The ability to care for others is one of the most beautiful experiences of human existence. There is however, a more insidious trick that our mind plays, that makes us take to heart the judgments or imagined slights that stems from the ‘other’. We start to ‘care’ too much about what other people think and worry constantly about the opinions of others (whether they actually think something about us or we are making it up in our mind). How does one rid themselves of this need to always try and protect our self-image or live up to the standards that our society has set for us? “Why do I care about what others think so much?” Let’s see if we can break this issue down and find a way forward.
The Battle Between Internal and External
A lot of us try to tackle our fears and discomforts of being judged by the ‘other’, by trying to improve the external so much, that it couldn’t be possibly made fun of or diminished. For instance, someone who is labeled as a nerd, might take the tact of trying to revamp their external image (through dress, mannerisms, behaviors), in order to appear ‘cool’ to other people.
Would this action lessen the amount that a so-called nerd got messed with? Possibly. However, what has actually happened in such a scenario is to merely shift the attention away from any perceived flaws. This person is still wholly dependent on the opinions of others, even if the opinions of those others have been elevated to something that is more pleasing.
Please understand this: depending on external validations for a sense of self-worth, is always a losing game.
No matter how much work you do to improve the external circumstances of your life and self-image, that validation can always be taken away. If the validation gets taken away, so do all of the positive emotions that you had about yourself.
I learned this first-hand, about a decade ago, when trying to teach myself how to get better socially and stop the shyness/anxiety that had trapped me. I eventually broke through, made friends, started getting a lot of dates, but it was nothing more than an illusion of self-worth based on having some success. Once I began to experience negative situations, judgments, and people, this ‘confidence’ began to collapse in spectacular fashion.
So, if an externalized focus leads to a roller coaster of emotions, we should then turn inwards in order to address our worrying about what others think of us.
A Quick Note About Not Always Not Caring
Since we as individual beings do not live and operate within a vacuum, there are indeed times when it can be beneficial to consider what others think.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people who claim they don’t care what others think, go out of their way to express this externally, mostly through fashion choices. Now, they may indeed not care what others think about them…which is fine BUT there are times when it’s the most prudent choice to just go with the flow.
For example, Lady Gaga is a wealthy pop star. Her role within our society dictates that she can wear whatever crazy outfit that she wants, and will not be harmed for it. Meaning, she can get away with wearing a dress made out of meat.
On the other hand, if you show up to work or school in a dress made out of meat, it’s going to be a problem. You may not care what others think, but it would be for the best to forego the outward expression of it, on such an extreme scale because you still need the paycheck and/or education in order to survive within society.
Of course, you have the free will to say, “Screw it”. Just know that the free will to do something, doesn’t protect you from the consequences of those actions in the context of the social realm.
It’s all well and good to want complete freedom and live like Ancient Greek Cynic, Diogenes, on the streets as a beggar. Though, I would say conforming to at least some social norms is just a part of living in civilization, and the benefits of doing so make sense.
Then again, what do I know? I’m just pointing out, going to the extremes with anything can have negative ramifications, and lead to a sub-optimal level of comfort/lifestyle…but it’s still your choice.
The heart of the matter, as to why we care so much what other people think about us, has to do with identification. We are so attached to the narrative about who we are, that we’ve become identified with it. Whenever anyone judges that identity, it stirs up all of the associated negative feelings.
Alright, let’s flesh this idea out, with an example of what I’m talking about.
Let’s suppose that I was in some sort of accident, which caused me to lose my memory, and essentially my entire identity. I still have all of my government documents and driver’s licence, which tells the external world, who I am. But internally, I’m basically a blank slate. Oh, let’s also assume that I still have all of my motor skills, and no other physical ailments came from the accident. Only the identity wipe.
What would this mean in practice? Without the identity narrative provided by a lifetime of memories, social pressures, environmental factors, and other random events…would I still have the same fears, phobias, and protective responses anytime my identity/self-image was under siege from other people? No, as the identity no longer exists.
While it would be true that I no longer have an identity, I would still be alive. There is still a physical body and an aware consciousness, just not the layers of experience and conditioned responses, that had formed the basis of a ‘me’.
Of course, no such accident occurred in real life, and I still do have the whole internal identity taking place within. This sort of thought experiment, did however, show me that what I am is not the self-image (or internal narrative or ego or whatever else one could call it) but what I am is simple awareness. The identity that I had spent my whole life developing and protecting is more like a powerful illusion.
