We worry a lot about what people think of us. We worry what they think about our fashion choices, our looks, the things we say, our level of success, and our particular interests or hobbies. Even the philosopher Heidegger speaks of The They—the amorphous, ambiguous atmosphere of other people’s judgments. We end up living in fear or doing things we really do not want to do (or missing out on things we do want to do) because of fear of people’s opinions.
I used to worry constantly about what people thought about me, and to be honest, I still occasionally do. But years ago, a significant crisis in my life taught me that we actually do not have to worry about what other people think of us and that there are really good reasons not to worry at all. Learning these lessons relieved a significant amount of anxiety in my life. Perhaps they will relieve anxiety in yours. Here are five reasons I believe that you do not have to worry about what other people think of you.
#1. First, you do not have to worry about what other people think of you because most of the time, they are not thinking about you at all. Just as you often spend a lot of time worrying about what other people are thinking of you, most people worry about the same thing. So they are actually not thinking of you–rather, they are thinking about themselves and worrying about whether they look okay to you and everyone else. Or they are probably thinking about other things such as their hopes, dreams, fears, romances, and plans for pizza on the weekend.
Most of us think about ourselves about 95% of the time and other people 5% of the time. This is not so much a criticism of humanity as an observation of the human condition. On the one hand, being absorbed with ourselves can be really self-centered. On the other hand, many times when we think about ourselves, we are just trying to figure out how to make it through life. So, the next time you are worried that people are constantly scrutinizing you and observing all of your failures, realize that everyone else is almost certainly worrying about the same thing and thinking about what is going on in their own lives instead. (Here is something you can say to yourself when you are worried about what other people think: People are usually thinking about their own lives, not scrutinizing me.)
#2. The second reason you do not have to worry about what other people think is because what people think about you says much more about them than it says about you. Sometimes people are thinking about you and judging you. It is true. But what they think about you is a reflection of their inner life, not a reflection of you. Imagine if you had a dirty window, and you were looking at the world through that window. The dirtier the window is, the dirtier the world appears to you. This is the same way with our hearts (or you can think of it as your mind). When our hearts are filled with fear, hate, rage, insecurity, and prejudice, this definitely clouds our perception of people and events in the world.
This is not so much a judgment, as it is an observation. Just as we cannot properly see out a cloudy window, we cannot see clearly out of a cloudy heart (and we all have cloudy hearts sometimes). When people judge us harshly and think cruel and demeaning things about us, it is because they are looking at us with a cloudy heart.
When people have a clear heart (like a clear window), they are able to look at the world with compassion. A clear, compassionate heart recognizes the light in everyone. It realizes everyone in the world suffers, and everyone is trying to do the best they can.
A compassionate heart certainly recognizes that people do bad and stupid things sometimes (or even a lot of times). A compassionate heart also recognizes that often when people do bad and stupid things, it is because they are aiming for good goals in an unskillful way. For example, most of us are searching for love and safety. These are our two biggest desires, and they are good desires.
However, sometimes we pursue love and safety in misguided ways. For instance, we might think that in order for us to be safe, we must hate other people and be violent to or discriminatory towards them. As another example, we might believe that in order to get love, we must compromise our values or become a different person than who we really are.
These beliefs are a result of bad and misguided attempts to aim for good goals. A compassionate heart honors everyone and their suffering. This does not mean that we must excuse or subject ourselves to people’s bad behavior in the name of compassion. Rather, it suggests that when our heart is clear and we look at everyone through the eyes of compassion, we always try to see what is best in them and what we all have in common (namely our desire to find safety and love and to avoid suffering), and we treat them accordingly. We do not judge them harshly.
When we remember this, we better understand that when people think badly of us, it is often because their heart is cloudy. We don’t have to excuse it, but we can understand it. It really is not about us; it is about them. (Here is something you can say to yourself when you are worried about what people think: People’s thoughts about me are almost always a reflection of them–not of me.)
#3. The third reason you do not have to worry about what people think of you is because it is perfectly normal to make mistakes. One of the things I used to worry about the most is that I would make a mistake, and people would think badly of me. You may worry about this, too. It is important to understand, though, that mistakes are a perfectly normal and acceptable (and even good) part of life. Mistakes are actually how we learn, and there are some things that we absolutely cannot learn except through trial and error.
