“A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.” ~Mark Twain
I almost didn’t dye the tips of my hair purple a couple years ago because I was so worried about what other people might think. While changing my hair color was something new for me, basing my decisions on other people’s opinions was not.
I tend to look to others for clues about how I should think and act. Sometimes this shows up in small things, like opinions about movies, music, or clothes. Even when asking big life questions, however, my first impulse is often to wonder what other people think I should do.
It’s a natural human tendency to want to gain others’ approval. We’re afraid of being rejected and forced to navigate life’s challenges all on our own. While we may have good reasons for meeting expectations, basing our lives on what other people think has its drawbacks.
When I change to speak and act the way others think I should, I’m not letting people see the real me. There’s limited benefit to people liking me if the person they like isn’t actually who I am. When someone connects with a pretend version of me, it doesn’t meet my very real need to be known.
It hinders self-expression.
When I base my choices on what other people think, the things I choose often don’t accurately reflect my own preferences. I live my life as generically as possible to avoid offending anyone. I miss out on showing others what really matters to me, and the world misses out on what I have to give.
It filters out valuable information.
When I give a lot of weight to other people’s opinions, I overlook a very important opinion—mine. There may be a lot of great advice out there, but I’m the only one who can decide what fits best for me. Repeatedly quashing my own opinion reinforces the belief that my thoughts aren’t worth as much as other people’s.
It limits growth.
When I look to other people for my answers, I don’t have to do the hard work of wrestling with my own questions. I don’t take responsibility for myself when I can more comfortably blame the person whose opinions I’m following. Instead of stretching myself to become more fully who I am, I keep squeezing myself into someone else’s idea of who I should be.
Constantly trying to meet other people’s expectations is a painful and dissatisfying way to live.
To counter this, a common piece of advice is to not give a @#$% what anyone else thinks. I have to admit, after the pressure of trying to please everyone, the idea of disregarding all those outside thoughts sounds like a relief.
Of course, it’s hard to make such an extreme shift all at once, but I’ve given it a try. I’ve tried showing up to social events without caring about what anyone thought of me, only to feel aloof and arrogant. I’ve tried talking about things that matter to me without caring about what anyone thought of them—but, instead of my vulnerability bringing us closer, I felt myself hardening against the people listening.
The thing is, not caring about what other people think is not the same as learning to value what I think. I can shut out everyone else’s thoughts and still be telling myself I’m worthless. The drawbacks of not caring about what other people think look awfully familiar.
When I care too much about what other people think I don’t have sufficient boundaries, but not caring isn’t establishing boundaries. It’s building walls.
In order to not care, I can’t let anything in. I can’t let anyone’s thoughts get close enough to touch me. Either way—whether my own identity is being overwhelmed or I’ve erected a barrier between us—we are not connecting one human to another.
When I don’t care what people think, I’m not mindful of how my words and deeds impact them. I act as if I’m superior to others. I may not even notice the hurt or inconvenience I leave in my wake.
A crucial part of relationships is knowing and being known, hearing and being heard. Imagining nobody cares what I think feels incredibly lonely. And let’s face it, if I don’t care what someone thinks, why would they want to be my friend?
It hinders self-expression.
It might seem like not caring about what other people think would give me complete freedom to be fully myself. This actually hasn’t been the case. Honestly, when I don’t care what other people think, I feel and act like a jerk, and that just isn’t me.
The truth is, my connections with other people are part of who I am. Making a difference in other people’s lives is a key ingredient to the things that matter most to me. It would feel less risky to give of myself if I didn’t care about the response, but that same lack of engagement would make my actions less satisfying.
It filters out valuable information.
Not caring about what other people think does make space for me to start paying more attention to what I think, but it comes at the cost of other valuable information. I lose out on what I can learn from other people’s thoughts.
Often the hardest to hear thoughts come from the people I care about most. The people who know me best not only have the strongest opinions about what I should do, but also have the clearest insight into who I am.
Although their thoughts aren’t always helpful, I’m grateful for people who have been willing to share an insight they knew I wouldn’t want to hear. Sometimes I need an outside perspective to help me see where what I’m doing doesn’t line up with who I say I am and where I want to be heading.
The thing is, not caring about what others think isn’t just about ignoring the hurtful. I miss out on the encouragement, positive feedback, and insightful challenges as well. I can’t just listen when people are telling me what I want to hear.
It limits growth.
When I build walls instead of establishing boundaries, I don’t have to get clear on my needs and preferences. I keep everything out instead of exercising discernment around what I’ll allow in and what I won’t. I don’t practice respectfully engaging with other people’s perspectives without sacrificing mine.
New possibilities grow out of differing opinions. I can learn so much from other people’s perspectives and experiences. They challenge me to examine and refine my own ideas.
Thankfully, my options aren’t either losing myself in trying to please others or living without any concern for how my words and actions impact those around me. I can care about other people’s thoughts and opinions without letting them define me.
The answer isn’t choosing between two extremes, but learning to live in the tension between them. I still often overcorrect, skidding back and forth between caring too much and too little. With practice it’ll become easier to find a balance, but I doubt the struggle will go away completely.
Rather than trying to decide whether or not I care, I’m learning to decide how I want to respond. Asking these simple questions helps bring clarity.
What is our relationship?
Of course, I can’t always care what everyone thinks. There are different levels of relationship. Some people just don’t know me or what matters to me well enough to offer relevant opinions.
On the other hand, there are people who want the best for me. Just because I’m close to someone doesn’t mean I’ll agree with what they think, but I’m willing to spend more energy considering the thoughts of people who have shown they care about me.
What is the intent?
While I can’t know for sure someone else’s intentions, I can consider whether they are trying to help me or hurt me. I try to assume the best, but it can be wise to disregard the opinion of someone who is trying to cut me down.
Even those who are honestly trying to be helpful don’t always have the purest motives. Sometimes they may want me to do what they think will keep me safe or bring me their idea of success. I can appreciate their intentions while still following my own course.
Is it helpful?
Other people’s thoughts are data to be considered. Just like my own thoughts, however, some ideas are more helpful than others. I don’t have to view anyone’s thoughts as the truth about who I should be in order to learn from them. There is usually something I can learn—even if it’s just that I can’t make everyone happy.
What do I think?
The real question isn’t whether or not I care what other people think, but how much I value what I think. When I value my own thoughts and opinions, I can also care about theirs without letting myself be defined by them.
There’s a difference between caring about what someone thinks and accepting it as true. I can listen to what others have to say and still make up my own mind.
Whether I care too much or too little, focusing on my response to another’s thoughts is still choosing to shape my identity in relation to theirs. I’d rather focus on learning to appreciate my own thoughts more fully so I can care about people and what they think without sacrificing who I am.
Do you tend more toward caring too much or too little about what others think? What do you find most helpful in valuing your own thoughts?
About Johanna Schram
Johanna Schram is learning to value wrestling with questions over having answers. Join her at joRuth to explore what it looks like to shed expectations and live a more fulfilling life. Get curious with your free guide, Who Are You? 3 Simple Ways to Know Yourself Better. Say hi on Twitter: @joRuthS
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