Book Review

The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

B-

Genre: Nonfiction

This is a very odd book that I have read one or two chapters at a time, and then told people about, usually starting with, “Can I tell you about this weird-ass book I’m reading that I can’t stop thinking about?”

The format follows a dialogue between a student and a philosopher, a follower of the Adlerian theory of psychology. While the subtitle reads, “The Japanese Phenomenon That Shows You How to Change Your Life and Achieve Real Happiness,” the phenomenon itself isn’t Japanese. Alfred Adler was a German contemporary of Freud. So that was a little weird.

Usually the chapters begin with a discussion of a concept, then the student gets all pissed off and comes back in the next chapter to challenge the concept before moving on. I would find this style of writing irritating except that sometimes, the student’s “WTF” reaction echoed some of my own, so I kept going. The dialogue can be a little stilted and strange, but skimming ahead when it got awkward helped a lot.

I’ve highlighted and re-read several sections because there’s a solid thread of, “Wait, what?” in my reactions. The parts I find most interesting include the idea that all problems stem from interpersonal problems (i.e. our relationships with other people) and that true freedom is found in having the courage to be disliked. In other words, if a person dislikes me because I am making choices for myself that are in alignment with my own personal goals, that dislike does not matter and I don’t need to be concerned with it. Any other person’s dislike of me or of my choices isn’t my problem; that is their task to deal with, and not my own. (The concept of tasks, and invading someone else’s tasks and responsibilities, is a big theme, too.)

The specifics of those choices, however, aren’t really addressed, and the lack of practical examples can lean the book towards a more esoteric series of platitudes, the type you’d find in an Instagram post atop a fuzzy-focused photo of a pier with some flip flops. And there’s room for me to question the idea of disregarding all opinions about my actions. For example, if someone dislikes me because I’m behaving like a raging bigot, I do need to take that dislike into account, and take responsibility for that behavior as it’s harmful to others, especially if a personal goal for my life is to not be a raging bigot.

That said, there are so many highlights in my copy. The conundrum of most human problems is that, if I’m reading correctly, we’d have no problems if we didn’t interact with other people, but we cannot live in complete isolation. There’s a lot of discussion on inferiority, the futility of living to satisfy the expectations of other people, and the uselessness of comparing oneself to others:

All you can do with regard to your own life is choose the best path that you believe in. [And] what kind of judgment do other people pass on that choice? That is the task of other people, and is not a matter you can do anything about.

Removing judgment between two people means that interpersonal relationships then become horizontal – made of a community of equals – instead of vertical (in which there is a hierarchy) once an individual has learned to like themself as they are. The concept of “horizontal relationships” (joke here you may insert, plus joke about insertion as well, if you like) was something my brain has chewed on for days now, especially as it pertains to adults and their relationships with their parents.

There are some hurdles to this book that I want to warn about. The philosopher struggled, I think, when trying to explain the difference between etiology, the study of causation, and teleology, which is the study of a purpose of a particular choice, not the cause. Teleology is goal-focused, as the philosopher explains:

“We are not determined by our experiences, but the meaning we give them is self-determining.”

While I like the idea of looking forward rather than back, often the dialogue and examples seemed to blame victims for their own circumstances.  Early on, the philosopher makes the assertion that trauma isn’t real (which I heartily disagree with and think is irresponsible and cruel as a chapter heading, especially in a book that talks so much about validating the individual).  There’s an example of an agoraphobic person that was explained very poorly, and in a way that I found thoughtless and unkind. Moreover, some of the described solutions or realignments of thinking are not so simple when the cause of a problem is, for example, massive, structural, and entirely outside of one’s control.

I have been hesitant to review this book in part because I’m not sure what to say beyond, “This was a really weird reading experience for me, but it’s interesting, and despite some flaws may be of interest,” and in part because I’m not entirely sure I have understood all of it. In some respects, it’s about setting boundaries and identifying what is and is not my task. It’s also about identifying communities of people whose goals align with my own, and setting aside my own feelings of inferiority in order to foster more equitable and supportive relationships.

