What Others Think

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Two thousand years ago, great thinkers wrote about people’s need for approval from others. This need persists. When it comes to our craving for praise and avoidance of criticism, our brain behaves like a needle on a record player stuck in a groove, never advancing to a new song. Our reptilian brain is a tough cookie to change. 

Why do we care so much about what other people think of us? Even people we don’t think highly, of or even like. We do because there are consequences for straying off the path. So, like sheep following the flock, we spend our journey walking the beaten path, the route most accepted. 

Communities need laws and regulations that spell out people’s rights and responsibilities. Without them there would be bedlam and mayhem. Wanting others to like us is a different animal, one that leaves a residue of anxiety that’s hard to sweep away. 

Social expectations are unwritten codes society imposes on its people. We learn them by looking to others for how to behave, say, think, and act. They are unexamined expectations that cause stress and anxiety. But as long as we follow the herd, we collect “likes” and minimize criticism and insults.  

My two preteen granddaughters are getting pushed into the lane of conformity. They both want a phone because other girls have it, which thankfully their parents have denied. For the first time in their lives, their peers’ opinions matter. Instead of wearing a striped top and patterned tights with a big bow, none of which matches, picking their clothes is now about what others like and wear. Their appetite for praise from other children will be the spring that tames their behavior for conformity. We practice that which earns us praise. Grandparents who have outgrown the need to please can serve as an antidote to grandchildren and plant seeds of self-reliance. Do what feels right and makes you happy.

We veer off the path when we question the status quo or do something that goes against the grain, but we’ve always done it this way. Choosing to live our lives in reference to others’ limits, without considering what our life could be otherwise. 

As the president of a women’s group (not a coveted role), I pursued getting its status changed to nonprofit (501C3). Even though it made perfect sense and in time most agreed, the push back was extraordinary. I spent months worrying if I’d done the right thing and the rational answer was “yes.” This experience set a path making future change-making-decisions easier to walk. Breaking free of the shackles of expectation is a worthy endeavor.

I met Susan, a former nun, when she was starting a group to provide pampers for the working poor. She talked about the pushback for her idea in the form of: Parents shouldn’t be using disposable diapers. We already give enough to the poor. You shouldn’t have kids if you can’t take care of them. A pastor from a local church offered her a room in the church for diaper pickup, donated baby furniture and car seats, and hosted holiday parties. Her work has made many parents’ lives a little easier.  

Social media feeds our addiction. A cat purrs when you stroke his back. A good day for humans is when people “like” us, “heart” us, and “retweet” us. We tell our dreams, but admitting our flaws is too nightmarish. But admitting our fault is a sign of a sane mind. When we face our lowest bar behavior, criticism bounces off me and sticks to you.

Why do we worry more about what others think than doing what brings us joy? If only we could reset our primitive brain, unplug-clear-replug. Conformity of the masses confirms our insatiable appetite for praise and the ever-present fear of criticism and insults. When we conform to the opinion of others, we are caring more about what others think and less about our inner-self. What if instead of feeding our praise addiction we practiced not needing it? Replacing it with greater respect for our own opinion based on reason. 

A vaccine for thin skin, reacting to every slight, calls for a frank view of ourselves. Tim is right when he says that I can get distracted, lost in my own world. I accept that. When my daughter says that my directness can be hurtful, I hear the truth in her statement and respond more mindfully to her feelings and situations. There is comfort in the truth, no matter how difficult to hear.  When reminding Tim to wear a mask at the grocery store, he quips, “it’s you, not me, who needs the reminder.” Instead of getting all thin-skinned, I laugh and agree that I can be forgetful. Times I forget to return a call and people imagine hidden motives, they are wrong and I forgive them. If the consequence is they think less of me, that’s not my monkey. 

Surrendering our minds to everyone, allowing them to decide our internal temperature, means living in a constant state of anxiety. Being admired by others brings fleeting satisfaction. Knowing why we react and self-correct is the difference between a thermometer and a thermostat. Vulnerable to all means no end to your worries. Liberty from external influence gives more time on things that matter. 

External opinions bring fleeting happiness before you need your next fix. Why waste our lives pondering about what others think? We will never know, and it doesn’t matter. A seamstress was asked why she took so long over a garment that would be seen by few. She answered a few is enough for me. So is one. So is none. The view from the unbeaten path of self-reliance and independent thought is joy and freedom that lasts. 

We should not disparage ourselves for saying the right thing. We are not insulted by another person, but by our decision to accept the deride. A repeated Stoic argument is that the mark of a great mind is to rise above insults. Not worthy of taking revenge. Remain unmoved to the barking of little dogs. If we worry about what other people say or think, when will it stop? Provocation from unthinking people should be ignored. Getting upset about what other people think is surrendering our sanity to every Kim, Karen, and Kayla. Let’s seek peace of mind through good deeds, instead of looking for it in the vanity of human judgment. It’s in self-reliance we find a harmony that requires no validation. Care more about your sense of right and wrong than your reputation. Conscience is what we really are. Reputation is what others think of us. And as far as what other people think, that’s not your monkey.  

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