Caring what other people think of us is normal. It’s a natural human response, kind of like salivating when you see a thick ribeye sizzling on the grill. We all want to be accepted (and not rejected) by our peers and loved ones, so of course we care what they think of us.
However, there’s a big difference between caring and constantly worrying about being judged. When you worry that others are judging you for your actions and decisions, self-defeating thoughts begin to bubble up more and more. Thoughts like:
I shouldn’t have said that…
I hope they don’t mind…
I think they’re upset with me…
I hope it’s not a bother…
I’m not sure I should do this….
Sound familiar? Honestly, I deal with this kind of thing all the time with my health coaching clients. They fear their friends won’t want to hang out with them if they’re not throwing back nachos and beer every Friday. They wonder how their family will respond when they bring their own paleo side dish to holiday gatherings. And they worry what others will think of them if they decide a soul-sucking job isn’t enough for them anymore and decide to follow their passion for something more meaningful.
It’s Not Your Fault You Care So Much
In a study at Boston’s Babson College, 62% of students said their self-worth was strongly tied to what others thought.1 That means 62 out of 100 people cared more about what other people thought of them, than what they thought about themselves. Worrying about not being accepted isn’t just psychological (although research shows that rejection triggers the same neural pathways that are activated when you experience physical pain), it’s biological. It’s in your DNA.
The fear of rejection goes back to the hunter-gatherer days. If you were rejected from your tribe, you might not have the food, the warmth, or the protection needed to survive. Even though there aren’t the same dire consequences in the modern world, that worry can be extremely intrusive – especially if you’re currently stepping outside of your comfort zone or feel like you’ve done something to compromise your place in the world (i.e. losing a job, falling off the wagon, embarrassing yourself in public, or having a social mishap online).
Most of us are guilty of worrying how others will perceive our failures and shortcomings. However, studies show that we overestimate how much, and how badly people judge us in these situations.2 Researchers in this study divided participants into four groups and asked them to imagine being involved in one of four social blunders. The first group imagined experiencing an intellectual failure in public, the second and third groups were described by others in an embarrassing way, and the fourth group anticipated being judged more harshly than they actually were. Researchers found that when participants focused on their misfortunes and the feared consequences of their situations, they experience increased levels of social anxiety and became even more pessimistic regarding their expectations.
Basically, the more they thought about how bad it was, the worse they felt. But what’s really at the root of this experiment is the deeply uncomfortable feeling of shame.
What’s Shame Got to Do with It
Shame arises when you violate an expected standard or perceived moral code. It leads you to believe that you’re less worthy because you’ve made a mistake or done something you regret. And when it’s chronic, it can make you feel like you’re fundamentally flawed or “not enough.” All of which leaves you seeking external validation.
The problem is, no level of external validation can fill the void shame creates. Not only that, it puts you in a position to rely on other’s opinions of you, and keeps you doing whatever you can to keep positive reinforcement coming your way, avoiding conflict, negativity, and rejection at all costs.
5 Ways to Master the Art of Not Caring
If you feel like most of your actions and decisions are molded by how you think others will respond, it’s time to knock it off. This is my go-to plan for helping clients stop obsessing about what they assume people are thinking and start living life on their terms.
Spend Time Alone
In order to know what’s truly important to you, you have to get other people’s voices out of your head. Take time to reflect on your values, your goals, and what makes you happy. Write it down, journal it, start a meditation practice. It doesn’t matter how you do it, just do it.
Ask, “What’s The Worst That Could Happen?”
Armed with the knowledge that you can’t please everyone and that most people are busy worrying about themselves anyway, ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen next time you want to do, be, or say something that’s authentically you. Chances are no one’s going to call you out or think badly of you. And if they do, just know that it’s a reflection of them, not you.
Know Other People Have Baggage Too
Even if you’re convinced others are thinking negative things about you, it’s likely due to their own issues. Often times, people project their own insecurities onto their friends, family members, or colleagues because they’re struggling to process their own baggage. Share some empathy for your fellow human.
Ready to Stop Worrying What People Think?
There’s a huge difference between caring about your actions and getting sidelined by how you perceive you’re being judged. Whether the feeling is keeping you from reaching your goals, following your dreams, or just being true to who you are, follow these five steps if you’re tired of making decisions based on your fear of what others are thinking:
Spend time alone
Ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Let go of perfectionism
Develop internal validation
Know other people have baggage too
How about you? Do you care what other people think?
About the Author
Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.