How would your life be different if you didn’t care what other people thought? How might your relationship, your job, and your day-to-day functioning be different if you weren’t weighed down by others’ opinions? How might you peel and crack out of the shells of your insecurity and arrive more closely at the essence of who you are if you weren’t worried about others’ judgement? What would happen if you made decisions based on the inviolable knowledge of your intrinsic worthiness instead of based on the constantly moving target of external approval?
Caring what other people think is a common theme that shows up in my work, and it appears in a variety of ways both for those in a relationship and those who are single. For those in a relationship, especially those suffering from relationship anxiety, it most commonly shows up as caring what other people think of one’s partner. It also shows up in the belief that one’s partner is a reflection of one’s worth, and that if you had the “perfect partner” you would feel better about yourself. This is how it sounds:
My partner is a reflection of my worth. If I have the perfect partner then I’ll be redeemed and people will think well of me. I’ll finally be seen as cool and worthy. If I have the girl or guy that other people think is hot or cool it will heal that insecure part of me that still feels like the goofy, unattractive, unwanted, invisible kid I was in junior high or high school. If I have the perfect partner I’ll have finally made it.
Let’s break this down.
First off, there’s no such thing as “the perfect partner.” I’ve worked with countless people who thought their partner was close to perfect but as soon as relationship anxiety takes hold they start viewing their partner through the distorted lens of fear. Their formally “hot” girl now looks a bit odd, especially in that dress. The guy who was everything they’ve ever wanted suddenly is incredibly irritating. Once anxiety hits – and it can hit on date one – the nitpicking and microscoping begins.
When the sub-spoke of the relationship anxiety wheel called “caring what other people think” is at the helm, this anxiety is often projected onto how others see your partner. Sometimes this is projected onto an actual other – a mother or friend who questioned your choice of partner – and sometimes it’s projected onto imaginary others that only take place in your mind. “My partner isn’t funny enough” tends to show up most acutely in the presence of others. Similarly, projections like “my partner isn’t social enough or intellectual” enough are highlighted in social gatherings. When I ask clients, “Would this quality bother you as much if you and your lived partner lived in isolation on a desert island?” they sheepishly reply, “No.”
We are wired in this culture to care about what other people think. From the time we’re born, we’re conditioned to externalize our sense of Self and rely on others to tell us what to feel (or not feel), what to think (or not think), when to eat and to sleep, who to play with, and what to wear. We’re conditioned through our eduction system to equate learning with achievement, which means that if we do well in school (get good grades) we feel good about ourselves and if we do poorly we think we’re stupid. So it makes sense that we would extend this conditioned addiction to approval onto others, especially when the stakes are as a high as one’s choice of partner.
The work, as always, is to heal from the inside out. When you attend to the places of wounding and pain and learn what it means to turn inward on a daily basis, you stop hinging your worth on others’ opinions. When you learn to fill your well of Self you naturally stop caring about what other people think, and you know beyond the level of thought that your partner cannot heal you. You could marry a Stepford wife and still the nagging pain of early rejection would gnaw at you until you healed it from the root.
One beautiful aspect of committing to inner work is that life and the passage of time will assist you in healing old wounds. As I get older – and you’ll hear many people say something similar who are on a path of growth and discovery – I naturally care and less and less about what others think. This struck me in a lightbulb moment a couple of weeks ago when I decided spontaneously to attend a Kung Fu class. My son has been studying Kung Fu for a year, and when I first saw him testing last spring I was inspired by the movements and the philosophy and thought I might want to try a class one day. But it wasn’t until a client of mine shared that she took a martial class and that I decided to try one myself.
I felt nervous on the way to the class, as I always am in new situations. Being an intense introvert, I have to push myself out the door to try new things, especially when it involves a group. But whereas in my younger years I might try to talk myself out the anxiety or sweep it under the rug in some way, at this point in my life I’m upfront about it. Earlier in the day I texted my son’s teacher, who I knew would be in the class that evening, and said, “I’m nervous!” She immediately wrote back and said, “I’m SO glad you’re coming! I’m so excited!” If I hadn’t shared my vulnerable feelings I would have never received that dose of encouragement, and it was exactly what I needed to get into the car on a snowy-sleety night and drive to the class.
Once on the mat, I felt nervous again, but almost immediately I felt a huge wave of commonality sweep over me as I looked around me at the motley crew and knew in my bones that every single person in that room had their own insecurities, idiosyncrasies, quarks, and foibles. I knew that most of them were probably too wrapped up in their own heads and anxieties to think about what I might be doing, and that we’re all just bumbling along in our own unique bubbles of brokenness and wholeness. We’re all so human, I thought. I smiled, said something the woman in front of me, and touched her arm. And from that moment on I just threw myself into the class without another thought about what I looked like, how I might fail or fall over (which I did), or what anyone else was thinking. Walking through our humanity we arrive at our freedom.
How would you life be different if you didn’t care what other people thought? How might your relationship, your job, and your day-to-day functioning be different if you weren’t weighed down by others’ opinions? How might you peel and crack out of the shells of your insecurity and arrive more closely at the essence of who you are if you weren’t worried about others’ judgement? What would happen if you made decisions based on the inviolable knowledge of your intrinsic worthiness instead of based on the constantly moving target of external approval?
If you would like to find out, please join me for my eleventh round of Trust Yourself: A 30-day program to help you overcome your fear of failure, caring what others think, perfectionism, difficulty making decisions, and self-doubt, which will begin on April 28, 2018. I love leading this program, and I look forward to seeing you there.