Imagine standing naked under a giant microscope…
Your every flaw is being magnified and live-streamed to people all over the world. One wrong move – and everyone is ready to hurl abuses at you, spit on you, and pillory you.
Not too fun, huh?
But this is the subconscious story that runs in the minds of 80-85% of people.
And let me tell you – I am no stranger to that either.
I have spent most of my adult life in that mode – always trying to second guess what the other person is thinking and how to stay in their “good books”…
Because you are giving your brain an unsolvable problem.
Can you ever even hope to comprehend what’s going on in someone else’s head?
You can make educated guesses, sure. But that’s a full-time job for your brain – to come up with better guesses and get them validated with others’ reactions to see if you’re correct.
You see why this saps your energy, right? That much of a constant cognitive load on your brain is enough to fry your circuits.
The Psychological Cost of Caring Too Much
So why do we keep taxing our brains this way?
You won’t like the answer, my friend…
The reason why we care so much about others’ opinions and try to change them – is our need for control.
We want to feel accepted. We want to feel in charge.
And we hate being uncertain about our place in the world – because uncertainty is nerve-wracking.
So, is it really bad if we try to influence the opinions of others just a little bit – if it provides relief from the anxiety and uncertainty?
Well – yes. Because it doesn’t work.
And I’ll come to the reason why it doesn’t work in a bit…
But before that, let’s dig a bit more into what seeking approval is all about.
The too-goody-goody self-image
You see we all have a self-image in our minds.
That of a tall, noble, kind, altruistic, saintly person.
Someone who cares about others. Someone who always strives to make the world a better place for others.
Because secretly we love to believe that only we have the power to help others. We believe others are helpless despite what they claim.
(You’re reading this article so I’ll go out on a limb here to assume that you’re struggling with people-pleasing. People-pleasers like us can relate to the above self-image. People who fall at the other end of the spectrum – the egoistic jerks and the psychopaths – for sure won’t be able to relate).
So what’s the problem with that kind of self-image?
Well, for one thing – that’s a lie.
Nobody is truly altruistic – they always gain something out of the acts of charity.
Sometimes it’s money or favors. Sometimes it’s subtler things like gratitude, reciprocity, inner peace, or satisfaction.
And the second thing – when you’re too attached to your self-image you feel the need to uphold it at any cost.
Even in the minds of others.
So you bend over backward to accommodate others – so that that saintly self-image is preserved in their mind.
Because in our deluded minds – it feels like death when even one person doesn’t agree with our self-image.
We feel our world is falling apart…
I felt this when I had a fallout with a colleague with whom I had become good friends. She said some things that were hurtful (but in hindsight, true).
And it felt like it shattered my world.
For a while, I was trying every trick in the book to make that self-image whole once again (I cringe at the memory of those days and yet to fully come to terms with them).
So you can see how relating too much to your goody-goody self-image can harm you.
Now back to the reason why trying to manipulate the opinions of others doesn’t work.
You see the more you care about the opinions of others and seek to shape them – the more you lose control.
You get some momentary, short-lived amount of respite from anxiety. But you pay for it with your authenticity. And down the road, it opens you up to regrets.
You allow yourself to become a prisoner of every mood swing of the person you’re trying to manipulate.
You lose touch with the true version of yourself.
The anxiety train
And here’s some more food for thought…
People say that caring too much about what others think is making them unhappy.
But is it true, though?
Is the act of caring making you unhappy? Or is it the wave of anxiety, shame, and disappointment that follows from caring too much about others’ opinions?
Maybe you feel that you shouldn’t let others’ opinions affect you? Maybe you are in awe of (and even a little bit jealous of) someone in your life who always shows up as their most authentic self?
Maybe you worry that something’s wrong with you?
This worrying makes things even worse.
Anxiety, shame, and disappointment – these emotions are momentary. If you acknowledge them and let them go – they have a very short shelf life.
It’s like seeing a slowly moving train pass by.
If you just see it from a distance, it disappears in a few minutes.
But what if you decide to grab onto the last handle and board the train?
Now you’re stuck and you don’t know how to let go. You are at the mercy of the train to stop at the next station.
Worrying is like hopping on to that anxiety train.
And it complicates things even more.
It keeps you stuck in that sympathetic, fight-or-flight nervous system. It keeps pumping your body with adrenaline and norepinephrine and stops your body from going into rest and digest mode.
It wrecks your body.
Keep doing this long enough and it opens you up to heart diseases, diabetes, obesity, and metabolic disorders.
And it gets even worse.
You can’t keep pushing back your authentic self and pandering for those fleeting bursts of approval forever.
Sooner or later your true self fights back.
