A common obstacle to personal freedom is worrying about what others think about us.
When I was younger I struggled with paralyzing self-consciousness. I was shy and wore oversized glasses. Whenever I looked in the mirror, I saw a skinny kid whose bones popped out and whose shoulders were too narrow.
So preoccupied was I with my appearance, mannerisms, and speech that I had trouble concentrating. I didn’t raised my hand in school for fear of looking slow or stupid. Whenever I had to introduce someone, I would panic, forget the person’s name, and blush.
Have you ever felt this way?
Imprisoned by Our Perceptions
People often have an opinion about everything and everyone, including you.
When someone judges us, even if they don’t know us, we risk believing their perception of us accurately reflects who we are. We may begin to identify with the label if we hear the same judgment enough times. I heard “You’re so skinny!” frequently enough that being skinny and its adjacent adjectives—weak, wimpy, and powerless—became my core identity.
Worrying about how others view us can cause us to be consumed by anxiety and self-doubt.
“I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.” — Charles H. Cooley
We may feel compelled to present an idealized or false version of ourselves we think others will like more than our true selves. After all, if people reject my false self, it wasn’t me they rejected. We become a performer. It makes sense to me now why my grandmother used to act as if she were on stage. If we pretend long enough, we may eventually ask, “Who am I?”
“You ever forget who you are?” asked Gina in Miami Vice. “Forget who I am? Darlin’, sometimes I remember who I am,” replied Sonny Crocket.
On the one hand, anxiety about how others view us is rational. Fitting in helps us stay alive. But when healthy concern turns into chronic fixation, we become prisoners of our minds. Identifying with our thoughts can become a habit of mind, an internal loop of negative self-talk.
When our self-worth depends on others’ views of us, we are at the whim of their mental states. If they are in a so-called good mood and respond to us in a friendly manner, we may also feel good. Conversely, if they are in a bad mood and respond harshly, we may wonder what we did wrong.
“If you base your self-concept on what you think others think of you, then you will always be vulnerable, insecure, and uncertain.” — Elizabeth Thornton
Why We Care What Others Think
There are many reasons why we become self-conscious.
Most of us never learned to value ourselves outside of how others evaluated us. Occasionally we may have received positive feedback, but most was negative: you didn’t make your bed this morning, forgot to turn in your homework, and were late to dinner. We only felt good enough when we received a good grade, made a sports team, or achieved a decent SAT score.
Growing up in a critical family may have left you feeling judged and unsafe to be yourself. Or perhaps you were compared to your siblings or other kids at school, and despite your accomplishments, you never quite measured up. Maybe your parents or caretakers had unrealistic expectations, and you learned to please them instead of yourself.
When we care too much about others’ opinions, we can become more concerned about gaining others’ approval and avoiding their disapproval than the integrity of our behavior. We can lose touch with what we are about.
“Hell is other people because you are, in some sense, forever trapped within them, subject to their apprehension of you.” — Mike Rugnetta
At the heart of all this is a desire for external validation born of insecurity. When we lack confidence and don’t know who we are, we can easily fall into a cycle of feeling good when praised and bad when blamed.
5 Strategies for Breaking Free From Judgment
The good news is that if the mind can imprison us, it can liberate us too.
Modern neuroscience demonstrates that thinking is self-reinforcing. We can either indulge patterns of mind that don't serve us, or we can practice seeing in a way that creates neural pathways that incline the mind in a helpful direction.
The more we think others are judging us, the more likely we are to feel judged. Conversely, the more we accept ourselves, the less likely we are to believe others judge us. Without denying our current reality, holding thoughts differently creates space around them.
Can we act skillfully while not being consumed with what others think? Is there a way to care deeply about life while holding things in a spirit of equanimity? “Teach us to care and not to care,” wrote T.S. Eliot.
Following are some ways of relating that can help free us from our chronic fear of judgment.
Don’t believe your thoughts. We can never get rid of others’ judgments, so our practice is learning not to believe them. It’s like hearing our voice for the first time, which can be humbling. You think, “Do I really sound like that?” Since we are unlikely to fall in love with the sound of our voice, our practice is not believing in our assessment of how we sound. We may not get rid of the judgment, but we can learn not to believe it. This is where our freedom lies.
After the first six months of the COVID lockdown, my family ventured to IKEA for much-needed furniture. While wandering the aisles, I discovered a huge, silver metallic raincoat with a hood. I picked it up, put it on, and pretended it was a hazmat suit, holding my arms out to my side while breathing like Darth Vader. My stepdaughter, Amelia, looked back at me and said, “Must be nice to be so free.”
Live from a place of integrity. When you know you come from a place of integrity and a good heart, just being you is enough. Whatever you do is your protection if you stay connected to your intention and sincere motivation. As the Dalai Lama says, ‘My sincere motivation is my protection.’ Coming from a place of truth and love, I feel protected from judgment. If I’m connected to my heart, and someone judges me, they’re judging love, not me.
Don’t buy into projections. We can learn not to buy into the projections of how we think others are evaluating us. After all, we tend to be the star of our show and assume others think the worst. But even if that were true, who cares? Often it’s people we’ll never see again. Instead, think of the people who respect you, care about you, love you, and are rooting for you. Take their assessment for who you are rather than the people in your life that come and go.
“When you are able to truly feel that ‘people are my comrades,’ your way of looking at the world will change utterly. No longer will you think of the world as a perilous place, or be plagued by needless doubts; the world will appear before you as a safe and pleasant place.” - The Courage to be Disliked
Impress others by being yourself. Sometimes we try to impress others by being other than ourselves. But trying to be more than we are is not impressive. Being unabashedly you, however, is very impressive. If you’re anything other than who you are, people are getting a facsimile of you rather than the real you. If they like that version of you, they like a false rendering, and you’re stuck having to pretend.
When you are just yourself, it’s refreshing and allows others to be who they are. You become a mirror for others to see their original selves when you are you. When you let go of trying to be more than you are and know you are okay, your preoccupation with what others think of you dissolves. You start to notice what’s outside of you, to take an interest in others, to be intimate with life.
Let go of looking at yourself. In my old place, my bathroom looked out onto a busy sidewalk. People often looked at cars parked on the street, which seemed strange. Then I realized they were looking at their reflection. I used to do this too. The more we look at our reflection in cars, mirrors, and store windows, the more we reinforce our preoccupation with the question, “How do I look?” When you notice yourself wanting to look, let go. You look fine.
“What others think of you is none of your business.” - Paul Coelho
Imagine what it would be like to come from a place of integrity and a good heart where just being you is enough. Whatever recordings are in your head, imagine whether or not they’re real, that they do not run you, and you can just be who you are. What would it be like to know that you are okay and that’s enough?
Freedom From Judgment
It’s freeing not to have others’ judgments be our dominant reality. But we can’t just switch to a new way of perceiving and never return to the old way. Those patterns have been practiced for years and won’t change overnight.
Yet as you embody your new understanding, you can live from that place more and more. You can look at your habits of mind and discover another possibility: training the mind to perceive differently.
In this space, you become a vehicle for the simplicity of being that helps awaken everyone around you.
Keep seeking freedom,
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Fantastic article, Ryan. I resonate with a lot here. Especially with the ‘adjacent adjectives’ point. As someone who struggled with my weight during my teens, I wrongly wrapped my identity into the negatives society attached to that body type. It’s been a journey to overcome them ever since. This article will really help anyone going through similar.