Over the course of teaching for more than fifteen years, I have experienced many embarrassing moments. One occurred last year, when I mistakenly failed to switch off my lapel mic during a bathroom break for a class. (Thankfully, I only used the wash-basin and not the toilet!) My mistake—of not switching off the mic—wasn’t a grave one, of course. And yet, I felt quite embarrassed.
Embarrassment, and the related emotion of shame, arises when we violate a moral code or an expected standard. Thus, we feel embarrassed and ashamed when we are caught cheating in an exam, or when we do badly in it. These emotions arise when we wonder how poorly others must think of us.
Embarrassment and shame aren’t pleasant to experience, of course. But they do often serve a useful purpose. Studies show that we are likely to be more considerate and kind, and also more likely to be motivated to correct past mistakes when we experience embarrassment or shame. So, at one level, it’s a good thing that we care so much about what others think of us.
But what’s also true is that most of us are guilty of worrying too much about what others think of us. Studies show that we consistently overestimate how much, and how badly, others think about us and our failings. An unfortunate consequence of this is that we are far more inhibited and far less spontaneous and joyful than we could be.
The good news is that many of us seem to recognize this problem. In the happiness course that I teach, I sometimes ask students to list all the things they want to get out of the class. The outcome that consistently ranks at the top of this list is: I would like to learn how to stop being bothered by what others are thinking of me.
How do we get to stop being bothered by what others think of us?
I have discovered that the following three principles can help.
Operate from other-centeredness
As I commented in another article, we humans are a painfully social species. For example, as many as 4 out of 5 processes going on in the background of our brain is about our relationships with others. We care so much about others because our happiness depends on the quality of our relationships. One study found that every last person in the happiest 10% of the participants had at least one intimate relationship; so, if you want to belong to the happiest 10%, great relationships is not a luxury—it’s a necessity. Similarly, another study found that the top two of 25 activities that we routinely do—like eating, driving, socializing, working, etc.—involve other people.
So, there’s a good reason we worry so much about what others think of us. It is because we want to be in their good books, so that we can develop and nurture our relationships with them. In other words, our worrying about what others thinks of us stems from the fear that we may be bereft of friends or intimacy. This fear can, in some instances, be useful. As I mentioned earlier, embarrassment and shame can motivate us to behave in a more considerate or appropriate manner, increasing the chances that others like us.
But if the fear is too high, it can also be counter-productive. Constantly wondering whether others like us enough can evoke anxiety, leading to neediness and insecurity, which in turn drive others away from us. This can propel a vicious cycle, resulting ultimately in loss of self-respect and social alienation.
One way to break this vicious cycle is to consistently—or at least more of than not—operate from a place of other-centeredness, rather than self-centeredness. If you are consistently kind and considerate, then you will worry less about what others think of you. This is because of two reasons. First, others will naturally like you more when you are kind and considerate; so, you won’t need to worry as much about what others think of you. Second, even if your actions are misinterpreted or lead to unforeseen negative outcomes—the road to hell, after all, is paved with good intentions—you will know in your heart of hearts that your intentions were benign. That will give you the mental freedom to not worry as much about what others think of you.
If you are wondering whether it is worth it to become more other-centered just to stop worrying about what others think of you, here's some news for you: it turns out that being other-centered is not just a happiness booster, but also a success booster. Specifically, you are more likely to be successful if you are giver, rather than a taker.
Recognize that hurt people hurt people
That's not a typo: Hurt people do hurt people. What that means is that, even if you do your best to be kind and considerate, you may still be judged negatively by others. This is not a reflection of your failings; rather, it is a reflection on where the others are coming from. People often behave in the only way they know how. Recognizing this can help you become a little more compassionate towards others, and thereby, lower your worry about what others think of you.
That said, however, this principle—of discounting others negative judgments—should be applied with caution. As we know from numerous findings on the self-serving bias, it’s easy to blame others for one’s own failings. So, you will want to make sure that you aren’t brushing aside your real shortcomings just to make yourself feel better. In other words, it’s important to be brutally honest with yourself, and ask yourself: Was I truly considerate and kind? Or, am I being delusional about it?
That leads me to the third thing you could do to stop being bothered by what others think of you: developing attentional control.
Develop attentional control
Sometimes, you may realize that others’ negative judgments of you are justified: you simply screwed up. But that doesn’t mean that you have to wallow in embarrassment and shame forever. The Catholics have a nifty way of getting rid of unproductive embarrassment and shame: confessing to a priest. But what if you are not lucky enough to be Catholic? Well, you can practice what researchers call attentional control. Attentional control is what it sounds like: being able to control what you pay attention to. It involves practicing the ability to direct your attention to those things on which you wish to focus, and away from those things on which you do not wish to focus.
Perhaps the best way to practice attentional control is through mindfulness. Although mindfulness does not work for everyone, it is still a very powerful way of developing attentional control, as I can attest from personal experience. The one downside to mindfulness is that it can take quite long—a few weeks at least—to start seeing progress. But I think the time is well worth it, and the sooner you begin, the better off you are. Another side-benefit of mindfulness is that you develop greater self-awareness, which can be useful in preventing self-delusion.
If you wish to try out a mindfulness exercise, here’s one called presence practice that my good friend, Vijay Bhat, developed for my Coursera course on happiness. You’ll find it particularly useful if you lead a harried, stressful life, and have never practiced mindfulness.
If you don’t find mindfulness palatable or useful, there is an alternative for developing attentional control: plunging yourself into action. As Goethe famously said, “action has magic, power, and grace to it.” One reason why action has magic, power and grace is that it helps you focus your attention on the goals that you are trying to accomplish, rather than on what others are thinking of you.
But what type of action should you take to focus your attention away from what others are thinking of you?
I would suggest doing those things that help you nurture your other-centered—kind and compassionate—side. Do a random act of kindness. Or write a letter of gratitude. Or, do those things that get you into what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.
Worrying too much about what others think of you can be debilitating. And doing these three things—1) operating more consistently from other-centeredness, 2) recognizing that hurt people hurt people, and 3) developing attentional control—can help you overcome this tendency.