Drawing pictures is a really good example of why mistakes are necessary and even encouraged. When I am drawing, there is definitely an idea I am trying to communicate, and many times it is something I have never tried to communicate before. So, to be honest, I do not know exactly what I am doing. I just have to try the idea out, see how it looks, make mistakes, and adjust accordingly. (At the end of this post, you can see a picture I originally drew for this essay that is full of mistakes. Those mistakes enabled me to draw a better picture.)
All of life is like that. Every single moment of your life is a brand new moment that no one has ever experienced before because no one has ever been you in your exact circumstances. So, while people can give you general advice about how to live–e.g. look both ways before you cross the road; don’t hit people; bathe regularly, etc.–no one can tell you exactly what you are supposed to do in all of the moments of your life. You just have to live your life and figure it out, and that entails mistakes. You could avoid mistakes if you locked yourself in your room and never left (and we all want to do this sometimes), but that would not be you living your life. We need you in the world, and it is okay if you make mistakes. If people judge you for making mistakes, they are not being realistic or mature about the human condition. (Here is something you can say to yourself when you are worried about what other people think: Making mistakes is perfectly normal and even encouraged. They help me learn to live my life well.)
#4. The fourth reason that you do not have to worry about what other people think is because it is impossible to please judgmental people. As I mentioned before, there certainly are judgmental people who spend time thinking about and criticizing what people wear, what they think, what they say, etc. It is understandable why you worry about what these people think–we all do sometimes. However, it is important to understand that you will never, ever be able to please judgmental people no matter how hard you try and no matter what you do–not even if you are perfect.
Judgmental people are almost always judgmental because, no matter how together they appear, they are insecure, fearful, and they have poor self-confidence. They use judgment and criticism as a defense mechanism. Judging everyone else helps to take their mind off of their own perceived failing. So, you do not have to try to please judgmental people because judgmental people need to address their own insecurity, fears, and inability to love and accept themselves. (And if you are reading this, and you know you are a judgmental person, I wish you peace and freedom from suffering. I’ve been judgmental before, too. Check out the end of this post for another article you can read about how to show yourself more compassion.)
#5. The fifth reason you do not have to worry about what other people think is because there is only one person whose opinion about your life really matters: your own. Your life is an absolutely original and unique event. You are the expert on your life because you are the closest person to you, and you are the person who knows best your hopes, your dreams, your talents, your limitation, and all that you have been through in life. No one has better expertise than you to tell you how to live your life, and so other people’s opinions do not really matter unless you decide they do.
For instance, you may decide that someone knows more than you in a certain area you are interested in pursuing (for instance, becoming healthier or learning a new hobby), and so you ask them for advice. That is perfectly fine. But in the end, you must decide if you will follow their advice. You could unquestioningly do what everyone else tells you to do, but if their advice is not right for you, you will live an inauthentic and unhappy life. You ultimately must be the decider of what is best for you and how you are going to live your life. So your opinion about your life is the most important one and the only one that really counts in the end. (Here is something you can tell yourself when you are worried about what people think: I am the best person to decide if I am living my life well or not.)
In the end, you do not have to worry about what other people think. You only need to worry about one thing: compassion. Are you being compassionate to yourself, and are you being compassionate to others? If you are being compassionate to yourself and others, you will be present, gentle, responsive, clear-thinking, and wise. This puts you in the best possible position to fix any mistakes you need to fix, to know the right path to take, and to know how to help others. And you do not even have to worry about whether you are being compassionate, you can just consistently set an intention to be compassionate, and you are already on the right path. (Here is something you can tell yourself when you are worried about what people think: There is only one thing I need to care about: whether I am living a compassionate life.)
It is normal to worry about what people think, but in the end, it causes us a lot of grief, and it is unnecessary. The only thing we need to concern ourselves with is whether we are living a life of compassion. Everything else needed will follow.
If you would like to learn more about cultivating compassion for yourself, you can read about it here.
I told you I would show you a drawing mistake I made. Below is a picture I originally drew and painted for this post. When I finished it, I decided it was a mistake. I did not like how the girl looks lying flat on her face, and even though I think llamas are adorable and originally believed I needed one in this post, my orange llama just was not working for me. So, I redrew this picture concept and drew the one above with the butterfly and the girl sitting down with her hands clasped around her knees. I liked that one a lot better. Still, I am really grateful for the mistake I made in this picture. Had I not drawn it and decided it was a mistake, I would not have drawn the other one. And I really do like llamas, so one will probably show up in another post.
 Heidegger writes about The They in Being and Time.