Many of my patients feel bad for worrying so much about what others think of them. They believe that this makes them a weak person. But the reality is that there are good reasons for caring what others think.
To begin with, people are social by nature. Being aware of others’ reactions provides you with information about the state of your relationships. You know if you have offended, or endeared yourself, to people. Caring about those connections inherently involves caring about what those people think. You may be willing to accept upsetting someone important to you, but you will ultimately want to reconcile or transcend a particular problem. So, caring about what they think can help you navigate and maintain valued relationships.
Even the most independent person is significantly affected by others’ reactions to them. This begins early in life, as people learn who they are through the eyes of others. Children don’t come into this world with a fully formed sense of themselves and other people, but rather develop this as their experiences in the world accumulate. They learn to see themselves as they perceive that significant others (such as their parents) see them.
People who develop a negative self-image may need frequent reassurance that they are okay people. Others with a more positive self-image may only need assurance during difficult times that trigger them to doubt themselves. Then there are the fortunate people who have an uncanny ability to feel self-assured in even the most difficult circumstances. They can reach inside for their reassurance – but even this is usually based on early experiences in the world that gave them a solid sense of themselves. But it’s important to note that even these people care about what others think of them; they just don’t let it dominate their self-perceptions.
The real problem with caring what others think of you comes when you are more concerned with their reactions than your own self-assessment; or even worse, you don’t know what you think because you are so eager to please others. In any given situation, it’s important for you to know your own mind. If you don’t, then it’s important to begin spending some time reflecting on your experiences, thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs.
Another way to think about whether what others think “should” matter is to consider the alternative. What if you didn’t care about what other people thought of you? What if you did whatever you wanted regardless of how it affected others? Your friends would probably feel like you don’t care about them. You may also have trouble at work, especially if your job involves interacting with people. Whether you are a waitress, banker, or teacher, your work would probably suffer.
The ultimate truth is that is absolutely okay – even beneficial – to be aware of and care about others’ reactions to you … so long as you don’t lose sight of yourself. But if you think you do place too much value trying to please others, then it’s time to turn the focus on strengthening your sense of self.
Entries for the Relationships blog are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.