It’s never a good idea to be completely apathetic about other people’s opinions of you. If that were the case, you probably wouldn’t bother helping anyone out, and you might spend your days hedonically consuming recreational drugs, wearing hideous clothing and eating buckets of fried chicken for breakfast. Caring about what other people think of you can be a motivator for us to engage in pro-social behaviour like exercising, being kind to others, and not spending your life savings gambling on a horse race. But there comes a point where caring too much about what other people think about you can be completely debilitating, stunting your personal growth and causing unnecessary anxiety. Other people’s perceptions of you might mean that you don’t pursue your goals, or it might mean that you engage in behaviour that is incongruous with your core values and desires.
If significant decisions in your life are made on the basis of what you think other people’s reactions will be, or because you are so concerned about others perceptions of you, this can be problematic and shape the course of your life. You might end up in a job that you dislike immensely because it’s an occupation that looks appealing and respectable on paper. Or you might end up in an underwhelming relationship because everyone else dotes on your partner, or because you want to give off the impression that you are good at maintaining relationships. You might also be so caught up in what others think that you don’t put yourself out there in ways that can enrich your life or, more specifically, change the trajectory of your career. It may be that you have a passion for designing clothing and you want to start your own fashion label, but you’re too scared to voice this inner desire because you’re worried about failing. When you think about it, worrying about failing really boils down to fear over what other people will think of you when you supposedly “fail”. Will they judge you and think you’re a loser because you tried at something and it wasn’t initially successful? But what even is failure? Is it trying to start a successful clothing business and not selling an item in the first week? Arguably, that isn’t failing, but really a learning curve and an experience you can use to guide your future choices. Besides, at the end of the day, your true friends and family will support you no matter how many clothes you sell or how many likes you receive on an instagram post. So does it really matter was random people think who you don’t particular care about that much either?
For me personally, I have struggled with focussing too heavily on what others think of me. I become easily embarrassed and am hyper-sensitive to other people’s emotions. I chose law as a degree in university because of some vague interest in writing, but also because I know it’s a reputable degree and people are impressed when you say you’re a lawyer. People immediately assume you’re intelligent, wealthy and that you essentially have your shit together. The appeal for me was ultimately based on perceptions of others as opposed to what I was really passionate about or good at. In my defence (I seemingly have the legalese down-pat), I chose this degree with I was 17 and did enjoy some aspects of it. I was motivated by other things, including the problem-solving and writing aspects. However, it was certainly the case that I gave far too much weight on other people’s perceptions of me when making such a significant life choice.
Nowadays, I think I’m beginning to truly care less about what other people think of me and this is improving my life immensely. My actions are dictated mostly by what I want to do and not what I think others want me to do. Whilst I still take into account the opinions of others, especially the important people in my life, I don’t give their opinions as much significance as I used to. I find I am now a lot less anxious about making decisions because I am not caught up in agonising over what others think, which removes a lot of the stress I was feeling throughout my days. If you find yourself struggling with this, as I often still do, here are four useful tips to overcome this fixation on what other people think about you.
- Realise how much emphasis you place on other people’s opinions
The first step to change is awareness, and recognising how much your life is dictated by others. A lot of our thoughts and behaviours fall outside our conscious awareness, and we may not even realise that our actions are significantly shaped by what we think others perceive of us. Think about a recent time you didn’t do something because you thought others would judge you, or a time when you felt particularly anxious about over the outcome of something because you were concerned about how others would perceive you. It could be that you’re extremely stressed about a presentation because you are worried about making a mistake and the audience will think you’re hopeless. When it comes down to it, you’re not actually that stressed about the presentation itself, but rather how other people will perceive your presentation and judge you based on how you go.
This type of thinking can be maladaptive because it can impact how you go in your presentation and cause unnecessary anxiety. Whilst it’s okay to want to impress others or prove to colleagues that you are knowledgeable and are great communicator, stressing about what they think of you doesn’t assist you in preparing and presenting the content. Rather, it merely creates horrible feelings that might make you feel excessively stressed, or even cause you to present at a reduced standard. Recognise that it’s good to care about others and their opinions to some extent, but not if it’s impacting you on the important choices you make, or how you go about important daily tasks. Once you become aware of how much you are worrying about the opinions of those around you and the direct impact it is having on your life, you can begin the process of limiting the emphasis you place on the views of others.