It grows resentful for having to work so hard for something so unreliable as other’s approval.
It loathes you for suppressing the true, rich, and complex tapestry of your being and presenting a bland, cardboard cutout of yourself to the world.
Then it manifests in two ways.
It either blows up on others from the effects of all these pent-up frustrations and resentment. It happens usually for petty reasons and fills you up with regret and embarrassment.
Or it redirects all this pain, anger, and resentment inward – and you end up with depression.
“don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people—unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Now you know why it’s so important to overcome this urge to care too much about others’ opinions.
And the good thing is – it’s possible.
The Judgement Stops Here…
But before we go into the details of how to do that let me digress a bit…
You may wonder if caring too much about what others think is so bad – what about the other end of the spectrum?
Is caring too little about others’ opinions a good thing?
Of course not. Only psychopaths and narcissistic jerks have no care about how the world sees them.
Human beings are social animals.
We have evolved to take cues from others. It keeps us grounded in reality.
It’s a natural part of what being a human means. Good or bad – there’s no avoiding it.
That’s why social rejection and losing the approval of others feel like death to us. It’s hardwired into our brains from thousands of years of evolution.
Because a few thousand years ago – if you lost the approval of your tribe and were cast out – the only option for you was to starve to death.
A couple of millennia is not enough to overcome such deep social adaptive conditioning.
So is there any point in feeling guilt or shame over caring about others’ opinions?
The Spotlight Effect
And here’s one more thing that stacks the odds against us – the Spotlight Effect.
It’s a much-researched cognitive bias.
It seems we’re all hardwired to think that our flaws and mistakes are apparent to others much more than what’s real.
The brain works in funny ways, huh?
Another thing that holds you back is the belief that you are supposed to be perfect. Any flaws that you expose to the world will be criticized heavily. People will come down on you with hellfire and brimstone and ostracize you.
Nothing can be further from the truth though.
Your flaws and shortcomings make you relatable – charming even.
It makes you human. People crave that authentic version of you.
They don’t care much about the fake, smile-laden cardboard cutout that you want to present to them.
You don’t worry about being judged on things you’re confident about
Have you noticed something?
If you know you’re good at something – you don’t give a damn about what others think of you.
Only the things that you are insecure about, the areas where you deem yourself less than perfect – are where you’re most anxious about being judged.
So what’s the takeaway here?
Have more faith in yourself.
You will survive the criticism – even if it feels like you will not. You have always managed to do so after all.
Is it really about you?
Think about it – the way someone treats you or reacts to you depends on so many things…
Maybe they didn’t have their morning coffee. Or maybe their cat died the previous day. Or maybe the traffic was horrendous. Or maybe they are going through a personal rough patch.
Or maybe – they are judging you for something they have repressed within themselves. And seeing you living that life they always craved makes them intensely uncomfortable.
Of course, all this is in their subconscious. But that doesn’t make it any less real for you.
So think about it – an opinion or judgment colored through so many factors – is it even worth your time?
Here’s a quick anecdote…
I used to be quite overweight in my college days.
So after getting my first job, I was becoming conscious about my health. I had started eating mindfully and had lost a bit of weight.
So when one of my mom’s friends saw me after a few years, she was quite astonished.
She asked me how I managed to lose weight.
I was excited to share about how I was eating right and have started working out.
She listened to everything and then said – “You’re deluded. It’s just the stress and anxiety from your work that’s causing you to lose weight”.
That was like a bucket of cold water on my enthusiasm. I was crestfallen.
But later I realized – that was not about me.
This lady was overweight. She was struggling with high blood sugar, cholesterol, and high BP. She has been trying to lose weight but has not been able to stick to it.
So my progress made her intensely insecure. No wonder she reacted that way.
So should I have taken that comment to heart? Was it really about me?
Think about this the next time an opinion or judgment from someone cuts you deep.
When another blames you or hates you, or when men say anything injurious about you, approach their poor souls, penetrate within, and see what kind of men they are. You will discover that there is no reason to be concerned that these men have this or that opinion about you.
How to Claim Your Power Back
So now what do you do?
On one hand, you know that caring too much about others’ opinions is detrimental to your mental health.
On the other hand – you can’t help but care about others. It’s hardwired into you for survival.
So how do you go about this?
Here are a few strategies that can help…
Get rid of the assholes
If you’re bound to care about what others think then why not rig the game a bit…
What do I mean here?
Surround yourself with people who actually give a damn about you.
People whom you admire. People you look up to. People who can teach you something. People who respect you for who you are.
Then you know that they will never lead you astray.
Their opinions will serve as a guideline that will keep you on track.
Surround yourself with that kind of people.
And get rid of the assholes.
