No matter how secure we may be as individuals, it is natural to care what others think. It is through the responses of our caregivers that we first develop our understanding of self. The act of being seen and responded to helps form our identity and understanding of the world. That is, we are not made into who we are in isolation; we are intimately connected to one another.
Because of this human connection, we often carry with us the words, thoughts, and responses that others have sowed into us. Some things we leave behind and some things we hold on to, weaving them into our identity. As we develop, we learn to sift out the opinions, perceptions, and responses of some while holding fast to others. However, for some, the perceptions of others feel difficult to sift through and let go of; they stick to us in ways that sap us of our energy and sense of identity. We do not want to be swayed, but we are. We do not want to care, but we do. We do not want to doubt ourselves, but we doubt. So, what do we do with that?
First, it is important to remember that caring what others think is normal and even critical for our development. Keeping that in mind can help us practice more patience with ourselves when anxieties creep in. For those who particularly struggle with caring what others think, it becomes even more difficult when we begin beating ourselves up for caring. We set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and then wonder what is wrong with us for not being more secure. When we add shame onto our anxiety, we enter into a vicious cycle.
For example: You make an embarrassing mistake during a work presentation in front of all your colleagues. It is natural to feel self-conscious about this and wonder what your co-workers might be thinking about you. If, on top of the embarrassment you are already experiencing, you begin shaming yourself for caring what others think, you now have two hurdles to overcome. Of course you don’t want to make mistakes on your work presentation in front of your boss and co-workers! So first, practice compassion with yourself. We’re human and we want to be seen in our entirety – not diminished to an embarrassing moment, a character flaw, or a bad mistake.
Tip: It is sometimes helpful to allow yourself a set amount of time to worry or feel that embarrassment, which you're desperately trying to ward off. You can even set a timer! No beating yourself up for caring what others think, no thinking to yourself, “I should just let it go” – just feel whatever you're feeling. It sounds counterintuitive, but you may actually be able to move through it this way.
Another point to remember is that it is sometimes difficult to process the perceptions of others if we are not willing to look at ourselves. The truth of who we are is full of both good and beautiful things and not so beautiful things. For instance, you may be a very generous person but you may also be a very angry person. Your anger does not invalidate your generosity – they are both parts of you. It might be important to ask yourself whether or not you are able to accept the different facets of your identity and character. If we can accept our good and our bad, we may feel less threatened when others notice those parts we’d rather hide.
Lastly, it is important to consider who we are listening to and paying attention to. Who do we allow in? Who is speaking into our life? Whose opinion do we lie awake worrying about at night? As previously stated, we need people in order to develop and to remain healthy. Sometimes the perceptions of others can help guide and grow us. That being said, we may want to ask ourselves two things: Do we trust this person, and do they give us permission and freedom to express the nuances of who we are? If either of those answers are no, we may want to reconsider the weight we allow their judgments and opinions carry.
Journaling can be an effective way to take inventory of some of these things. It may shed light on patterns, thoughts, and emotions that are difficult to pinpoint. Journaling comes easier for some more than others. It might be helpful to set a timer and write continuously – or stream of consciousness – for 10 minutes in response to one of the prompts below. Don’t worry about what is coming out, don’t worry about editing – just write. From there you can decide if you need more time or not. If you feel stuck, maybe switch to a different prompt. It can also be difficult to write when we are hungry or tired, so be sure to check your biological needs. Light a candle, carve out a comfy spot on the couch or desk, and be present to the process!
Journal Prompt Ideas:
1. What pieces of myself am I afraid to look at? What pieces am I afraid others will see? Once identified, try to invite compassion into those places. This can happen in different ways. One way is to imagine that a close friend is telling you about their insecurities -- how would you respond to them? What kind of compassion or grace might you extend? You might even write a letter to your friend and then re-read it and apply it to yourself.
2. Whose opinion do I trust? This may be dependent on context – perhaps you trust your boss’ opinion on business related matters, but your mother’s opinion on parenting. Who knows me best? Who gives me freedom to explore and express different aspects of who I am? It might be helpful to reflect on how you know you can trust certain people – what things do people do to show me they know me or accept me? What do I think of myself?
3. In what circumstances or with which people do I worry the most about the perceptions of others? Are there any recurring themes or fears that pop up in these circumstances? What is the core fear that surfaces? (i.e. I am afraid others won’t like me, I am afraid others will think I’m stupid, I’m afraid others will think I’m ugly, etc.) Drawing attention to these areas can help you name what is actually happening, and that is a great place to start!
After you have spent time journaling, reread what you wrote when you have the mental stamina to do so. Sit with it. Reflect on it. Maybe write some more. What patterns or thoughts do you notice in your writing that stick out to you? What have you learned about yourself and how can that be useful to you moving forward? Remember that this is an ongoing process. We don’t just wake up one day and stop caring about the perceptions of others. You can return to these journaling exercises as you encounter different situations. It may also be helpful to process these reflections with a therapist or someone you trust, as you feel ready.