Who Cares What Other People Think?

A number of readers ask: Why do I care so much for the opinions of other people? I am profoundly anxious about others’ opinions and judgments about me. What can I do to change this?

The reason you want to please other people is that you have made them your standard of knowledge and truth your whole life. If the herd thinks something is true, it’s true; if they reject an idea, the idea is false.

You may not have realized you were doing this. Instead of making objective, rational facts your standard, you have put yourself totally at the mercy of other people’s judgments.

Even if most other people were fair and reasonable, this would still be a problem. You need to have confidence in yourself, not only your associates and friends. Large numbers of people, regrettably, are not consistently fair and reasonable.

There’s a real trend today away from reason and fairness, and towards doing whatever feels right – and damn the consequences.

There’s also a major self-esteem problem out in the world. Many others will cut you down so that they can feel better about themselves. In a sick sort of a way, they need you to be flawed so that they don’t have to feel so badly about their own shortcomings.

They want someone to look down upon, to make them feel better about themselves.

This is the sort of mentality whose favorable opinion you so desperately want? No wonder you’re so anxious!

You’ve probably made two profound errors over the years, without realizing it fully. (1) You’ve surrendered your independent, objective judgment to the perceptions and beliefs of other people; (2) the specific people to whose perceptions you’ve surrendered are less than rational and, in extreme cases, outright irrational!

This is why you’re anxious. This is the fundamental core of your self-esteem problem. Not your childhood. Not your brain cells. Rather: your mistaken way of determining truth or falsehood. Your silent, unspoken premises about how to use your mind and gain knowledge in the world.

So what’s the antidote? Objectivity. Many specific methods are available to you. Let me describe one effective technique which works for many people I know. At the end of each day, write down what you did well. Write down objective evidence of your strengths and virtues. The strengths and virtues can be internal or external.

Maybe you worked extra hard to concentrate on a difficult task. Maybe you gave a public talk even though it made you very nervous. Maybe you asked someone special out on a date. Maybe you simply did a bit less procrastinating than the day before.

The possibilities are endless. There is no “right or wrong” to this exercise, other than (1) stay focused on the positive; and, (2) stay focused on the factual.

The important thing is to write down objective facts about what you did well. Keep them brief. In fact, condense them into key words and phrases on an index card. Carry the card with you throughout the day. It will remind you of strengths you have already exhibited, and that you can exhibit again. It will help you become
more concerned about your reputation with yourself, and less concerned about your reputation with others.

Should you disregard negative facts about yourself? Of course not. But if you suffer from low self-esteem, it’s a good idea to develop the habit of identifying positive facts first. If you allow yourself to become sidetracked by the negative, then you will probably fall back into the old habits of worrying about what others think of you.

My suggestion is to spend several weeks or months on this positive exercise first. Then, once you become used to it, start to include your flaws and weaknesses on your index card. But don’t be negative and hateful about them. Simply write down some constructive criticism—traits or behaviors that you know need work, such as “listen better” or “think before speaking.”

In order to develop healthy self-respect, and to stop obsessing on what others think of you, it’s very important that you internalize two questions:

• What are the facts (about myself or the outside world)?
• What can I rationally conclude from these facts?

These are generalized questions, so you can apply them to nearly every area of your life, every day. Whether you are interacting with family, coworkers, friends, or strangers in the grocery store, you will find use for these questions. They will steer you away from the usual concerns you have about what others think of you.

They are designed to replace such questions as:

• What does he(she) think of me?
• What kind of impression am I making?
• What is the perception or feeling I “give off?”
• What are people’s evaluations of me?

As an example, apply both the rational questions and the other-centered questions to your job performance. Notice the difference in the kinds of responses you have.

If you ask yourself what others’ opinions are about your job performance, you put yourself at the mercy of people who may or may not be reasonable; who may or may not share your values, beliefs, and standards; who may or may not have access to every detail about your job performance.

Think about it. You are with yourself every minute of the day. You know what you do well and do not do well. If you focus too much on what others think of you, then you put yourself at the mercy of their opinions and values (which may or may not be valid). Even worse, you may not be able to figure out their opinions accurately.

You may have to try and read their minds, and engage in futile speculation. Few things are so frustrating or self-defeating as trying to read others’ minds, and fretting over what they think of you.

Most of the time, others are so wrapped up in their own lives, they give little or no thought to you. So stop flattering yourself.

Now imagine applying rational, objective questions to your job performance. Instead of getting wrapped up in others’ viewpoints, you will stay centered on your own. And your own viewpoints will be shaped by the facts. You will see both your strengths and your weaknesses, if you allow yourself to think clearly and honestly.

For example: “I try very hard. Sometimes I let my attention wander. But once I focus, I surpass even my own expectations. Focusing is never easy, but with effort I can get better and better. I also need to work harder on communicating with my staff. Sometimes they misunderstand me, or are somewhat intimidated by me, so I need to let them know it’s OK to ask questions. I’m not always the greatest manager, and I’ll probably always need to work at it. My greatest strengths are in the area of writing and researching. That’s OK. It isn’t necessary or possible to be excellent at everything.”

Focusing on the facts is not always easy, and sometimes can provoke anxiety. But it keeps you in the arena over which you have control. Once you stray into obsessing over what others think of you, then you are leaving the psychological areas that you can control, and you’re drifting into speculation and second-guessing. People are going to think what they think, if they even think of you at all. So let go of it. Focus on your own goals, needs, and desires, and how to accomplish them. In short, the secret to caring less about what others think is to work more on what you think. The most rational, sensible way to do this is to focus on objectivity, meaning: the facts, and the logical conclusions drawn from those facts. Intellectually, this is not such a difficult concept to understand.

The hard part, for many people, is making it a part of their daily lives. Intellectualizing and internalizing are two different things. By reading this article, you have spent some time intellectualizing about principles of healthy thinking. Now go out into your daily life and practice them.

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