Dial yourself down in the Selfish Spectrum
Most people care too much about others’ opinions because they are afraid.
Afraid that they will turn into an abrasive, selfish jerk if they stop doing that.
But this is a classic example of a cognitive distortion called black-and-white thinking.
As psychologist and author Dr. Aziz Gazipura says, Selfishness is not a binary, on-off switch. It’s a spectrum.
On the lower end is the psychopathic, selfish jerk who uses everyone for self-gratification.
And on the upper end is your easy-going pushover who allows everyone to walk over them.
Since you are reading this article, I assume you’re somewhere on the upper end of the spectrum.
So all you have to do is to dial yourself down to the zone of healthy self-interest.
Where you put your interests first. But you also care enough about others’ opinions.
Find a Better Strategy
Let’s be honest here…
Trying to change others’ opinions about us by pleasing them is a strategy.
At some point in our life, we adopted it – since it worked.
It helped us secure the love and attention of our parents. It helped us secure better grades in the class.
It helped us carve a bit of security and stability in this scary world.
It worked for a while – but it’s no longer working.
And you know by now the price you’re paying for adopting this strategy.
So own it up.
And then let it go.
Find a better strategy instead.
Rise above hate – or love
Who is the freest person in your opinion?
You might say one who has the most amount of money or power.
It’s the person who has risen above criticism or praise.
If you’re swayed by either criticism or praise – you don’t have an anchor to affix yourself.
And that means you can be controlled.
Is it wise to hand over that kind of power to others?
So free yourself from being hurt by criticism.
But don’t forget to free yourself to be swelled by praise as well.
Invest in Building Assertiveness
Here’s how psychologist and author Nick Wignall describes assertiveness:
“Assertiveness is the skill of taking action on what you really want despite your emotions pulling you the other way.”
And I couldn’t agree more.
So the opinions of others – real or imaginary – are making you uncomfortable.
It’s making you anxious and depressed. It’s leading to worries.
How do you counter that?
Build assertiveness. (I can help you there. If you want to work with me 1:1 book a call here)
When you build assertiveness it helps you to rise above these fleeting emotions and reorient yourself to your guiding north star.
And what’s that north start you ask?
That leads to the final bit of advice I have for you…
Craft your values and purpose
So few people take some time out to carve a purpose for themselves and clarify their value.
Instead, they choose to be led by popular opinion.
Their minds are like a boat without oars or sails – completely dependent on the waves and the winds of others’ opinions.
No wonder they become anxious when the waves and the wind change.
Here’s a quick example…
Recently I started working for a bank in southeast Asia as a delivery manager.
As with any new project, there’s always a storming phase. I had a hard time adjusting to the yes-man culture of the bank.
One day I had a bit of a fallout with my boss (let’s call him R).
He was worried that the way I was leading my team would lead to us falling from the “good books” of the big boss “T”.
I said that I don’t care about being in the good books. My priority is delivery. And I will take the necessary measures to do my job – even if it lands me in the bad books of someone.
I was a bit anxious after that – but so goddamn proud of myself! This was a far cry from how I operated even a few years back.
When the project ended, the results were obvious. There was praise from every quarter for me and my team.
We wouldn’t have been able to deliver that kind of results if we had adapted to the yes-man culture of the bank.
So clarify your values. Craft a compelling purpose.
It will serve as the guiding star for all your actions.
What happens when you do that?
At first, people are amused, even bewildered as you go on about your day.
But then they watch in awe as you bring results.
And then they want to know all about it.
You will stop caring what other people think about you when you have something more important to care about, when you have something worth being embarrassed over, when you have something worth being ridiculed for, when you believe in something so intensely, and it’s so important that if you’re willing to lose friends, or the respect of your neighbors, that’s when you stop caring what other people think. And the irony of this of course, is that that is the moment that everybody starts respecting you.
— Mark Manson
So what happens when you start using the above strategies?
Here’s what life on the other side looks like…
Imagine the scrutiny under that giant microscope gone forever.
Imagine that most authentic and powerful version of you – no longer being pinned down by others’ opinions, surrounded by well-wishers, free of the influence of praise or criticism, crafting a meaningful life guided by your values and purpose.
How would it feel? What would your life be like? What kind of energy would you feel in your day to life?
These changes won’t happen overnight though.
Trauma that you’ve accumulated over decades doesn’t just vanish like that.
But soon enough, you’ll start to see signs of them working
Your steps will feel lighter. You won’t feel awkward singing or even dancing in front of others. You’ll start experiencing love and beauty in all things around you.
You will start believing in the light of the world.
I know. Tall claims, right?
But you don’t have to take my word for that.
Give these strategies a try yourself.
They will serve you as well.