The part where I most stumble with this text, aside from my great dislike of the victim blaming sections, is the reality of interpersonal interactions. What other people think of me is, according to this book, “not my task,” but in reality, sometimes I do need to manage and consider the expectations and feelings of other people about my choices. The practical application of some of the concepts inside this book remain somewhat tenuous for me. That said, I am still thinking about this book, questioning what I learned, and examining how much of it can reframe how I see the world.

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The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi

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  1. 1
    Ren Benton/Lena Brassard says:

    Interesting. I’ve been conscious for a few years of the difference in how I feel about myself in isolation (fine) versus when I have to “perform” for others (stressed, anxious, depressed, doomed to fail). I obviously prefer one to the other and sometimes have the luxury of choosing an option that prioritizes my wellbeing rather than pleasing others, but it’s not feasible in every situation because there is always a cost. To the surprise of no one, the consequences of “being true to yourself” diminish with each level of privilege. Every choice that doesn’t align with what others want from you cuts off support (emotional, physical, financial, etc.), and one has to be pretty well-situated to weather whatever loss accompanies every instance of saying “I don’t need approval.”

    If I could financially afford to opt out of interpersonal interactions, the only people who’d ever see me would be the crack-of-dawn clerk a the grocery store and the guy who schleps out to my Baba Yaga house to repair the solar panels. Alas, you need somebody’s approval to acquire become-a-cryptid money, be it one rich uncle or a million patrons, so managing others’ opinions (to the extent possible) is actually a task most of us are burdened with.

    Besides, we already live in a world where an ultra-privileged class does whatever they want with no regard for anyone else, so we have plenty of examples, presently and historically, that this is Not Good, Actually. If “liberate yourself from others’ expectations” doesn’t extend to “others are liberated from your expectations,” you just want to redraw the master-serf line so you’re on the side that takes and never gives.

    Not the place for a whole screed about balance, but… BALANCE!

  2. 2
    DiscoDollyDeb says:

    I’m getting weird Ayn Randian vibes from this. It’s one thing to free yourself from the social pressures that come with wanting to please others for no good reason other
    than you want people to like you, it’s quite another to basically do whatever you want with no thought to how that is going to play out on an individual or social level. Although the book seems to claim it helps the reader achieve the former, it comes across as the latter to me.

  3. 3
    Escapeologist says:

    Clearly, an old privileged man wrote this book. The comments above said it better than I possibly could.

    My brain went to that classic of the internet, a Vine video of a little girl saying “I don’t care if you don’t like me, I LOVE me.” I’d say many of us less privileged aspire to that attitude but can’t really afford it.

    And the final random association brought to you by my fuzzy brain this morning – “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage. – Lao Tzu” So, love (and presumably relationships) give one the strength and courage to be disliked and escape the problems caused by interpersonal relationships. Hmmm. Guess it might be fun to watch the old Chinese dude argue this out with the old German dude (Adler) via their modern day Japanese disciples.

  4. 4
    Jazzlet says:

    Definitely a priviledged man that wrote this, many women do so much of the emotional work of families that at the moment they don’t have the luxury of saying “I don’t care what you think, I am happy with my decision” about much that is significant.

  5. 5
    Rachel says:

    I agree with all the observations above about the absolutist nature of the examples described (and of a lot of philosophy in general) as well as the thought that this perspective can certainly come from a place of privilege.

    However, it also reminds me of a quote I heard Laverne Cox say, which I draw strength from regularly: “Everyone else’s opinion of me is none of my business.”

    To channel a classic quote – “In boundaries there is strength”

  6. 6
    Juhi says:

    This made me think of a phrasing I have found useful several times: What you think of me is none of my business.

    It’s helped me in removing myself from judgement people have about me, and the actions I take. It’s helped me be OK with having my own opinion and feelings about a thing which at times might be different from what society in general or family members or friends think-feel.

