Feel like you’re being judged? Maybe you’re painfully aware of it or it’s hidden deeper down. Most of us know what it’s like to worry about how people see us. It starts in school but doesn’t end there. It’s a rare person who’s completely unconcerned by what others think unless they’ve done the work to change it.
In this blog I’ll look at why we’re so concerned by other peoples’ opinions. I’ll share why this can be so damaging and how I work on it with clients. And, if it’s something that’s holding you back, I’ll show you how to change it in 5 clear steps.
It’s A Fear
As humans we can fear many things – illness, death, losing our job, home or a loved one. These are ‘basic need’ fears that relate to our health, safety, security and key relationships. And, yes, we certainly struggle if we don’t have these needs met. Fearing the negative opinion of others’ isn’t a ‘basic need’ fear but sometimes it can feel like it.
It Can Be ‘Hidden’
This fear can also be hidden behind our other fears. If you fear losing your job, yes, that’s about survival. But we all know in society a job doesn’t just mean survival, it means status. Or, if your relationship were to break down you’d lose the stability of the family unit. But you might also fear how others’ will judge this ‘failure’, particularity if you have strong religious or moral views.
And it’s not just about what we have to lose, it can also affect what we have to gain. This is when it stops us pursuing what’s important to us. Whether that’s getting fit, changing jobs, setting up a business or pursuing a creative project. The fear of what others will think (and by that, I mean the fear that others will laugh at us, look down on us, or see us as weak or defective in some way) robs us of our potential. It can keep us scared, trapped and stuck.
How It Shows Up
Fear of Being Yourself & Doing What You Want
One client I worked with had a hard time battling guilt and shame over doing the things she wanted to do. I don’t mean big decisions, just how she spent her time in the evenings or what takeaway to choose when her partner asked. After doing deeper work around her early childhood (and feeling guilted and shamed for being selfish) she was able to get to grips with these choices and feel more comfortable making them. Confidence came through practice, experience and realising the people around her now wanted to know what she wanted and wouldn’t shame her for it.
After some time she returned to me. She’d had a good few years and things had improved in all areas of her life. But she was battling with a big decision – she wanted to have a child. Her partner wanted it too but the old feelings of selfishness had crept back, along with the shame and guilt.
You may or may not experience this as intensely as my client but many of us have fears around being selfish. Or, as being seen as selfish. As children we’re (usually) taught the importance of considering other people’s needs and that’s important. But it’s easy to take this to the extreme, especially if we’re trying to ‘stay safe’ and avoid potential ridicule or shaming from others. Early negative experiences stick. This blocks us on all levels as we try to live our lives whilst fearing what others think. Avoiding the risk often wins out.
Fear of Speaking up / Putting Yourself Out There
Another client I worked with was stuck in her career. She was intelligent, attractive and great with people. But she was avoiding network to find a job that suited her better. When we looked at why this was she uncomfortably owned that she feared the rejection. We did deeper work around her upbringing and the uneasy relationship she had with her father, who had his own issues around self-worth and rejection.
Fear of rejection is common. But it’s harmful if it stops us reaching out to others and creating opportunities for ourselves. Deep down my client believed that if someone rejected her (in this situation by not responding to her emails or saying they couldn’t help) then their rejection meant she was unworthy. In other words, she believed that another person’s opinion of her (even someone who didn’t know her) mattered more than her own.
Fear Of Being Forgotten
Then there was a guy I worked with in his thirties. Like most of us, he’d had a few relationships that hadn’t worked out. Only my client found he couldn’t let his ex-partners go. He’d have to stay connected to them on Facebook or meet up with them occasionally for coffee, even if they didn’t have much to talk about or connect over now. He came for counselling because his most recent ex-partner had rejected his attempts at friendship and he was struggling to handle it.
On the surface he felt abandoned but there was more to it than that. He was an independent person who’d ended most of these relationships himself. Once we dug a little deeper, we discovered his fear of being forgotten by someone who’d cared for him. For him, being forgotten felt in some way like he didn’t exist. This belief attacked his very right to be here and contradicted the truth that he did exist, whether others remembered him or not.
Why Are Other People’s Opinions So Important?
Working with all three of these clients we faced this question and I’ve done my own digging in my work on myself. As with most things human we can’t say for sure. But what we do know is we’re wired for relationship and part of that is for early survival. As infants, we’re so dependent on others to meet our needs that if we don’t bond with our parent (or caregiver) that could mean death. Once, the stakes really were that high.
We can still hold these fears, even as we grow into the independence of adulthood. The brain runs on old programme’s and if we’ve been affected by negative experiences of feeling judged or criticised by others, our mind learns to fear and avoid it. Add this to growing up in a society where we’re encouraged to judge ourselves and each other on income, the jobs we do and the cars we drive, our ‘status’ can feel like it depends on other people’s good opinions. The days of the tribe are not really over.
