Bloggers, life coaches and motivational speakers love telling people to stop caring what others think. And, to some degree, they're right. People don't watch, think or talk about you nearly as much as you think they do.
The idea that you can simply "quit caring" what others think goes against our very biology, and everything we were designed to do.
Indeed, anyone who says they don’t care what others think of them has never truly studied this topic. Even people who sincerely believe that they don’t give a damn what other people think — myself included — are actually obsessed with what others think.
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes total sense. For millions of years, humans could not survive on their own. They needed to be a part of a group. That’s why gossip is so ubiquitous -- and why it can feel so good. It's a powerful means of enforcing norms and rules within a group. If you’re taking more mangoes than you’re supposed to or sleeping with someone you shouldn’t be sleeping with, the group needs to know. We want people to think and say good things about us, to like and trust us, because it used to be an essential part of our survival.
Psychologist Mark Leary, who started out studying self-consciousness, realized that, from an evolutionary perspective, self-esteem made much less sense than ratings of ourselves by others. He did some great analysis on this -- yet when he would tell people about his "sociometer" research, he was often met with the same response:
“Oh, well I don’t care what others think!”
So he set up an experiment. He recruited participants to fill out a questionnaire that measured how much people thought they were affected by what others think of them. Then, he selected the people who reported being highly unaffected, as well as those who reported being highly sensitive, and invited them into his lab for the next part of the study.
Participants were asked to sit alone in a room and talk about themselves into a microphone for five minutes. Each minute, a “listener” would give a 1–7 rating of how much he/she would like to meet the participant, as well as other feedback.
As is often the case in psychology studies, there was no “listener.” Leary had rigged the study to either show dropping or rising ratings, and followed up with a measure of self-esteem.
Not surprisingly, people who reported a high sensitivity to others’ opinions had a huge drop. But. The so-called mavericks had drops almost as big.
Somewhat surprisingly, Leary also found that, while negative feedback significantly lowered participants’ self-esteem, positive feedback didn’t produce an increase in self-esteem.
Leary concluded that the “sociometer” operates at an unconscious level, and is highly sensitive to cues that your relational value is low or declining.
Of course, appearing to care what others think — at least in Western societies — makes us seem "weak." We like to think we don’t care. We may even make decisions that are consistent with this belief. I do this every time I leave the house without brushing my hair, go months and months without shaving my legs, or jump up onto my boyfriend’s shoulders (I’ve got a pretty decent vertical) at a crowded bus station.
Look at me -- wearing a dress to a hole in the wall, singing karaoke and waving my hands in the air like I just don't care...
But the fact is, we all care what others think of us.
Except for psychopaths. They are the only known people not to have a sociometer.
Which isn't to say there is no hope -- there totally is! Just because you can't stop unconsciously caring what others think, doesn't mean you can't start feeling less constrained by it. Here's some advice:
1. Learn how to play.
Playfulness isn't a trait -- it's a skill. The better you get at it, the more fun you will have -- and the more involved and mindful you will be in what you're doing. When you're totally focused on how you're going to win this game or surmount this obstacle or how much fun you're having, you'll be a lot less worried about how you look or what others think.
Want to know more? Check out Playfulness Isn't a Trait - It's a Skill. And If You're a Millennial, You Probably Never Learned to Play.
2. Self-handicap -- the right way.
According to psychology, there are four ways to feel better about yourself. One of them is self-handicapping. In general, self-handicapping is the same as self-sabotage: instead of studying for a test, you don't study for it. That way, you either do well, anyway -- and omg, you're so smart for acing a test you didn't study for! Or, you do poorly -- because, duh! You didn't even study.
It's a win-win. Except you totally just lost.
But. Self-handicapping, done correctly, can be a valuable tool. As I wrote in 4 Reasons You Suck at Self-Expression, And How You Can Improve:
"Adults get super self-conscious. We worry about being 'wrong' or not clever or funny or artistic or creative enough.
But! One of the best ways to get adults to actually be creative during creativity exercises... is to handicap them.
When you tell someone, 'Be creative!' the situation can be intimidating (because they might not be ____ enough) or threatening (because failing at this exercise threatens your identity as a creative person).
When you tell someone, "Be creative -- with your hands tied behind your back!" you remove that threat. You remove that intimidation...
By removing that stress from a task or project, you allow your mind to focus on ideas and solutions. You remove self-consciousness, because -- hey! How creative can I possibly be with my hands tied behind my back? *sign of relief*" Read more >
3. Live like you're traveling.
When you travel, you open your eyes to new experiences and people around you. A trip to the grocery store becomes an adventure! A conversation with a guy on the bus can be unforgettable!
That's why I always tell people to try living like they're on vacation.
But here's another great thing about travel: we become a lot less self-conscious. When we're in a new culture, trying new things, we're not afraid to fail. How could someone possibly expect us to be good at something so new, something we've never tried before? How can we be expected to be eloquent in a language we barely understand?
This causes us to care a less what others are thinking, and focus a lot more on the uniqueness or ridiculousness of the situation.
4. Practice cognitive reframing -- it's seriously the most powerful psychology hack ever invented.
Know what's crazy? Your brain is terrible at distinguishing fantasy from reality. fMRI studies confirm it -- when you think about a real memory vs. one you made up, similar parts of the brain are activated.
Meaning that even if you consciously know something is untrue, part of your brain feels like it is.
That's part of the reason the Lost in the Mall study, in which adults were asked to recall the time they were "lost in the mall," were able to remember and embellish a story that never truly happened.
It's also why eye witness testimony is so notoriously unreliable -- and why it's important to be careful how you question witnesses. Asking someone, "Did you see a blue car?" can cause them to remember seeing a blue car later, while retelling the story.
Use this to your advantage.
When thinking about a past, present or future event, spend a few moments imaging, in detail, yourself operating below everyone's radar. Imagine that absolutely no one is watching you give that presentation, catch that fly ball, or dance up that storm. Imagine they are wearing blinders, or that you are wearing an invisibility cloak. Imagine that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are in the room, too, and everyone is so focused on them that they have zero units of attention left for you.
It sounds ridiculous, but trust me: part of your brain will believe this is real. Learn more >
Have you struggled with self-consciousness or concern that people are judging you? How did you get over it? Share in the comments!
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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