How To Stop Caring About What Other People Think Of You
As a therapist, I have worked with a great deal of clients who struggle with preoccupation and worries about what others think of them. For some people, this is an issue that affects their life almost globally –not only are they concerned about getting the approval of friends, family and colleagues, but they also worry about what anyone with whom they come in contact might be thinking of them – even complete strangers. This is particularly true for those who suffer with social phobia. I hypothesize that almost all people, from time to time, worry about living up to other people's expectations, whether they express this concern explicitly or not. As a human being, I have not been immune to this affliction and I suppose there are few people out there, bar maybe people labelled as “sociopaths”, who have never even once worried about what other people think. It is human nature to want to be liked and accepted. However for some, the need to be liked and accepted can be so debilitating that it interferes with their ability to feel at ease with themselves and around others, and possibly even limits what endeavours they take on in life. For these people, this need for acceptance can be so great that they will actually forgo their own needs and desires in order to do what they think will achieve the approval of others.
Letting go of this need is not an easy task. It is unrealistic to think that you will never again care about what other people think. But it is possible to care less about what other people think and to care more about your own needs, beliefs and desires. I have composed a list of a few points to ponder when you find yourself ruminating about the thoughts of others.
1. Me, me, me!
One of my favourite sayings goes something like this: “You'll worry less about what people think about you when you realize how seldom they do" (David Foster Wallace). To me this is a very profound statement, but it can be taken one of two ways: that either a) people don't think about you or your shortcomings as much as you think they do, or b) people generally don't hold you in high regard. Someone with low self-esteem might be apt to think the second interpretation is true, but I believe the author's true intent was to point out this: people generally don't think outside themselves a great deal of time. It is a sad but simple truth that the average person filters their world through their ego, meaning that they think about most things in terms of “me” or “my”. Therefore, all people, events and phenomena are judged according to how they affect “me” or “my...”. This means that, unless who you are or what you have done directly affects another person or their life, they are unlikely to spend much time thinking about you at all.
2. It's None of Your Business!
Another one of my favourite all-time quotes is from a character in the movie Adaptation. The lead character, Charlie, asks his “twin brother” why he didn’t seem bothered by the fact that his high school crush never reciprocated his feelings. Donald responds with this: “That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That's what I decided a long time ago.” People are entitled to think whatever they want, just as you are entitled to think what you want. What people think of you cannot change who you are or what you are worth. People's thoughts, even the ones about you, are their business. Their thoughts or opinions of you cannot add or subtract anything to or from you, unless you allow them to. Try as you might, you ultimately do not have control over what other people think.
3. What Difference Does it Make to You?
What does it really mean to your life? If you decide to wear something unusual or bold and you are met with (what you interpret as) a disapproving look from someone else, how does that really affect your life? Try to think about your answer in tangible terms. Sure, you might be embarrassed momentarily, but five years from now, or even five days from now, how much will their fleeting opinions really matter to you?
4. Give Back the Crystal Ball
Give back the crystal ball. You are not a mind reader or a fortune-teller (my apologies to any readers who in fact are mind-readers or fortune-tellers!). You may think you know what other people think, but unless you ask them directly (and assuming you would get an honest answer), you will never truly know.
5. Life Is Complicated
People have many things going on their lives. They have unfulfilled desires to dream about, worries to worry about, families and partners to care for, jobs to do and careers to advance, bills to pay, chores to be done, plans to be made, hobbies to indulge, TV and movies to watch, music to listen to, sports to follow, religions to follow (for some these last two may be one in the same), and so on. If people sleep eight hours a day and work another eight, that leaves only another eight hours to devote to those other things. How much of those eight hours do you think another person would devote to thinking about you and your perceived short-comings? On the other hand, think about this: people have on average 60, 000 plus thoughts a day. Even if someone else thought about you ten times in one day, that is only 0.017% (if my mathematics aren’t precise, forgive me for I know not what I do!) of their overall daily thoughts. That is so inconsequential it is almost imperceptible. Something that insignificant is hardly going to make much of a difference to the person thinking it, so why should it affect you so much?
6. Here One Minute, Gone the Next
People's thoughts, ideas and views change on a regular basis. Some philosophers and theorists would even suggest that we are in a constant state of flux, so much so that we cannot even say we have one, specific ‘self’ or a fixed personality. We are constantly changing. That means even if somebody does think badly of you at the moment, there is a good chance they will think differently in the near future. Either they will have changed their opinion of you, or they will be thinking about something entirely different (see point five for a comprehensive list of entirely different things to think about!).
7. You Reap What You Sow
Worrying too much about what other people think of you can become a self fulfilling prophecy. Frequently, people indulge their need to be liked so much so that it actually dictates to the way they behave. Some become people-pleasers or so submissive that many people are turned off. The behaviour you use an attempt to ensure you are liked may actually cause you to be disliked.
8. Everybody's Doing It
Remember that everyone has negative thoughts about other people and themselves from time to time. So when you are worried about someone in particular, remember that they too worry about what someone else thinks of them (maybe even you). They too have in fact been thought negatively of by someone in their life. And you too think negative thoughts about other people from time to time.
9. It’s a piece of cake? No, pie!
Draw yourself a circle. Imagine that it is a pie. Now think of everyone in your life, and draw segments in the circle, whose sizes are proportionate to their importance in your life. Think about the particular person you are worried about at the moment – unless their allocated piece of the hypothetical pie is at least half – then who cares what they think!
10. You Can't Please Everyone
No, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but you can please some of the people some of the time. Every time you are concerned about what people think of you, write down a list of attributes the people in your closest circle admire about you. Don’t be tempted to discount what they think (“Of course she’d say ____, she’s my mom!”). After all, the people closest to you may have a bias, but then again – shouldn’t their opinions also matter the most? You’ll never be liked by everyone, and even the people who do genuinely like you are not going to agree with and approve of every single aspect of your life. It is impossible to live up to everyone's expectations so there is no point in burning yourself out trying to do so. Just make sure that one of the people you please is you!
In closing, I would like to summarise that worrying about what others think is completely normal, and even the freest and most confident spirits will at times worry about how they are perceived and whether or not they are accepted by others. But you should take solace in knowing that the need to be loved and accepted bonds us together, as different as we are, in this - the human race.