Secondly, this identity was always changing based on new inputs from my senses. A new social experience could completely change my behavior and have me trying to protect this ego identity. For example, getting rejected by a woman for a date, would have an impact on ‘who’ I thought I was. Each day, these little impacts built up, to alter the identity that I thought I already was…which is why my personality and identity is so different at age 30 versus age 12.
Had any event in my life during those 18 years of my life gone differently, my identity would be at least slightly altered. With all of these constant changes taking place, was there ever really a set ‘me’? If not, what have I been so dead set on trying to defend from criticism my whole life?
From Theory to Practice
Worrying about what other people think of you obviously has some biological basis. It probably stems from some kind of protection mechanism, to avoid being thrown out of the tribe, and be forced to survive on your own. Tow the company line and make sure you’re not straying too far from the acceptable bounds of behavior.
It’s cool to think about this problem on that sort of evolutionary level, but again, one’s outward behavior doesn’t have to change in order to inwardly stop taking to heart the opinions of others. The real problem is the internal one.
So, back in the day, when I really used to have extreme ups and downs, based on what people said or did towards me; my sense of self was like a glass mirror. Anyone could walk on by with a verbal or emotional hammer and shatter it, leaving me to pick up the pieces.
That’s no way to live. But even when people recognize this, they still try to go from making their sense of self like that fragile mirror and turn it into some fortress or stone wall. Sure, harder to break, but it still could be done.
For me nowadays, that sense of self is akin to the ocean. It’s diffuse, always changing and flowing, there’s basically nothing to attack or break. Glass shatters when you hit it with a hammer but the ocean doesn’t give a shit. Actually, caring would be personifying it, the ocean simply is…it exists without reaction.
Someone insults my appearance? The waves still roll on. If they try to really dig deep with some emotional barb, what of it? That identity they’re attack is just a collection of experiences and memories, I don’t have to ‘identify’ with or take any of it ‘personally’. Actually, when people try to go for those kinds of deep hitting emotional shots, it just looks silly to me.
Can you imagine how stupid it would be to watch someone trying to attack the ocean? How frustrating it would be for them, to see that their fists have no damaging impact, because another wave just follows like the one before it.
All right, so what does this look like in practice?
To me, the process of letting go, and accepting what is without all of the emotional baggage and attachment is an everyday thing. It wasn’t something that I only did once my sense of self felt like it was under attack. If I’m only using this as a technique when I’m trying to stop worrying about others, I’m still going to worry about all of that BS, but I’d just be better at coping with it.
No, I have made this how I interact with the world on a daily basis. Meditation was the tool and still is in many ways that I use to pull myself out of those constant thoughts about “me, me, me” or about what a victim I am or how others are always ‘out to get me’. I deal with any life issues as they arise (or plan ahead as best as possible) but I don’t need to make it into a whole story and identity.
It’s actually pretty amazing to see how fast other people just flip out and express their outrage, how their ego has been harmed, or how important they fancy themselves to be. When you just sit back and quietly observe, you can see all of this unconscious behavior and how crazy it is. It’s like being the sober person in a room full of drunks.
For example, I had a flight that was delayed for a few hours, and announced while we were all being transferred to the plane. The level of outrage was immediate from the other passengers, which made me laugh and crack a big smile, which maybe wasn’t a great idea because that seemed to piss them off further.
For me, there could only be acceptance of the circumstance. What could I do? That was the only flight to my destination and it would be three hours until it left. What good would anger do? Because I had spent years working to this point, the acceptance was immediate, and I didn’t have any anger to suppress. I simply went back into the terminal, grabbed a cookie, listened to some music, and watched the other passengers go nuts on the airline staff.
This is the result of the daily practice. Whenever these powerful emotions arise, let them come, feel them, question their usefulness, what’s the best course of action to take, and don’t turn these feelings into a ‘woe is me’ story.
When you practice in exploring and ultimately letting go of these everyday emotions, it becomes really easy to do so with the opinions and judgments of others. It’s the same basic mechanism at work. There is no longer the need to make yourself feel super important or protect your self-identity, because what does it matter?
Here are some readings to help explore letting go and not identifying with the opinions of others: