I honestly can’t imagine having to grow up in the age of social media and internet comments.
With a personal platform (even if it just reaches all of the people in one’s small social circle), people are free to react and say whatever is on their minds without pause or consideration. And they don’t have to contend with any reaction to their reaction, because it’s delivered at arms-length instead of personally.
One of the benefits of being “an old” means I grew up being bullied and teased straight to my face. The downside is that the abuse felt so much more personal — these were supposedly my friends and classmates whom I saw every weekday. I couldn’t escape from them and I desperately wanted to be liked and to fit in, as most kids do. The curse of “different” can be extremely painful. I couldn’t hit the mute button when they were calling me names, or turn them off when they threw my books into the street.
On the upside, the close proximity kept the numbers down. There were a relatively small amount of people who made my life miserable.
I am grateful that nothing went viral or spread throughout the school. Snide notes about me were left in library books, not streamed into all my classmates’ homes. My humiliation and exposure was limited. There was no Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. I didn’t have to compare myself to Youtubers or bloggers my age (or the Kardashians, thank goodness).
Today, kids and teens not only feel a need to fit into their peer groups and families, but they also are bombarded with messages of perfection, wealth, and fame from the media. The comparison is astronomical, and when comparison is at a high, vulnerability and shame step in big-time.
When I grew into an adult and my peers matured, this largely stopped in a personal way — I was no longer bullied. But the shame of being the object of someone’s disapproval, rejection, aggression and disdain, can still linger for years.
Now, adults are getting into the game as well. While it’s not new that adults still like to criticize, inflame, and shame other people, it seems more prevalent lately — largely because we have more channels on which to broadcast our scorn while still remaining somewhat anonymous.
Regardless of whether you or I have been bullied in the past or present, we still feel the very human need to measure up to standards set by our families, peers, the media, and society.
Whether we call this bullying or just opinions from “strong personalities,” the effect is similar. We don’t feel good enough. And it hurts even more when the people who judge us are our loved ones.
Fitting in and belonging means that we have a tribe (however functional or dysfunctional it is) and that our tribes have common values, beliefs, rules, and expectations. If we don’t meet those norms and standards, we risk disapproval, exposure, and rejection. And rejection freaking hurts! Even if it seems unwarranted or unfair.
Whether that hurt feels like a mere sting or a deftly-swung, breath-catching blow to the core by an MMA pro, it teaches us to avoid that pain and to curry favour as much as possible. None of us wants to walk around bruised and battered our whole life.
So we bend ourselves into various shapes and put ourselves into tiny boxes because we care what others think of us — because we need acceptance and love. Either that, or we convince ourselves that we don’t need acceptance and start to fight back. Which still leaves us feeling like crap.
Just don’t care what they think
When we’re feeling battered and bruised by others, we might try to go to a supportive person who can help us feel better. Sometimes we get sympathy or empathy, and sometimes we get that look that says, “Are you crazy? Don’t be so sensitive! Why do you care what they think?”
“Just don’t care what they think” becomes repeated as a mantra. It is mounted as an absolute defence — the body armour that will protect the soft underbelly from being exposed and vulnerable. Don’t be sensitive or emotional — harden yourself up and put up the wall. If you’re tough, you can’t be hurt.
But if used too liberally, it can act as a way to push people away. It is a term of individuality, of self-determination. But it does nothing to heal the underlying discord between two people. It does nothing to heal the shame of being rejected or judged or abused.
It is easier to not care what people think if you don’t have a close relationship with them; but, believe me, you’re still taking in the messages of their opinions and judging yourself against those opinions. You can’t stop that kind of osmosis. But you can resist it by your mental perspective about it.
However, it becomes harder to develop close, intimate, and caring relationships with people if you give off the air that you don’t care what anyone thinks.
So how do we approach other peoples’ opinions, beliefs, judgments, expectations, and unwritten (or written) rules which don’t fit for us? Can we still care but not let them affect us in a painful way?
