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  • Dr. Mike Brooks

Free Yourself: Why Most People's Opinions Don't Matter

We tend to worry a lot about what others think of us, even when they don't.



  • We evolved to care about what others think about us.

  • Our preoccupation with what others think about us causes unnecessary suffering.

  • Liberating ourselves from unnecessary suffering is a key to greater happiness and life satisfaction.

Most of us care quite a bit about what people think of us. As social creatures who depend upon one another to form families, groups, teams, tribes, communities, societies, and nations, this is a good thing: We need to care about our social relationships. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is adaptive to build and maintain strong social relationships because they enhance our survival. In this way, it can be said that we are "meant" to connect with one another. It is fundamental to who we are. (I cover the topic further in this podcast.)

The positive feelings we derive from social interactions reinforce these critical bonds. Conversely, when our close relationships are disrupted in some way, we suffer. That's why bullying, harassment, social rejection, divorce, and the death of loved ones are so painful to us. As scientists have discovered, the pain of social rejection or a broken heart activates some of the same regions of the brain that are associated with the experience of physical pain. Deeply connecting with one another makes us vulnerable to being hurt. We cannot become broken-hearted unless our hearts are first open enough to let someone into them. Indeed, love can hurt.

You can think back to your own personal experiences to see the power of our relationships. Take a few moments to think of your happiest times. Most of your fondest, most cherished memories will include your loved ones. On the other hand, when you think of your worst times in life, the suffering you endured most likely involved relationships as well.

When We Care Too Much About What Others Think

Most of us experience quite a bit of anxiety around our relationships with others, including complete strangers. Professor and author Brené Brown has often discussed the power of vulnerability: in brief, she suggests we worry so much about what others think about us that it often stops us from taking risks, even small ones, for fear of judgment, ridicule, or rejection.

Sometimes these fears become so intense and crippling that a person might meet diagnostic criteria for having a social anxiety disorder. However, even when these fears don't reach clinical levels, think of how much suffering and missed opportunities they can cause. Our fear of social judgment or rejection can prevent us from taking chances and being the person we'd like to be. Consider the following:

·  We are afraid to ask a person out on a date despite having strong feelings for them.

·  We don't ask a co-worker how to use a program for fear of being judged as incompetent.

·  We don't apply for a job for fear that we won't get hired.

·  We don't contribute some ideas at a meeting for fear of being criticized by our colleagues.

·  We don't talk to a stranger at a party for fear they might not like us.

Here's a crazy idea: What if other people really don't care that much about us to warrant such fears in the first place?

A Self-Test to Gauge How Much Others Really Care

In my previous post on the great irony of our suffering, I offered an example of an upcoming presentation at work in which you worried that you would be judged harshly by your boss and colleagues. You were intensely worried about the upcoming presentation, but it seemed to go OK.

Let's continue this example: To your relief, you completed your presentation without an apparent disaster. Still, your worries persist that others are judging you harshly. Maybe folks acted nice enough, but they really thought it was awful. Or that you are incompetent or a fraud?

The reality is that most people do not care that much about your presentation or, for that matter, think all that much about you. Here's a little exercise to put this claim to the test:

·  Think about the many past presentations that you've attended.

·  Think of the worst ones that you've ever seen.

·  Can you specifically recall some of these horrible presentations that you've attended, or is that difficult?

·  Can you remember anything about the presenters?

·  Even if you do recall some of these horrible presentations, how often do you think of these presentations (and their presenters) on a daily basis?

·  If you are having trouble recalling these horrible presentations, what does it mean to you that you are having trouble recalling them or that you rarely ever think of them now?

You can also do this same exercise with the best presentations that you've ever seen, and you will find similar results. You know the truth: You don't think much about other presenters or their presentations soon after they are over, regardless of whether they knocked your socks off, or they were train wrecks. Soon after the presentation, you go about your business and are unlikely to think much about it ever again. You turn your attention to other matters as you go about your life.

Now, let's do a quick role reversal. If you aren't thinking much about other presenters and their presentations soon after they are over, what does this mean others are thinking about you and your presentation? Yes, that is correct: They are not thinking about you just as you don't think much about them. I'm both sorry and happy to say that you are not so special that you get more attention than you give others.

There's No Need to Beware of Sharks in a Lake

It is critical to internalize this reality: It is not other people's negative thoughts about us that cause us to suffer. Primarily, it is what we think others are thinking that causes us to suffer. We experience level 2 suffering when we worry excessively about what others are thinking about us.

In part, because of our negativity bias and because relationships are so important to us, our minds end up envisioning disastrous social scenarios that are not reality. As crazy as this might sound, the vulnerability we experience in social contexts is not a vulnerability to people's judgments of us. It is a vulnerability to our own anxiety-producing thoughts about what others might be thinking about us. It's as if we are worried about getting eaten by a shark when we are swimming in a lake. In reality:

·  Other people probably are not thinking about us much, and not for very long.

·  Even when they are thinking about us, it's probably not nearly as negative as we fear.

·  When we quit thinking about what they might be thinking about us, we free ourselves from unnecessary suffering caused by our own anxiety-producing thoughts.

·  Even when others have negative thoughts about us, those thoughts don't actually harm us. Again, the harm comes from our thoughts about their thoughts.

Certainly, when we make mistakes and say or do the wrong things—things that will happen from time to time—we should own the mistake. We need to fix the problems caused, work to repair any harm to the relationship, forgive ourselves, and move on with our lives.  Yet, we should both remember and take comfort in the reality that most people don't care about it all that much. They are probably too busy worrying about what we think about them!


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