    I also agree with Sarah that this is not a one size fits all situations guideline. For instance, I trust my husband to call out on my BS. In that case, what he thinks of me is actually very helpful. However, it is a very useful adage generally. It is very helpful in not getting all balled up about general societal judgement and should-s and should-nots.

  7. 7
    Penny says:

    And, to add just a bit to the above excellent comments, sometimes it *must* be your business to be aware of dislike, and hate, from a pure safety perspective. While I am cis and cannot speak from the lived experience of a trans person, I do know that it is deeply unsafe to move through the world without paying attention to how others perceive someone who is a trans bodied person. It very much does matter what other people think because they may act violently on their opinions.

    OTOH not allowing the opinions to stop one from perusing their goals and finding fulfillment is also a valuable insight.

    Philosophy is very much a discipline that is informed by the people who have been able to both access the education and to voice their theories In a way that is heard and received. In Bio Ethics/Medical Ethics there is a push to be more inclusive because there are vital issues that need to be addressed, and we need to have these discussions and need to include people who have different lived experience and insight than, say, Kant. I used to think philosophy was dry and unnecessary before my midlife career path change (still a student, which has been a super effing weird experience in my mid forties in the middle of a global pandemic). Now bioethics has been added to one of the many things I’m interested in and kind of keep up with, because holy crap are things messed up…

  8. 8
    Rachel says:

    @Penny, Let me echo your comments about the great discussion. I did want to respond to your observation about the potential dangers of ignoring the responses of others. You are absolutely right that an awareness of others’ reactions can be critical to safely moving through the world, and even outside of the safety question, it is essential for building and maintaining community and growing our relationships with others.

    I am a person with trans experience, and I see Laverne Cox’s comment and the similar sentiment posted by @Juhi not as a warning against being aware of, or even against responding and reacting to others’ perceptions, perspectives, dislikes, or even hate. Instead, I use it as a reminder not to internalize their response. Their reaction is about them. I may have to deal with it, but it’s not mine.

    And if I chose to respond, I respond on my own terms, not on theirs. This is something I have been working on as I’ve tried to get better at navigating conflict in intimate relationships – staying on “my side of the fence.”

    Also, I want to take a minute to thank Sarah and the rest of the community for building a space where we can have these kinds of discussions. I’ve shared that sentiment with Sarah privately, but I want to repeat it here for the whole Smart Bitches community. Thank you all for being who you are!

    – Rachel

  9. 9

    There are many times when you have to give up your autonomy. I think that in a perfect world, it shouldn’t matter, but I want my doctor, my nurse, my dentist, even my hairdresser to like me. In the real world, people who like you will go the extra mile instead of giving the minimum their job requires. For example, at an airport, I was waiting for a long delayed connecting flight. I was in line to ask a question at the counter. The man ahead was belligerent. He got the information he needed. I was polite and friendly. I got the information I needed plus several coupons for meals and other amenities and some friendly conversation.

    And as an aside, I think it makes a big difference in life if your children like you.

    Life is full of compromises.

  10. 10
    Riley says:

    I’m probably being too literal, but the whole philosphy kinda falls down for me, because I can totally break my leg without having any interaction with other people. And then I have a very real problem.

    (I mean, maybe this is addressed in the book, but I spent half this review coming up with problems that could occur independently of ‘other people’ and then having to reread things because I missed the whole paragraph while I was being like ‘Drought! Flood! A wolf eats your face!’)

    I’m sure there’s still worthwhile stuff in there – for someone else; if I tried to read it, I would definitely just end up yelling at the book a lot, and I suspect it would be too frustrating to make anything else I got out of the experience really worth it. Honestly, this review was super helpful and just what I needed for exactly that reason.

    (Chronic pain! Overslept and missed my bus! Dropped my perfectly dressed corncob on a dirty floor! Seriously, there are SO MANY other kinds of problems.)

