fix the problem alone, but we also can’t become a part of the problem by perpetuating the impossible choice women often have to make. We need to lift other women up and demand change. We must consider our own biases and hold ourselves accountable. We need to advocate for diversity both individually and at an organizational level, especially if we are in a position of power.
Menendez is well aware that deciding not to care what people think isn’t exactly an easy task. It requires a spiritual journey and years of unlearning everything we have been taught to focus on and care about since we were born, she explains. But in order to succeed as we are and break free from these traps, we need to commit to changing the narrative and changing the way we define our own worth.
“As we reimagine leadership, know this: Likeability will not make or break you,” Menendez says with authority. Women in all professional realms and walks of life have battled the notion and the pitfalls of likeability. “It didn’t break them. And it will not break you.”
In praise for this book, Publishers Weekly notes that Menendez “issues a friend-to-friend wake-up call for pathological approval seekers…The description of the problem is perfect…the chatty, friendly, heart-to-heart tone will be a comfort and an encouragement to women hampered by their desire to be both liked and successful.” From the very first page you sense that her voice is familiar but also enlightened like she understands how you feel, she’s right there with you, but she also knows how to explain it in eloquent terms you never quite considered. It’s witty and real, and seriously eye-opening, especially for any woman currently trying to reconcile this impossible bind we are all faced with.
The Likeability Trap: How To Break Free and Succeed As You Are is out now, and it’s a must-read for any woman in the new year and beyond.