Worried about what people think?

Stop worrying about what others think

Last week, I went to see Alain de Botton speak about his new book “School of Life”. The School of Life offers online and in person courses on a variety of topics, but the general aim seems to be to help people live as purposeful, anxiety-free lives as possible. It’s all about being “good enough” and not striving for the dangerous, relentless aim of perfection. He mentioned paediatrician and psychoalanylst, Donald Winnicott who is best known for his ideas on the ‘good enough’ parent and encouraged the audience to strive to be ‘good enough’ and not ‘the best’ or ‘perfect’.

As part of his talk, he asked us to turn to a stranger in the audience and complete the sentence “If I were more selfish, I would…..”. After some discomfort amongst those seated around me, a man turned round and completed the sentence to me. He said “If I were more selfish, I would work part time instead of full time.” I asked him what was getting in the way of this happening. He said “the judgment of my family, my partner and her family”. As he said this, he looked concerned. By saying it out loud to someone, he had realised that the judgment of others, real or imagined, was holding him back from doing something that he wanted to do.

Being a coach, I wanted to keep asking questions to help him explore this, but Alain had us turn back to the front and he continued his talk.

This short conversation with a stranger highlighted what has been on my mind for a while and comes up again and again in coaching sessions. Most people make decisions, often that shape their lives, hold themselves back, prevent them from being completely themselves, because of a fear of what others might think.

And how do we know what others think?

We don’t! So we allow the possible or imagined thoughts of others to shape our decision and behaviour. Often with no evidence whatsoever. We assume what they will think and continue accordingly.

And even if we found out what they thought, should we allow the judgment of others to colour our actions? That’s a difficult one. There are some people who have an agenda, who may be jealous or negative and who are not going to give you a fair response. You know the type – and they are best avoided. However, there will be trusted friends or colleagues who genuinely want you to succeed. When you need help making a decision, it’s best to ask them.

In general, for day to day actions, it’s helpful if you can challenge thoughts of “what will they think?” by asking yourself, firstly, “who are they?” followed by “does it matter?”

It can take some doing, challenging the “what will they think” gremlins, as we are programmed from an early age to care. From wanting to please parents or teachers, to fitting in at school and at work, many of us are hard wired to do what we think will gain us the most praise (and the least criticism) possible.

But you can change your thinking and it can change the way you live your life.