UnSplash, Ben White

6 ideas for caring less about what others think of you

’Tis almost the season of new year resolutions, but strewth, I’m still working on making sense of the last 12 months, let alone planning for next year (is ‘planning’ a thing anymore?)

Every December, we find ourselves philosophising on life more than usual, but where do we even begin with 2020? Well, my 10-year high school reunion happened to take place a few months ago, and it brought me to reflect on a number of themes, which I feel are fairly universal and hopefully helpful.

The following self-reflective questions are timeless. However, with much of this year having been spent in close quarters with our partners, parents, siblings, maybe a couple of cats — our reflections would have been intensified… Perhaps you couch surfed. Perhaps you spent most of it entirely alone. Whatever the case, our usual ‘life lessons’ were magnified by 1000. Our issues that we’d set aside to be distracted by work, studies, socialising… They smacked us in the face. You know all of this — every person on the planet experienced what I’m talking about. I’m just setting the tone for the following questions I invite you to reflect on.

Reflections from a 10-year high school reunion

Reunions are weird, especially if you lived on the other side of the country for almost a decade and hardly saw anyone from high school since 17. It was interesting observing where my mind went in the lead up to the event. Typical things arose, like “what outfit will represent who I am today?” and “how much of my personal life do I reveal in conversation?”

As predicted, most people had very different life goals to me. There were many moments that tempted me to feel judged. I say ‘tempted’ because all of us have patterns — particular emotions we become addicted to. To feel a particular way is safe, predictable and comfortable. To feel something new or alternative means that we can’t know how someone will respond to us — maybe they’ll abandon us, reject us, judge us or, scariest of them all, love us. For some, the idea of being loved might mean more responsibility, being ‘fully seen’ and being vulnerable… So we close ourselves off from the world, thinking we’re protecting ourselves.

If you struggle caring about what others think about you, here’s what I’ve noticed:

Reflection 1:

Whichever opinions you fear others have of you are the very opinions you hold of yourself. Someone’s judgment of you only hurts if you believe it. We judge ourselves through the lens with which others judge us.

With that in mind, I realised:

Reflection 2:

We can never know what someone truly thinks of us. Even if there were the perfect words and genuine intention to communicate their thoughts, we can’t ever deeply, accurately and fully know.

So finally, what this meant was:

Reflection 3:

If we can’t read minds, why not believe that people are thinking the best of us? From that space, we find the courage to be ourselves more freely.

Some notes on privilege

Of course, this is a very simplistic, reductive view. I’m a privileged educated, able-bodied, white, heteronormative-appearing, cis-gendered woman.

Though, we cannot change the world without changing our minds, and our minds struggle to change when the world remains the same (I always advocate that self-therapy be done in tandem with contributing to social change).

So, basically, the conclusion is: we work with what we have. Then those who have more work harder with their privileges on behalf of creating positive change for all.

Who are you trying to convince?

Reflection 4:

If you find yourself trying to convince someone of something about yourself, it’s a sign you’re trying to convince yourself.

Likewise, if someone tries to convince you of something, often it’s THEMSELVES they’re trying to convince, not you.

IMPORTANT CONTEXT: I’m not talking about political ideas and social justice here. Striving to ‘convince’ (or rather, advocate and educate) people about human rights, equality and marginalising systems is a whole other thing.

I’m talking specifically about trying to convince others of our character or worth.

Challenging someone else’s opinions requires energy, and energy is precious. So, if you know and feel into the truth that you’re loveable, skilled, calm, fit, resilient, able, confident, you name it, you’ll save your energy for where it’s worthy. You don’t have to convince anyone of it because you believe so strongly in this ‘truth’ (of being successful, intelligent, beautiful and whatever else) that anyone’s rejection of you remains their problem, not yours.

When you know and like yourself (and are kind to others, not narcissistic — this is key) you become less fazed by what people think of you, if at all. You recognise that your path is yours alone. You compassionately understand that people only function from the stories they know.

Spend your energy like dollars. Invest it wisely.

Reflection 5:

Our energy is better exerted improving our opinions of ourself than on changing others’ opinions of us.

Arguably, the art of true success is feeling as if you’ve already “made it”. You don’t live with your head in the future. You acknowledge and appreciate your success within the present. Didn’t manage to have the day you planned on yesterday? Was today better? Got out of bed a bit earlier? Well hey, that’s a success.

We live in a society that is so obsessed with extremes. We’re only ‘wealthy’ if we earn millions. We’re only of substantial influence if we have over 10k followers. We’re only good parents if our children are able-bodied high-achieving humans. These definitions diminish the important things in life and marginalise people.

To me, as a therapist, influencing ONE life positively is meaningful enough. Being able to afford a roof over my head and luxuries ranging from a daily latte to a monthly massage is ‘wealth’ in my eyes. Sure, I am building on this more, but money is energy, and the more of it we have, the more our original character is magnified.

How you spend your money now (and the kind of person that represents you as) is how you’ll spend it when you’re ‘wealthier’; it’s just magnified.

Define your own success

Reflection 6:

You will never consider yourself as successful unless you pre-define it so you can KNOW when you’ve arrived at it (and, key point, you never do, ‘success’ will always be re-defined).

If you live in this “when I’m successful” future thinking you’ll never see what’s staring right at you. So, set some form of milestone, measurement or (my preference) some form of acknowledgement, like a ceremony — to mark when you’ve reached what you strove for. Draw yourself up a certificate. Commemorate the occasion with a mini public speech at a humble dinner party. Have a conversation with yourself in the mirror. If you don’t stop to validate yourself and your successes you’ll keep going and going feeling like you’re chasing a mirage. On that note, how would you like 2021 to look?

Registered Counsellor & Narrative Therapist specialising in relationships, LGBTQI+ topics, chronic illness, self-connection & finding purpose. mimkempson.com