I spent most of my life worrying about what other people thought of me. I stopped a few years ago. This is how.
An old tune.
“What will _____ think,” was the almost imperceptible tune that hummed in the background of most of my first thirty years. _____ was almost everyone. _____ was my family, my friends, my co-workers, and even strangers.
That thought infiltrated many aspects of my life. When I was a child, I wanted my parents to think I was a good girl. So, whenever I contemplated doing something questionable, I wondered what they would think. Needless to say, questionable things didn’t constitute a large part of my early life. Which resulted in my having a rather un-eventful childhood, at least as far as questionable things went. Instead, I lived vicariously though the lives of my sisters who seemed to me to have none of the same concerns. As a college freshman, finally free to attempt the questionable, I didn’t. I let my friends take care of that. Some of them stole a street sign for fun and displayed it in their dorm room. They thought it was cool. I didn’t. But I dared not disagree for fear that they would think I was “un-cool.” Adulthood wasn’t much different.
The question lingered on. What would people think of my home? What would they think of my cooking? What would they think if I wore a bold outfit? What would people think if I took this job? Or didn’t? What would they think if I quit my job? What would people think if they found out my marriage wasn’t working? What would they think if I got a divorce? What would people think if I was dressed too casually for this restaurant? What would they think of my choice of wine? What would they think if I wanted dessert when no one else wanted any (I almost always want dessert)? What would all these people think?
Oblivious that I was doing it, I allowed that thought to erode my happiness. I made choices that were not in my best interest. I made choices that left me feeling unsettled. I made choices that made me resentful. Trying to control something I had no control over, i.e. peoples thoughts about me, was stressful. It was also a reactive and powerless way to live. It was anti-happy.
Somewhere else in the background of my life, I wished that I wasn’t so concerned about what other people thought of me. But I didn’t know where to start so that I could stop. For many years, I remained without an answer. It finally came when I was turning myself inside out and upside down, trying to find deep and lasting happiness and peace. And it came unsuspecting, through a back door.
I had a few groundbreaking insights about myself. I realized that I worried about what people thought of me because I needed their approval. I needed their approval because I didn’t have my own. I had low self-esteem. I was insecure. I didn’t accept myself. I didn’t love myself.
I didn’t love myself.
And so, I discovered that in order to stop worrying about what other people thought of me, I would need to start loving myself.
I learned that self-love meant living with integrity to myself. It meant discovering myself and my truth, and staying connected to it no matter the circumstance. It meant honoring myself. It meant being compassionate and forgiving towards myself. It meant not betraying myself, even in little ways. And realizing that I had no need to. Because I was complete, perfect, and deserving of love, exactly the way I was.
Practically, in this context, self-love meant a more than few things. It meant expressing my true feelings, opinions, and desires. It meant having a home that worked for me. And cooking in a way that worked for me. It meant wearing clothes that I wanted to wear. And having a hairstyle that I liked. It meant being in job that worked for me. And a relationship that made me happy. It meant choosing a wine I liked and could afford. And eating dessert because I wanted to. It meant doing those things because they were me. And only for that reason.
Self-love wasn’t about disregarding others and putting myself first; it was about including myself. I still considered others when making choices that affected them. But I allowed the scale of the potential impact on myself and on them to guide me. I tried to express my feelings, opinions, and desires when necessary, but not otherwise; realizing that my need to be heard was just my ego’s need for superiority which was superfluous. Because I was perfect the way I was (see, “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose,” by Eckhart Tolle for more on this idea). As was everyone else. In that way, self-love was about honoring myself and others.
The approval I need . . . .
Every so often, the old tune pops into my mind. When it does, I remind myself that I don’t need anyone’s approval but my own. And I will have that if I stay connected to my heart. Sure, it would be nice if people liked me. But I cannot live my life for that reason. I cannot betray who I am for that reason. In that way, I am able to move on. As I learn to love myself more, the old tune pops up less often. Much less often.
“What other people think of you is their business, not yours,” says my friend Sharon. People will think what they want to think. There will always be people who like me, and people who don’t. There will always be people who approve of what I do, and those who don’t. There will always be people who love me, and those who don’t. There will always be people who respect me, and those who don’t. There will always be people who judge me in ways that I like, and those who don’t. I cannot control that.
I can love myself. I can live with integrity to myself. I can remind myself that the only approval I need is my own. And when I don’t need the approval of others, I can stop worrying about what they think of me.