Caring what others think is totally normal. It’s also adaptive. “[V]aluing other people’s thoughts and opinions is what helps us build relationships [and] integrate socially into society,” said Ashley Thorn, a LMFT, a psychotherapist who works with individuals, couples, and families on improving their relationships. “[It] keeps us respecting and following rules and pushes us to think and challenge ourselves.”
Caring what others think becomes a problem when we hyperfocus on their opinions — and let them override our own. When we do this regularly, we send “a message to our brain that says we can’t ‘look out’ for ourselves or self-protect.” Which triggers self-doubt and insecurity.
But you might not even realize you do this. Thorn shared these tell-tale signs:
- You regularly feel regret and resentment. You agree with what others have to say or give in to what they want. But you don’t feel good about it.
- You have a tough time making decisions. Or you defer to others. You say it’s because you don’t care or you’re just easygoing. But if this keeps happening, you might really be worried that others won’t agree with what you really want.
- You feel you need to make others happy—even if you’re left unhappy.
- You have many insecurities and speak to yourself negatively. You’re so focused on others that you haven’t taken the time to explore what you like, what you think, what you want, and who you actually are.
If these signs seem all-too familiar, try the suggestions that follow. Keep in mind that it’s not about having a callous, “I don’t need to listen to anyone” attitude. “It is fine, and often a good thing, to consider the thoughts and feelings of others,” said Thorn, who practices at Wasatch Family Therapy in Salt Lake City, Utah. “But how we ourselves think and feel should ultimately be more important.”
Be prepared for feeling uncomfortable — and soothe yourself
We can’t control how someone is going to react. Maybe they’ll react negatively. Maybe we’ll feel hurt and uncomfortable. But, as Thorn said, “that’s OK.”
The key is to prepare yourself for feeling uncomfortable emotions and then turn to healthy self-soothing strategies. For instance, you might take deep breaths to calm down. You might try positive self-talk, and “remind yourself that just because that person didn’t agree doesn’t mean that you are wrong.”
Because different techniques work for different people, Thorn suggested experimenting with various strategies to see which are best for you. She shared these other ideas: Create a playlist of calming music, and listen to it when you’re upset. Use a coloring book. Organize your closet, drawer or art supplies. (“Some people need to take action when they’re feeling stressed.”) Take a walk. Take a bath or shower. Soak your hands in a bowl of warm water. Or turn on the faucet, and let the water run over your hands until you feel calm.
Build your sense of self
“[B]uild a deeper knowledge of who you are that will ground you and help you to feel confident in yourself,” Thorn said. This also helps when you go against what someone else thinks.
Thorn suggested reflecting on these questions:
- What do I find satisfying, meaningful, and enjoyable?
- What do I like?
- What don’t I like?
- What are my values?
- What is my moral code?
- What are my spiritual beliefs?
- What masks do I wear? Why?
Building your sense of self is a lifelong process, because we’re constantly learning and growing, she said. So return to these questions periodically.
Remember that others’ reactions are more about them
If someone criticizes you or disagrees with something you’d like to do, maybe it’s because of insecurities or unresolved issues, Thorn said. “Or maybe they’re simply being true to themselves.”
Whatever the reason, this actually might be good for your relationship. According to Thorn, it either means you communicate until you reach a resolution. Or you gain a better, deeper understanding of each other.
Take small risks
“[P]art of learning to trust yourself is by simply taking some risks, and then evaluating how that feels,” Thorn said. The key is to start small. She shared this example: When your friend asks you where you’d like to have dinner, instead of saying “Doesn’t matter to me! You pick,” actually state your preference.
Here’s an important point we people-pleasers tend to forget: “‘Standing up for yourself’ or considering what you want to be of value and importance is not about trying to get other people to agree.” Maybe you end up being in an uncomfortable situation. Maybe you don’t get what you want.
But, as Thorn said, even if nothing results from expressing yourself, you’re still building your sense of self and personal security. Because you’re being true to yourself. Which leads you to feel better and feel less negativity toward others, she said.
Ultimately, it isn’t that we quit caring about others’ opinions or perspectives. Rather, it’s that we start caring about our own.