2. Do the things you usually avoid because you think others will judge you
The phrase “fake it to you make it” rings true here because the only way to realise that other people’s opinions really aren’t that imperative is to see what happens when you do things that you think others will judge you on. For example, I started a fitness instagram account which is probably the most dickhead thing you can do in my friendship circle. I remember I really wanted to do this for several months to track my fitness progress and create health-related content, but I refrained from doing it out of pure embarrassment. I didn’t want friends or acquaintances thinking I was narcissistic or body-obsessed, and I certainly didn’t want them thinking I was on some absurd pursuit to become a fitness influencer (I’m about as influential as a deceased ant).
Despite this irrational concern about what others thought of me, I created the instagram account and started posting workouts, the meals I was eating and gym selfies. I found it was really motivating for me and I enjoyed (and still enjoy) creating content on the account for anyone who follows me. More importantly, I found that most of my friends either didn’t give a crap about the account, or they were kind and encouraging about it. I am sure some of them would have rolled their eyes at seeing it, but I found that my worries about these types of opinions were dissipating and the more I posted, the less care I had. So, just like exposure therapy is used for patients with specific phobias in clinical contexts, I think one of the best ways to overcome the fear of other people’s opinions is to simply engage in the behaviour that you believe they will judge you on. I guarantee you that the people you value and who love you won’t judge you harshly, and the ones that do probably weren’t worth you worrying over anyway.
3. Realise that no one notices or cares about what you do as much as you think
Take a look at yourself and think about where the majority of your thoughts are directed. They most likely are about yourself, your hobbies/interests, and how things effect YOU. How often do you really critically analyse other people all the time? The same goes for everyone else and their thoughts – most of the time they won’t be directed at you at all. Our brains often have this bias where we think people are noticing everything we do, all the time, and because of this we believe people are constantly judging us. This misconception is so common it has even been given a name in psychology, called “the spotlight effect”. This phenomenon describes our tendency to overestimate how much other people notice about us. For example, if you say something incorrect during a conversation with a group of people, you might think that after the conversation the other people think you’re stupid and are analysing your mistake, when really they probably have forgotten about it.
This type of thinking can be maladaptive because it might make you avoid future behaviours for fear of being judged, or it might make you feel unnecessarily anxious in social situations because you think everyone is judging you. A simple way to overcome this effect is to firstly be aware that it exists and that it’s impacting your life on a daily basis. The belief that others are critically analysing you may be so ingrained and automatic that it may require you to become consciously aware of when it is happening in social situations so you can actively dispute these erroneous beliefs. Another useful technique may be to look at yourself from a more objective point of view, perhaps how you would perceive other people. For example, if you’re embarrassed about an item of clothing you’re wearing, try and think about the situation from a less egocentric point of view and think to yourself when you can recall times when you’ve really noticed, or cared that much, about what other people are wearing. By looking at yourself more objectively from other people’s point of view, you begin to realise that the only person that is truly caught up in what you do/how you appear is YOU, so there is absolutely no need to worry over how other people are perceiving you.
4. Remember life is short and you don’t want it dictated by other people
Ultimately, reminding yourself that life is too short not to do what makes you happy should help you move past the fear of judgment of others. At the end of the day, you don’t want to reflect on your life and your past decisions and realise you didn’t do what fulfilled you because you were so caught up in what everyone else was doing. Life moves rapidly and moments are fleeting. The transient and temporary nature of our time here makes it so important to live a life that is true to yourself, and to engage in behaviours that increase your happiness and overall satisfaction. We don’t want to live our life with regret just to avoid feelings of temporary embarrassment. Minimising your stress about what other people think of you is one of the most liberating feelings. Your life won’t be dictated by other people’s supposed beliefs, but rather will be based on what YOU want and what benefits you and the important people in your life.
We all like to think we are important and at the centre of everyones universe, but the reality is that it’s simply not the case. If we were the most significant thing in people’s lives, everything we do would be viciously scrutinised and our anxieties over other people judging us would probably have some validity. However, the fact is that everyone is too caught up with themselves to truly care about the ins and outs of your life, or your appearance, or the way you handle a presentation at work. People may have fleeting thoughts about you, and they may judge you in some capacity, but these certainly aren’t reasons to cause you to change your behaviour or refrain from doing certain things despite an inner desire to. If you find yourself worrying about other people’s opinions of you, it’s important to acknowledge the impact that this is having on your life. Ultimately, this is your life and you should be able to live it on your terms. So, begin doing things you are fearful of, write that book or start the podcast and notice how much your life improves.