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Caring What Other People Think

What some people think matters more than what others think.

A woman apologized to me a few days ago because she was crying. She was upset that her sister was not talking to her. She was very close to her sister, who, because of the difference in their ages, had acted throughout most of her life as her mother.

“I know I shouldn’t care about what other people think,” she said.

“She’s the closest person in your life," I replied. "How can you be indifferent to what she thinks?”

How much someone cares about what others think depends—or should depend—on the nature of their relationship.

First of all, let me say explicitly what everyone likely already knows: The way people feel about themselves is formed in large part during the time of growing up by the way their parents—or other close family members—felt about them and treated them during that time. Those who grow up with low self-esteem because they were belittled in childhood often continue to hold that opinion stubbornly in the face, sometimes, of exceptional success. What we learn during these formative years has an outsized effect on the rest of life. Ideally, those who grow up thinking well of themselves—because that is what their parents thought—will become resistant to the bad opinion of others. That is the ideal state that my patient was referring to. Someone who is supremely self-confident can shrug off unreasonable criticism. They can even tolerate being ostracized. Of course, that is an idealized state. No one is that sure of himself or herself.

When I was at Princeton, there were no fraternities. There were seventeen "eating clubs." In order for an upperclassman to have a place to eat, he would have to be selected by one of these clubs in a process that was called "bicker." Towards the end of sophomore year, all students had to dress up formally and wait in their rooms for representatives of these clubs to come calling—if they chose to come calling. These visits were inspections, during which time the visitors would determine if particular students were desirable or not.

I did not then—and do not now—think much about social status, but the atmosphere of social selectivity so permeated the school at that time that I was able to predict the exact ranking of all seventeen clubs as was determined by a research project that was conducted that year. "Court club" was at the bottom—and that was where I ended up.

I understood that the criteria by which the students were chosen were not things that I especially valued. I did not think I was charming, or particularly attractive or appealing. I dressed sloppily. I did not wear white buck shoes, and I did not have a crew cut. I would never have described myself as "skilled" in the social graces. I did not anticipate that I was likely to do well in bicker, but to be considered undesirable by sixteen of the seventeen clubs was hard to swallow. My roommate, who found himself in the same situation, was especially upset. He had been valedictorian of his high school class of 800, as well as president of the student body; thus, his descent into a social limbo was further and more precipitous than mine. He went around that first night railing against the unfairness of the process and refusing to accept his offer to come to Court—until he saw that there was no alternative, The whole thing had a bad effect on him; and knowing him ever since, I think some vestiges of that rejection were permanent.

Personally, I felt a lot better when I discovered that all my friends were also at Court. I had a great time the next two years.

There were a small number of students who got no offers to join a club. Everyone knew who they were. They were assigned to different clubs by the administration. I only knew one of them; and I thought he was a great guy, for what that’s worth. He went on to a distinguished academic career as a mathematician. He was also an athlete, which I thought would have made him interesting to some of the clubs, but I was wrong.

It is important not to measure yourself by the standards of other people.

When everyone thinks ill of you—even if they are not necessarily people you admire—it is hard not to feel depressed. But, in general, the opinion of strangers should not matter very much. What follows is a hierarchy of whose opinions should matter:

  • immediate family: spouses, children, and parents (probably in that order)
  • bosses and close friends (should matter a lot, although not as much as family)
  • colleagues and neighbors (should matter somewhat less)
  • acquaintances (should not matter very much)
  • people you encounter in the street or casually at a party (should not matter at all)

This is the way this works: I would feel distressed if my wife thought I had behaved disrespectfully to her—or to anyone else, for that matter. I would feel concerned if a close friend thought I had behaved in such a way. If an acquaintance said something similar to me, I might stop briefly to think about it. If it was a stranger, I would not pay any attention, and I would have forgotten about the incident a few minutes later.

Of course, how much I would be concerned about anyone’s opinion would depend also on just what that opinion was. If someone thinks you are a criminal, you will have to take heed. If someone thinks you are a pedophile, or an embezzler, or a terrorist, there will likely be repercussions that you cannot ignore. But if a stranger thinks your hair is too long, or your laugh is too loud, you should not care. You should not bother to hide your political opinions from the others in your car pool, because it does not matter if they approve or not. In general, you should be able to say what you think without worrying about the impression you are making. You should not have to stay indoors just because there is a stain on your shirt.

And yet there are some people who wish to present themselves to the world as being without flaw—even without anything that anyone could construe as a flaw, or a failing, or a weakness. They wish to be impervious to criticism. They put in considerable effort into this pointless endeavor.

I recommend speaking up, especially if you are one of those people who are excessively concerned about some symptom you have or some failing. You cannot put these weaknesses in perspective unless you see that most people will accept you in spite of them. Most of the time they will not think twice about something that may have haunted you for years.

Some people will disapprove of you, of course. No matter who you are, some people will disapprove. Oftentimes, such people are in the business of looking down on everyone. They judge everybody unfavorably because of their own emotional needs. They will consider some people not well-enough educated, or from the wrong background, or too something or other—not classy enough for them, perhaps. Such a person—even if he or she is a family member—is not worth paying attention to.

It is possible to grow accustomed to this fact: Some people will like and approve of you, and some won’t. Some people (family members frequently) have a vested interest in thinking you are deficient. They will think you are in the wrong no matter what you do. But others will take one look at you and approve. They will admire you for things you take for granted. Try to find these people.

(c) Fredric Neuman

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