Have you ever wondered what it takes to worry about what other people think? Do you wish you didn’t care what other people think? Or is this kind of worry so “familiar” that it seems natural . . . a deep habit of mind?
Let’s take a look at it. If you are concerned about what others think, (1)you are agreeing that they can have expectations of you and that (2) if you don’t meet those expectations, they have the right to be disappointed in you and (3)you must be shaken and concerned about that.
Regarding (1): Well, you can’t control other’s thinking so they may have expectations of you. But you can choose to dismiss those expectations…like saying “No, thank you,” to a magazine salesperson at your door.
Expectations, you see, are solicitations or invitations, not commands from an absolute authority (is there such a thing?) or a law of nature that can’t be violated. You can politely and firmly (if necessary) refuse solicitations and invitations. You have a right to your own thoughts and desires, too, you know!
Regarding (2): People are free to be disappointed in you for not meeting their expectations. Again, you can’t control what others think. But you can recognize that their disappointment is wholly their creation. They are afflicting themselves with their freely chosen thoughts to create an expectation of you. And it’s their choice to think upsetting thoughts about how you didn’t fit into their creation. For this second aspect, all you need to do is be very clear about this — the ball is entirely in their court. You are not responsible for the choices others make, and vice versa.
One way to strengthen your clarity about this is to remember that you are a person too — if they have a right to expect things of you, you have a right to expect things of them!
I have an expectation of others that they be kind and loving to me (wishing the best for me) regardless of their expectations of me, and that they keep their expectations to themselves. If they don’t meet my expectations of them in this regard, then I have the right to give no importance at all to their expectations of me.
Regarding (3): You must be shaken and concerned if you don’t meet their expectations and they are upset. If you are clear about (1) and (2), this point should be easy. Since their expectations and their upset are their creations, they are not your problem. You have the right to keep your self respect intact. You set a boundary against “invasion” with your expectation that others treat you with kindness and respect. Hold this as an absolute requirement for anyone who wants you to seriously consider their points of view about anything at all.
I am sure this is all very simple to understand, and yet we worry about what others think. Isn’t it fascinating! I was given some insight into this mystery recently when a man who came to see me for a private session said very forcefully – and repeatedly – that he couldn’t imagine speaking up to his adoptive father about beatings his father gave him.
Listening to this man, it became clear to me (once again!) that our concern for what other people think is really our enshrined and still emotionally charged concern for our parents opinion of us as children. In his case, he believed that he was such a bad person, he had caused his father to beat him.
The “logic” was that since his adoptive father gave him life, saved his life, he had no right to confront his father about anything. This man was actually able to maintain an idealized image of his father as a perfect (savior) father even as he talked about the beatings he had suffered, concluding that it was his fault that his father beat him as a child — because he yelled too loud while playing. “I was bad!”
I was astonished that this obviously intelligent person could speak this line of thought lucidly and not see any contradiction. So I pointed out a few things and asked a few questions. First, I said you can’t assume that if he hadn’t adopted you, you would have died. Your father was not the sole and absolute source of salvation. Maybe if your father hadn’t adopted you, the next person to come along and adopt you would have been wonderful in every way. Second, how does a child’s loudness in the excitement of play (or fighting) with a sibling force a parent to beat them with a belt in a rage?
In a very rigid robotic way, the client would just blurt out, “It was my fault — I yelled; I was bad.” This toxic mantra was a real stone wall for a while!
I explored a bit further. I asked him what he would think of adoption papers that contained a clause stipulating that, since the adoptive parent provides food and shelter, said parent shall have the right to fly into a rage and beat the child for any reason whatsoever, including but not limited to, annoying yelling and fighting with siblings.
This absurdity brought a glimmer of new awareness to the client. He was soon able to begin imagining having the best of both worlds — first, gratitude for what his adoptive parents did right while removing them from the pedestal of perfection, and second, strong rejection of what they did wrong, which restored his self respect.
The child this man saw in the stories of his memory was no longer to blame for the father’s rage or the mother’s neglect. It was now OK for him to envision standing up for himself and rightly naming the beatings as the abuse that they were. Whether or not he actually spoke to his father about it or not, now my client felt able to meet others on an equal footing as a complete adult.
May all parents be wise and compassionate; may all children flourish and blossom into sane, creative, and compassionate adults. May we all prosper together!