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Clients tell me they often wish not to care what people think of them. I’ve wished it many times myself! But it occurred to me the other day as I watched some people who should know better behaving badly that not caring what others think of us isn’t always a worthy goal after all. As usual, the subject is somewhat complicated.
What you mean when you say, “I wish I didn’t care so much what people think about me,” is that you don’t want being judged by others to dictate what you say or do. You want to avoid being abused, abandoned, shamed, humiliated or in any way denigrated for being who you are or doing something that another person is not in agreement with. Fact is, we’ve evolved to care what others think—in moderation. In terms of evolution, we have had to band and work together to survive. Caring what others think of us shapes aberrant behavior and keeps a group homogeneous and cohesive. It makes us accountable to one another and gives us a sense of one for all and all for one.
Caring what others think can make us better people. If you feel guilty because you’ve been meaning to visit Uncle Fred in the hospital and go because you don’t want him (or your family) to think poorly of you, you’re living up to a higher standard because of what others might think. If you’re ashamed because you hurt your neighbor’s feelings and apologize because you care how she views you, you’re a better person for it. The need to be liked is embedded in our DNA.
That’s the positive part of people-pleasing. The negative part is when excessive caring inhibits you from doing what you enjoy, being who you are, and acting in your best interest. When, as an adult, you subjugate normal, natural emotions and desires in an ongoing way simply to be liked or loved, you’re disrespecting and limiting yourself. Better to strike a balance, acknowledging what people think because we sometimes can’t help doing so, but not letting it mean more than what you think. This can be tricky business and is more art than science. There’s no formula to follow, only your own gut instincts of whether you’re veering too much in one direction or the other.
Take a minute to consider specifically what you’re afraid of in doing what you, not others, want. Are you afraid of not being loved, included, valued, validated, cared for? Where did this feeling come from? Do the results of doing or not doing what you want still have the consequences they had in childhood? Work on caring more about what you think than what others think of you, and you’ll find greater harmony with yourself.
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