Why we care what other people think
Human beings need to feel like they belong to a group; belonging feels like being loved. We feel safe if we fit in, and we naturally form norms, rules, and expectations around fitting in. This, we think, keeps us safe from the “others” outside of our groups. If we know what to expect, what the rules are, what we like and don’t like, we feel a bit more secure. We need communities and extended groups of friends and families to survive — emotionally and physically.
We also need to be able to recognize the “others” in case they turn out to be foes rather than friends. Again, our survival depends on it.
Over time, our society has developed a short-hand code to determine the group consensus: social rules, moral rules, fashion rules, etc. These rules (eg etiquette, the Golden Rule, never wear white after labour day, work as hard as you can) promote cohesion, civility, and a similar lifestyle. They distinguish the values of each group.
At home, we begin as children, needing acceptance and approval from our parents and caregivers. What they say goes — we have no sense of agency when we’re little, and we don’t have the means or the brain development to assess our own perspectives and determination.
Whether we’re considering the opinions and thoughts of our loved ones or people in our wider communities, we still have the same motivation: we want to be loved and accepted, which fuels our wellbeing. Rejection feels horrible and contributes to a feeling of separation.
When we feel separate, we tend to react emotionally: we feel shame, we get angry or defensive, we lash out, we get really critical of ourselves.
It’s really uncomfortable and painful not to get approval and understanding. This uncomfortable state is the key between caring about what people think, and accepting what they think.
Discomfort and discernment
If we’re really honest with ourselves in the moment, we can acknowledge that we care about what they think. We can accept that we desire approval and acceptance. It’s only natural.
When we feel that wanting, we realize that it is arising from a feeling of not getting what we want — the feeling of unconditional love and belonging.
Even if people express positive opinions of us, we can sense deep down that they’re not seeing our true authentic selves but rather a reflection of a social costume we’ve put on to gain love. We also sense that we could lose favour at any time.
If we are able to sit with that discomfort of not getting unconditional acceptance, we can care about what they think but not necessarily react to change that opinion or change something about ourselves.
We can listen to the other person’s perspective but determine for ourselves whether those thoughts and beliefs are true for us.
We can be discerning about the messages we will allow into our own thoughts and beliefs.
If you’re getting the message that something is wrong with you, you are the one who can decide whether that is true or not.
If you’re getting the message that you’re different than the majority, you are the one who can determine whether you think difference is cool and diversity is necessary, or whether you think that you should change to fit in or feel bad about yourself for just being you.
If you are getting the message that something about you is shameful or “not ________ enough,” you are the one who can decide that you don’t need to feel that way about yourself, and that those opinions are not true about you.
This internal perspective is yours alone — you can choose to communicate it or not. It only really matters what you think about yourself, because your story is yours to tell, not anyone else’s.
What other people think is a reflection of their own beliefs
When other people have an opinion or judgment about you, it is because they have a want or need which they are trying to meet through you.
If the opinion is positive and accepting, they may be wanting to create a deeper connection, or to communicate how they feel about you, or to feel good about their relationships, or to validate their own perspectives. We all need this yummy warm feeling of close bonds and positive attractions, whether they are in our close circles, or more widely in our peer groups, our workplaces, or our communities.
If the opinion is negative and rejecting, they may be wanting to make themselves feel more significant, or important. They may be wanting to protect their inner circle from widening (the big fish in a small pond effect). They may be scared that they will lose face with someone else, or be wanting someone else’s approval. They may feel more powerful if their opinions can affect how you see yourself. They may just want you to fit into their expectations because it feels better to them.People's opinions are based on their own needs & beliefs. You can discern yours from theirs.Click To Tweet
All of these underpinnings (positive and negative) are based on their own pain, projections and expectations which they have in turn learned from their peers, their families, the media, society, and the system in which we all live.
They are scripts (kind of like code which is running under the human interface) that we accept every day without realizing.
