Everyday Grace

thoughts and inspiration on emotional health by colleen p. arnold

Why You Care What Other People Think (and Why That May Not Be All Bad)

ImageI hear a lot of people worrying “I care too much what other people think.”

First off, do you know what we call people who really, truly don’t care what others think? Anti-social psychopaths. So stop judging yourself. We’re social creatures, and the way we learn appropriate social behavior is that we see others reacting to us when we’re inappropriate. If we’re normal, we take that feedback and adjust accordingly. It’s a good feedback loop.

However….part of growing up is developing an identity and deciding what kind of person we want to be and what kind of life we want to create. And we don’t want other people making those decisions for us – especially as we get older.

What we have to realize is that almost everyone has their own agenda, which is usually to make themselves feel OK about their decisions. When others are judging you and your actions, it may be because they’re not OK with their own actions and are therefore using their judgments of you to make themselves feel better.

George Carlin had a great line about this: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” It happens in parenting, too. Have you ever noticed that parents with stricter rules than you are control freaks, and parents with less strict rules “don’t know how to say no?”

The end result is that you’re going to get judged. That’s what people do. Deal with it. People who are more rigid than you are will think you’re a slacker. People who are less rigid than you will think you’re uptight. The only people who will think you’re perfect are the people who are doing it exactly the same way you are. And there’s no one who is going to do everything exactly the same way as you, so the bottom line is, no one is going to think you’re perfect all the time.

So….how do you stop letting the judgments of others dictate your behavior? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

1. What would I do if no one had to know? Let’s say you live in a bubble where you didn’t have to deal with anyone’s reaction to your decision. Would you drop out of law school and go weave textiles? Would you wear leggings and flip flops because they’re comfortable? Answering this question will give you an idea of where you authentically stand on an issue.

2. Do I agree with the people who might judge me? Let’s take two women with small children. One really doesn’t care how she looks as long as she’s comfortable. The other is the put-together, attractively styled mom who I have to admit I’ve been guilty of judging before, because I’m more like the former. But, both ways of being are perfectly legitimate.

The first might ask herself this question and conclude: “No, in fact, I don’t want to spend much energy deciding what to wear and doing my hair. It’s just not that important to me right now.” The other might think, “I know my friends think I’m vain. But it makes me feel happier and more productive when I know I look put together, so that’s what I’m choosing to do for myself. It’s how I take care of myself as a mom.” Both of these mothers should feel comfortable with their decision. Their decisions are authentic and honest.

But if these two women were considering office attire, it might be different. For example, someone who’s been accused of dressing too casually at the office might conclude: “These people have been in business a lot longer than I have. They think that wearing a suit reflects a certain amount of professionalism that’s important for clients to see. They may have a point. “

In another example, how about: “I’m sorry Mom and Dad are furious with me for not coming home for Christmas, but we have to be fair and spend at least one holiday with my in-laws. We’ll be with Mom and Dad for 2 weeks this summer and I think that’s fair.”

Or, “Mom and Dad are furious with me for not coming home for Christmas. They’re putting me through college and I haven’t been home in a year. They may have a point.”

3. Believe you can tolerate disapproval. No, really, it’s not going to kill you. If your relationship with whoever you’re worried about is strong enough, it will survive differences in opinion. If it isn’t strong enough, do you really want to live the rest of your life doing whatever this particular person thinks you should do? If you have thought through your decision, stand strong. You’re making your best guess about the right road to take, and that’s the best any of us can really do.


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8 thoughts on “Why You Care What Other People Think (and Why That May Not Be All Bad)

  1. Penny on said:

    Okay have you been listening in on our bus stop conversation? Whoa it’s hard not to judge that perfect-looking mom… but you are spot on with all of this. Thank you!

  2. Colleen,

    I really appreciate this. I’ve been re-reading Brene Brown’s “Gifts of Imperfection,” and one ofthe core values that she explores is courage. She talks about the courage it takes to be our genuine selves. I think that courage is required to make decisions, courage is required to be honest with ourselves about when our decisions went wrong, and courage is required to continue making decisions that reflect our best intentions and effort.


  3. I’ve noticed that people who claim never to care what anyone else thinks aren’t often heavy into critical thinking–about themselves, the things they believe in, other people, or much else. But other people can provide valuable checks where one’s character is concerned, among other things. It’s good you emphasize that you don’t have to bend to other people’s will all–or even most–of the time. But there are times when it pays to take seriously other people’s reaction to you, reflect on what you’re doing, and make your decision afresh.

  4. My other blogging friend also posted a piece on the problem of perfect! She was writing more about writing and how important it is just to write because trying to be perfect creates writer’s block. Writing something that is less than perfect is way better than not writing at all, and that there’s no such thing as perfect anyway.

    My day to be thinking about this I guess!!

  5. Hi Colleen – I really enjoyed this post. There is a huge debate in my niche, perinatal mood disorders, about parenting styles and this helps put this in perspective. Women do feel like they are in a double bind with so many mixed messages in the media and from family, and then there comes a point in mental & emotional health where one just needs to say, hey this is me, whatever. thanks for this, Kathy

  6. Hi Colleen,
    I like your fresh perspective on caring about what others think. I appreciate your recommendations for questions we can ask ourselves to help prevent the judgments of others from dictating our behavior. I think learning to tolerate disapproval is the key. I find that a mindfulness approach can be very helpful.

  7. Dear Colleen,
    Thanks for this post. You have good suggestions for sorting out when and whether to care about what others think. I especially like your point that we can tolerate disapproval and that a relationship can survive it. Otherwise, how would we ever have long term relationships?

  8. Enjoyed your article. Great topic that so many struggle with.

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