How Much Should You Care About What Other People Think?
By Frank Kermit
There will be times when we want to do something in our lives that is meaningful to us. It could be a decision related to abandoning education, what career path to choose, what kind of person to date, changing something major in how we live, or even a new life experience to experiment with to see if it is for you.
Each option that you consider can unto itself be overwhelming. However, if it is something that may have the consequence that others may not like you for doing it, it can make an overwhelming option a near impossible decision.
With each new choice we make, there will be benefits and consequences. The benefits are usually easier to identify than the consequences. The one alarming factor in your internal debate is the fact that you do not actually control the consequences of your actions.
However, when we believe that one of the consequences of our actions may be lack of approval from people, it can make going for what you want a harder decision. If what other people think of you is very important to you, it is likely going to be a huge factor in your decision making process. Sometimes, that can be a good thing, but it is not always as important as people think. Over the course of your life, it is YOU, and not anyone else that will bare the major burden of any decision you make. If you are going to take into account the opinions of others, it is important to keep in mind exactly how effective those "others" are in the ongoing process of your life.
There are times when caring about what others think has incredibly good side effects. A teenager, who chooses not to experiment with drugs and avoids the whole drug culture because she worries about how her parents may disapprove, helps keep her safe.
That is a good side effect. Caring about what your boss thinks about your conduct both in and out of the office is often necessary as it can have an impact on your ability to be promoted, and increase your earning potential. Not all approval seeking behaviors and decision-making is bad. When the negatives in your life outweigh the positives because you are caring about what others think, and put their approval ahead of your own happiness, that is when you are caring way too much.
One of the lessons I teach people who are struggling with pursuing relationship goals is how to balance when to worry about what other people think, and when to just follow through on your interests. People tend to have more regrets about the things they did not do, or at least try, than to regret the things they did do and try, even if they failed at it.
When you are trying to judge if you should care about what someone thinks; when you are trying to decide if you should go for it or not, you must ascertain whether or not their opinion actually has any legitimate and actually harmful consequences for you. Does the person in question have the power to ruin the quality of your life in a significant way? If the answer is no, then really, who cares what they think? If the answer is yes, then you have a choice to make to judge if the consequences would outweigh the benefits.
For example: you want to drop out of college and start your own business. You have talked about this plan and a number of people think you are crazy, while others support the decision even if they do not agree, and still a few love the idea. All of this is in fact meaningless.
The focus has to be on what are the consequences of this decision. If your parents are paying for your education and have told you that if you drop out they will no longer support you and that you would be financially on your own and have to move out of their basement, THAT is one of the consequences that needs to factor into your decision more than others.
Are you ready to completely live on your own and support yourself while you pursue this new path? Not sure? In this case caring about what "they" think is important. Also note that if the handful of people who thought it was a great idea for you to pursue, but aren't actually going to help you, or support you in pursuing that dream, then their opinion is worthless. It does not matter if they think it is a good idea. As they are not offering any support for your cause either way, what they think is not something you ever need to care about.
That is a key understanding many people miss out on. The idea that liking your idea without actually taking action to support you is as useless to care about as someone hating your idea but not doing anything to stop you from trying it.
What about dating and relationships? What about sex? If you want to date someone that some of your friends and family thinks is a bad idea, what should you do? If you want to have sex in a way that you would be stigmatized for, what do you do? You balance the benefits and consequences, including how you will be able to live with yourself long term if you do not even try. It is this one element that can be the most devastating. In the short term it is easy to give up some pleasure in your life in order to keep the peace with the people you care about. However, in the long term, living for others and being self-sacrificing does not necessarily grant peace nor happiness. It is more likely to lead to a life of unfulfilled dreams and an abundance of resentment.
There will be a consequence no matter what you do. There is ALWAYS a trade off. That is the way of life.
There is no one direction that does not have some kind of bad string attached. It is about choosing the paths that have the bad strings you are able to live with. If you have sex when you want to, with who you want to, you will experience one of the great pleasures life has to offer, but you may also acquire the scorn of people who disapprove calling her a slut or him a sleaze. If you choose not to have sex to please those people, you are limiting some of the life experience and life lessons that comes from experience, which may be something you regret not doing down the road.
Will it be comforting for you that you cared what others thought when you hit your mid-life crisis regretting all the things you missed out on? Only you can answer that truthfully. If you choose to go after your dreams there will be people who will HATE you for doing it if you succeed, and will HATE you if you fail; and there will always be consequences to just having dreams no matter what they are. Should you still have and go after your dreams?
If you have relationships with individuals that some of your family and friends can not stand, you will have to deal with possibly being cut off from them and others you love that may be caught in the middle (like a younger relative that must obey their parents that no longer approve of you).
However, you may very well have the main relationship partner of your life that addresses your most important emotional needs better than your friends and family ever could. Is it worth it? Only you can answer that truthfully. Then again, you could forget that potential partner and only date someone your friends and family do approve of that may or may not completely fulfill you. If you do, and given you keep your friends and family connections intact, it could seem like an acceptable trade off. Is it worth it?
Only you can answer that truthfully. Or since you can't be with whom you really want, and you don't want to be with anyone else, you could just end up alone for the rest of your life. That way no one is happy, but no one is hurting...except for you. By putting everyone else's needs ahead of your own, you ARE hurting. It is just that it is not always easy to detect when you are being hurt since you are not in the habit of looking after your own needs. (Ouch, those a-ha moments sting don't they?)
Whether "they" are strangers on the Internet who have nothing better to do than to troll your efforts and post negative comments, or if "they" are people that actually have the power to affect your ability to provide for yourself, the process is the same. Judge if the consequences are actually worth what you are getting for it.
Over the course of time, your consequences change for certain decisions you make for yourself. The consequences of being an uneducated 19 year old, in a closed social circle, who is dependent on parents to survive is very different from the consequences you would have to deal with as an independent 35 year old adult, who owns a business, and does not care about breaking ties with close friends and family.
So do keep in mind that how much you have to care about what others think will change over your lifespan, as your dependency on others change.
One thing is for sure though. No matter what decision you take, YOU are still the one person that has to live with the full consequences of every decision you do make, and that you don't make, regardless if you cared about what other people think or not.