It can feel like a huge risk to be ourselves and disregard what others think, even if it limits us. Often we choose to live within those limits rather than face the risk of criticism, shame, rejection or just plain being ignored.
What can we do about it? A lot!
No we can’t change the opinion’s of others (and force them to see us how we want them to) but, with a bit of practice, we can change how we respond to those opinions. It takes a willingness to change your perspective and do something different. Here’s a great story I heard that shows this.
The Lady With Blue Hair
A lady, let’s call her Sam, is walking down a street and sees someone she knows. Sam greets her and her acquaintance looks at her in shock.
“What’s up?” Sam asks. “Your hair!” Her acquaintance says, pointing. “It’s blue!”
“Oh,” says Sam politely (for she’s very polite). “Thanks!”
Sam walks on thinking: “That lady’s strange. My hairs obviously brown, must be something wrong with her eyes.”
Cut to another day and another street. This time Abi’s walking along and sees and someone she knows (it may be the same person Sam saw or someone different, it doesn’t matter much).
Abi greets her acquaintance and sees the same look of shock that Sam did. She too hears; “Your hair – it’s blue!” But unlike Sam, Abi’s not as confident in the colour of her hair.
“Blue? ” she whispers, her mouth dry. Her acquaintance nods vigorously. Inside Abi’s mind’s racing and she thinks: “I knew it, my hair’s blue and now I’ve been found out!”
Needless to say, neither Sam nor Abi actually have blue hair. But Sam has the advantage of being secure in her hair colour whilst Abi doesn’t. And that makes all the difference. The comment landed on Abi’s own insecurity. Another persons words only stick if there’s part of us that secretly (or not so secretly) believes it to be true.
So, no, we can’t change the opinions of others. But that’s not as important as the opinion we have of ourselves and if they’re negative or insecure they need to (and can) be changed.
5 Steps To Change
This process is simple but not always easy. It takes courage to face your fear and determination to practice what you’re learning here. But on the other side of that lies your freedom. Take some time for this, 20 or 30 mins, more if you need it. Writing down your responses makes it easier but I’m not your mother (!) so do what works best for you.
1) Think about Something You want to do.
Improve your relationship
Change your job
Pursue something that’s important to you – a creative project etc.
That’s the easy bit. Then:-
2) Think about why it’s so important to you and all the great things that’ll come from it when you succeed.
This’ll probably be fairly easy too, if its not consider the following:-
Take yourself out of it. Imagine the benefits these changes would bring to someone else (this can help you break out of negative thoughts about yourself that stop you being able to imagine good things coming to you).
3) This is the brave step! Think about what would happen if you tried it but didn’t succeed straight away.
Write down all the criticism and negative thoughts you imagine you’ll think or someone else will say.
NB – This is just the worst case scenario. No-one’s saying it’s going to happen. All we’re doing is helping you clarify and face the hidden fears which are holding you back. So take a deep breath!
4) Switch gears. Imagine someone you care about telling you this situation had happened to them. What would you say if they’d received that criticism you wrote down above?
Take each thought you wrote and turn it around:-
I always fail = at least you tried, don’t give up, keep going.
I look stupid = you gave it a go which is more than what many other people do.
Everyone’s laughing at me = Then they’ve got nothing better to do! I’m not laughing at you. I’m believing in you. Keep going and you’ll get it next time.
Spend time on this! When you’ve finished write them or type them up and keep them handy.
This is your list of criticism killers. You’ll need to refer back to it whenever you hear (or fear) internal criticism or the criticism of others. And no, you won’t believe them at first, that’s why you need to keep them handy and practice them. If you don’t they won’t stick.
5) Take Action Towards Your Goal and Keep Your Criticism Killers handy.
This process is great for uncovering the details of your unique fears, as well as how you’ll meet them. But nothing will change unless you take action and test it out.
By taking action from this new perspective you’re inviting life to be different. If you don’t face the fear, it’ll be exactly the same.
TO SUM IT UP
This is big stuff! The exercise above can prompt some big changes and I encourage you to go for it. Understanding that fear of others’ criticism is closely linked to the fear of your own criticism, gives you something to work with and change. It puts the power back in your hands. Or are you going to believe someone when they tell you you have blue hair? (Unless you do have blue hair of course, and then its a compliment!) We could wait all day for others to change and still be disappointed.
I prefer option B – build a strong, kind and caring relationship with yourself so the judgements of others don’t stick. Because you know it’s not their opinion that matters – it’s yours.
If you’re struggling with this and need some extra help, get in touch.