7 tips to help you be your own person
"Why should we worry about what others think of us, do we have more confidence in their opinions than we do our own?" - Brigham Young
I've met people who don't care at all what others think. These may be lovely people in some ways, but they tend to do to social situations what, say, an unseasonable heat wave might do to the Winter Olympics. Still, in some ways you can envy them. Never seeming to care or even consider what others think of them - oh the freedom! But really we want balance. To be 'emotionally intelligent', we need to have some awareness and consideration of what others may be thinking of us whilst not caring so much that it prevents us being effective and original human beings.
John, who cared too much
One of my first ever clients, John lamented that for fifty years he'd felt unable to do what he wanted to do. He'd joined the family business because he feared his family would think ill of him if he followed his passion for music. He said he'd always been afraid of doing, saying, or even thinking his own thing. By the time he came to me, he even had the feeling that people were judging him when he walked down the street. "It's as if my clothes, the way I walk, everything is all wrong somehow."
John knew consciously that other people weren't solely focussed on him, he knew that his views, wants, and ideas were as valid as anyone else's; but that's not how he felt.
I asked him the ten million dollar question: "What would you really like to do, John?"
He paused, looked doubtful, then a shy smile emerged, followed by a bigger one: "You know, now the kids are grown up, the wife and me, we'd love to follow our dream of retiring to Spain and opening a small hotel."
"What's stopping you?"
"The same thing that always has: fear of what people would think. I don't even know what people anymore."
Worrying what other people think is the cause of all kinds of superficial behaviour, embarrassment, missed opportunities, inner resentments, regret, and even bitterness.
What's stopping you? Maybe these ideas will help you.
1) Own your imagination
Why would someone never worry what other people think? Well, they might be on the autistic spectrum and not have what psychologists call 'theory of mind' (1) - that is, they find it hard or impossible to even imagine that other people see things differently from how they themselves do. In fact, how other people see things tends not to be considered at all.
It's an advantage to understand that others have their own opinions and take on reality. To have 'theory of mind', we need to be able to extend our imaginations. If I like something, I have to be able to imagine that you might not like it, for example. But if we are not careful, we can use our 'theory of mind' too much and our imagination that is meant to serve us starts to work against us. This happens when folk start imagining they've upset others when they haven't or that others think they are dumb and so forth.
To counteract this, start to challenge what your imagination throws up at you. "They are all going to hate me! ... Hold on, how do I know that? Some people will like me, some will think I'm okay, and some might be indifferent."
2) Learn to relax with not knowing what other people think of you
"We would worry less about what others think of us if we realized how seldom they do." - Ethel Barrett
When I first started public speaking, I'd agonize over whether people would think what I was doing was okay, desperately hope they'd like it, and sometimes imagine they didn't. Now I don't bother; that's way too much work. It's not that I assume people will like me or what I have to say, it's that I've learned to relax with just not knowing.
Some 'problems' in life, such as not really knowing for sure what others think of us, are not really meant to be solved. How people perceive you may have more to do with them than you anyway. They may even like or dislike you merely because you've triggered an association in their minds and reminded them of someone they liked (or didn't like) from their past. That has nothing to do with you.
3) Enjoy your individuality
It's human to mimic other humans. We especially see this in young adults, when they suddenly seem to adopt the accent, clothes, and persona of other young adults or perhaps a particular celebrity. But all you ultimately can be is...yourself.
Trying to be someone you are not will always leave you feeling unfulfilled, however much you admire that person. It's curious that we tend to try to adopt the outward appearance or behaviour of people who themselves are comfortable being individualistic. To really copy them, we'd need to develop our own individuality and in that way, we'd seem to be less like them whilst actually being more like them (answers on the back of a postcard as to whether that made sense or not).
We all have quirks, unique perspectives, and idiosyncrasies. The more relaxed we become with our own differences, the more comfortable we start to feel just being ourselves.
4) Remember: people will think what they'll think.
How you seem and how you actually are may be two totally different things. How many people don't look as if they can dance but they really can? Appearances are deceptive. What someone thinks of you may be (is very likely to be) totally wide of the mark. If someone forms an opinion of you based on superficialities, then it is up to them,not you, to reform those opinions based on a more objective and rational view. Leave it to them to worry about - that is, if they have an opinion at all.
5) See the best in others by not assuming they see the worst
At one point during our therapy, I suddenly said to John: "What makes you think you're so much better than other people!"
He looked taken aback. "I don't, that's the whole point!"
"But you've already told me that you like to see the best in others; yet you assume other people always look to see the worst in you!"
He looked very thoughtful at this. Worrying that other people will think us stupid, ugly, pathetic, or un-cool is to do those people a disservice. Many people will judge you fairly and give you the benefit of the doubt - so give them the benefit of the doubt.
6) Forget the bigger picture sometimes
If you were delivering life-saving mouth-to-mouth on someone in public, you'd be totally focussed. You wouldn't be thinking about what onlookers thought of your clothes or your body shape or the colour of your eyes. All that fluff would disappear from your consciousness. When you are impassioned and fascinated, say by a conversation you're having, then you tend to forget to bother to imagine what others may be thinking of you.
Do this self-hypnotic exercise:
- Step 1: Think about times when you are tempted to worry what others think about you.
- Step 2: Now think of times when you are totally focussed - maybe on a sports game or piece of music or reading a book, or talking with a friend when they're telling you something amazing. Now notice that feeling of being totally focussed outside of yourself.
- Step 3: Amplify that feeling.
- Step 4: Take that feeling of outer focus into the imagined situation from Step 1 (where before you'd have been worrying about what others might be thinking).
- Step 5: Experience being in the formally self-conscious situation and feeling relaxed and unconcerned about what others may or may not be thinking.
- Step 6: Notice what it's like to reach the point where you no longer even think about what others might be thinking.
If you'd like a taste of this exercise, click on the free audio below.
7) Imagine life once you've cast off over-concern with what others think
Worry about being thought inadequate or weird prevents us even trying to do, or experience, what may be of great value to us. Charles Darwin was concerned how his unorthodox scientific views on evolution would be seen by others, but he couldn't bring himself not to publish his ideas. Bill Gates could have worried what others thought about him 'dabbling in computers' before their universal significance became apparent, Beethoven could have worried what others might think of him pursuing a career in composing...
The fact is that someone will always be upset somewhere and that's not always your responsibility. Just as a psychological hypothetical exercise, take time to dwell on what you could be doing and experiencing if you didn't care at all what others thought. This doesn't mean you'll stop caring completely, but it will give you an opportunity to decide what you would like to say and do.
Living life purely trying to please people who, perhaps, are incapable of ever being pleased by anything we do anyway - trying too hard to always be seen to be doing 'the right thing' - is the royal road to regret.
John realized he wouldn't live forever and, the last I heard, he was loving his life in Spain.