Someone’s judging you. They have a negative opinion of you. They don’t like your hair. Or the way you talk. Or what you just said. My goodness, they might even think you are [fill in the blank]!
Really, why do you care what other people think of you?
The obvious answer is that we care because of our survival mechanisms. That, over the history of our incredibly social species, it’s important to have an abundance of allies because they help us survive; They have our backs in a war. They lend us food in a famine. They teach us skills in between the war and famine. More people thinking fondly of you equates to more allies.
But this is not the Stone Age. Allies have a different function in today’s society (we certainly aren’t overly concerned about their help in battle…I hope). Yet the mind is still wired to react as if the opinions of others are incredibly important. It’s simple, black-and-white misfiring.
Positive Opinions = Allies = Good.
Negative Opinions = Enemy = Bad.
But this is yet another example of our brains using shortcuts that get us into trouble. Today, we live in such a large, complex social web that the opinions of most people have almost no bearing on your life. But, by caring what they think, you let them influence you life, and your happiness. The negative opinions of most people you will ever meet have almost zero consequence. None. They are just random, floating opinions. Ask yourself the following…
1. “Do I care what a homeless person thinks of me?”
Most people don’t. The reasons they provide range from “Because I don’t respect him” to “Because he’s not a part of my life. Why does it matter what he thinks?”
Excellent. So we agree upfront, hopefully, that it doesn’t matter what a homeless person thinks of you because his opinion has no bearing on your life. So then…
2. “Do I care what a complete stranger thinks of me?”
This one’s a little trickier. Let’s say you walk into a room and your pants fall down. Do you care what the strangers in the room will think of you? For many people, the answer is yes.
But if you don’t care about a homeless person, why do you care about complete strangers? Surely, their opinion is as equally inconsequential to your life. After all, you don’t know them.
When people are nervous about public speaking, the old reminder is “imagine the audience in its underwear.” Here’s another idea: pretend they are drunk homeless people. Because you’ve already established a clear line of reasoning about why you don’t care about their opinion…and the opinion of a complete stranger isn’t any more important. (No offense intended to the drunk and homeless.)
3. “Do I care what acquaintances think of me?”
This one gets most people, because they can longer default to the answer “his or her opinion has no bearing on my life.” Is that true though? How many people that you actually know will change your life in any way based on what they think of you?
What if your boss forms a negative opinion of you? Well, this could be detrimental in that he might ultimately fire you, and make it harder to find a new job. But even then you can always find a new job.
OK, so what about casual friends and people you see repeatedly at the bookstore and farmer’s market? If they secretly thought you were ridiculous, disheveled or aloof, how would that have any bearing on your life?
“But Ben,” you might be saying, “these people are important to me.”
Why? Why are all the people you know really “important?” Is it an issue of allies, as we talked about above? Because most people today have enough of those. Why do you really need an abundance of friends, or for random people to always like you?
Ask yourself…how does some random acquaintance’s opinion impact you? Imagine a not-so-close friend of yours…if they think negatively of you, what kind of ally will you actually be losing? Were you OK before you knew them? Do you really need them in any way?
If they don’t impact your life, then don’t worry about what they think of you.
4. “Do I care about what the people close to me think?”
Finally, the hardest one, because the people close to you truly are your allies. Losing them feels like a pragmatic security blanket has been swept from under your feet…
What if your Significant Other starts to think less of you? Well, this isn’t even a bad thing because assuming you were (a) being yourself and (b) your words or actions weren’t harming anyone else, then maybe you don’t want someone as a partner who doesn’t like you. (And despite what your brain is telling you, it’s not too hard to find a new partner.)
“But Ben, what about my family and close friends? They are my allies!”
Yes, this is true. But it’s important to make a distinction between the way they are thinking about you. As long as someone will continue to have the same function in your life, it doesn’t matter what they think. This means that if one of your allies thinks that you are silly, less intelligent, air-headed or unfashionable, it will probably have little bearing on your life. However, if they think you are a liar, thief, sellout or violent sociopath, you may be on your way to losing an ally.
In theory, you could exist without any allies…but that’s an extreme stance to take. Not everyone needs to go Christopher McCandless. In the meantime, there’s little need to waste time worrying about what just about anyone else thinks of your thoughts and actions.