I must be loved and admired.
I need to be important.
I need to be comfortable all the time.
This is bad, that is good.
This is moral, that is immoral.
This is right, that is wrong.
This is attractive, that is unattractive.
Everything is black and white, not shades of grey.
These are the subjective beliefs which run under all of our social interactions and which form our opinions. We rarely take the time to dissect what our opinions are made up of. And we rarely take the time to understand what emotional needs are motivating us.
Subjective means that the opinion is from the perspective of the subject (not the object). If someone else (the subject) has an opinion about you (the object), they are seeing you through their own lenses, biases, and beliefs.
If you want acceptance, you will also accept the same lenses, biases, and beliefs, even though they may hurt you.
If you care what they think, you can see that they hold these lenses, biases, and beliefs, but you don’t need to accept them as yours.
Only you get to determine your own perspective. Once you do that, you will feel more comfortable when someone else’s opinion about you contrasts with your own, and it will be easier to shake it off.
If you want to go deeper, here are some further tips to explore caring what others think without necessarily accepting their beliefs, and how to communicate your perspective:
- Recognize that they are giving a personal opinion or stating a personal preference. The key word is personal, because it is theirs. It does not have to be yours as well.
- Reflect what you are hearing back to them in a non-emotionally-charged way. For example, “You are calling me fat because I wear larger pants than you, and you think fat people are ugly.” They can either confirm, deny, and amend this statement but it encourages them to own their own opinions and become aware of their beliefs.
- State your own preferences, beliefs, and opinions. Find your voice and speak your truth, by using “I” statements. “I disagree” or “I don’t conform to that belief.” “I think that…” You don’t have to start an argument here, just be matter-of-fact about it.
- Don’t expect them to capitulate, or feel like you have to change your own opinion or preferences to fit in. This is where allowing the discomfort is important. If you can be in that space of allowing both of your perspectives, however you may feel about the tension, then the resistance will lessen.
- On your own, reflect on what you believe to be untrue or true about this exchange. Sometimes we can outwardly disagree with an opinion but subconsciously accept it. Your emotions will tell you where there is discord: if you tell yourself that you are great no matter what everyone else thinks, and you really believe it, you’ll feel pretty good at the end of the exchange. However, if you have subconsciously accepted the belief that there is something bad or wrong about you, then you will feel that kick in the gut even if your head is telling you that you are awesome. Your emotions will tell you the truth.
- Be really emotionally honest with yourself. If you feel angry, or ashamed, or anxious, or sad, that is okay. Allow yourself to feel those things. It’s a healthy practice to allow yourself to hear and hold your own emotional pain. We need to be able to recognize our feelings, and also to recognize that it is our human desire to be loved, validated, and accepted that is causing us to feel bad when we don’t get it.
- You don’t necessarily have to communicate how you feel to the other person. It really depends on how close you are with that person, and how open they are to discussing both perspectives. If they tend to be a bully, or are abusive in any way, it may be safer not to to discuss your feelings with them because that may encourage the abuse. But if you sense that they would be open to deeper discussion, then be open about how you feel.
- Set your boundaries. If there is someone in your life who is consistently and regularly negative, judgmental, or rejecting, it’s time to consider for yourself what kind of energy you want in your life. What internal strategy do you need for responding to their opinions? Do you want to communicate your needs to them, and if yes, how will you do that?
- Turn it around: how are your opinions, preferences, judgments, and expectations affecting your view of others? Not only do we care what people think of us, they also care about what we think. Do you recognize the lenses, beliefs, and biases which affect how you see them?
We’d love to hear your wisdom. Please leave a comment below and tell us your strategies when you encounter someone who gives an opinion about who you are, or what you choose to do.
How do you feel when you encounter a negative (or positive) opinion?
How do you honour your feelings and your own perspective?
How do you communicate your perspective or boundaries to them?
Keep shining the insight light,