Does it really matter what other people think?


A Wave reader from Selbyville writes,

Dear Dr. Hurd,

I liked the article on your web site about comedian Wanda Sykes’ remark, ‘The older I get, the less I care’about a LOT of things!’ In school and in church, we are always taught to be selfless when it comes to others’ needs and what they are thinking. But as I enter my mid-’70s, I have to admit that I spend more time paying attention to my own comfort and happiness, and less time worrying about others. So far, everybody has survived, and they’re taking care of themselves just fine. I really don’t feel guilty about this—truth be told, I probably should have done it a lot sooner. Is there anything I am missing that might make feeling this way the wrong thing to do?


Dear Reader,


One of the nice things about getting older is that you can drop the pretense of concern over other people’s opinions. The richness of your life experience has taught you that it really doesn’t matter. There’s a huge difference between worrying about ‘other people’ in general, and a few significant others whose opinions actually mean something to you.

Years ago, I counseled a woman who was chronically depressed. In our sessions it emerged that she was deeply preoccupied with what ‘other people’ thought. This caused her to be resentful, unhappy and withdrawn. When I asked her why she felt such a need to please other people, she replied, ‘I want to be normal. I want to be part of the group!’

Her thinking had a tragic flaw: Human beings are not pack animals. We ultimately have to survive through the use of our individual, autonomous minds. There’s no denying that we are social creatures, and that we do well when we interact in society. But at the same time, it is individuals who tend to accomplish things. Thomas Edison pioneered the practical use of the electric light; not a committee of five. Bill Gates was creating revolutionary computer code all by himself long before there was a Microsoft.

Individuals who accomplish heroic things almost always offend the conventional wisdom of the time. Galileo, who stubbornly insisted that the sun did NOT revolve around the earth, was severely punished for his view by religious authorities. If you take a look at the timeline of history, you’ll see that the human race tends to move forward in spite of the pack, not because of it.

The fact remains that it’s impossible to please everyone. Even a successful billion-dollar company has dissatisfied customers. If everybody loves you, you’re most probably being inconsistent, phony, or somehow violating your own integrity. Nobody and no thing can be everything to everybody.

A lot of the problem starts in childhood. Children should, of course, be taught to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ But part of learning manners must also include the skills required to say ‘no.’ By saying ‘No, thank you,’ or ‘I’m not able to do that for you,’ you’re being polite to yourself, and at the same time, honest with others. If young people were more consistently exposed to this concept, there would be less depression, guilt and unhappiness later in life. When kids are taught to be selfless and giving in all situations, they are unwittingly being set up to be taken advantage of by those who are all too happy to ‘cash in’ on their perceived obligation to sacrifice.

I think it’s great that you have come to realize, in your mid-’70s, that you never had to be so concerned with pleasing everyone else. Maybe your experience can be an example to people of all ages. The key statement in your note, ‘So far, everybody has survived, and they’re taking care of themselves just fine’ is enlightening and liberating, isn’t it? Besides, don’t you think it’s kind of arrogant to assume that people require your constant approval in order to cope and survive? A healthy society is one in which people think for themselves, follow their own ideas and notions, and, most importantly, respect the equal right of others to do the same.

Don’t rush to presume that everyone wants or needs your help. It’s emotionally draining, and others will often resent this ‘caring’ because they (quite appropriately) see it as intrusive. We all inhabit our own bodies and minds. We’re all solely responsible for what we do (or don’t do) with our talents. It can be a profound relief to finally understand this, and allow yourself to make your own life all that you want it to be.

We all applaud the notion of ‘serenity,’ where we focus on what we can control, and leave the rest alone. It’s not a matter of being mean, indifferent or uncaring—it’s simply learning to let go of what we can’t control.

If you want to make the world a better place, first make yourself a better person. It’s a win-win, and everyone benefits.