  11. 11
    Malaraa says:

    On fairly shallow opinion matters between equals? Sure, you can make this concept work. Even small power imbalances or more complicated matters? Not always that simple anymore. And I agree with everyone saying that trying to apply this idea broadly across all parts of life is highly unlikely to get rid of all your social problems, let alone many other problems.

    It is important and healthy to recognize that your thoughts & emotions are yours, and another person’s are theirs, and it’s often OK for those to be in conflict, although we are socialized to avoid that happening. Many of us, especially those who have historically had less power, and super especially those who fall into multiple categories of less powerful, have been taught early and often to at least pretend to change our opinion to avoid conflict with anyone who holds more social power than us.

    But if someone thinks your favorite movie made for the most miserable viewing experience they’ve had? That’s OK, they’re allowed that, it’s a place where you have stopped, and they have begun, and you can choose to not mind that they feel that way as long as they can not mind that you liked it.
    If they look at your career and say “Wow, I would never have chosen to do that.” that’s OK too. They don’t have to want the things you want. They also should not be telling you that you can’t want those things.

    I have met people who could not separate out “what you feel about a small thing I like” from “what you feel about me”. One of the more important lessons in my life has been that if someone doesn’t have those boundaries, they probably have difficulties with many other boundaries as well.

    Having a 2-way street is very important here, and is often where this sort of philosophy goes wrong in the real world, because of situations where one person has the power to say “I don’t care” but the other person does not.

    It sounds like the book has provided an opportunity to think and talk about these ideas though, and the resulting posts here have been interesting! So thanks for sharing about the “weird-ass book I’m reading that I can’t stop thinking about?”! 😀

  12. 12
    AtasB says:

    @Malaraa Having dealt with a fair number–enough, really–people who feel the need to immediately sneer at what I love, not just say “it’s not for me”, I personally do get jumpy at someone trashing what I enjoy. Certainly it’s partly because I know *some* people do judge you by what you like (if you get all your self worth by judging others, what media they enjoy is easy low hanging fruit) or feel the need to make *their* complaints about what you love *your* business. (Saying I enjoyed a movie and then having one or more people trot out their every dull whinge like it’s my responsibility to answer for the film, like that conversation is going to be fun for me… Ugh.) Certainly it’s also partly my insecurities, my own defective brain. But if I’m not going to look after my own mental health by not engaging with people who care more about their own complaining than being considerate, who will? They’re not going to be there for the after effects of the situation, so I don’t owe them my very limited energy. I know I have to set boundaries about that, but that doesn’t make me disrespectful even if they’ve decided it’s their god-given to moan about whatever, any time.

    And I’ve also been on the flip side: politely said, when asked, that despite having tried a certain super popular author multiple times, he’s not for me and left it at that…and cue the person (who again, ASKED) basically having a mini freakout in shock & dismay(!) But that’s her fault for presuming, and I know I acted in a way that’s consistent with my values and how I want to be treated. I would definitely tell her to back off, if she should keep harping on it…maybe that’s what you mean, idk.

    Anyway, I generally agree with the comments here. IMO there’s a lot of good to be found in not making your own sense of self worth dependent on whether other people like you and everything you like or do, but wanting to be true to yourself, do your best at whatever you’re passionate about or whatever you happen to be doing at the moment, consider feedback without the negative being the end of the world or the positive being your life’s blood, wanting to be kind to others and form good connections, be true to your word and your beliefs…none of that HAS to come from some desperate, flimsy-boundary need for everyone everywhere to please like you and everything you do, anyway. That actually hinders all the good stuff.

    (tldr I’m not reading this book–if nothing else, victim blaming is a big NOPE for me. I keep seeing it pop up lately, subtly and overtly, even outside the screeds of obvious trolls and abusers. I’m creeped out, tbh.)

  13. 13
    LML says:

    I’m with @D3. As I read this interesting review I began thinking of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness. And also with @Riley because good f*ing luck living a life without having interaction with other people.

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