It is a common and relatable experience to care what other people think about us. It’s also totally normal. As humans, we are social creatures that depend upon others to survive and thrive, and it makes sense that we want people to like us, to think kindly of us, to fully accept us, and to want to support us.
In other words, we would love to live in a world where we do our best and other people support us in our efforts, accepting us completely while acknowledging our unique triumphs and challenges. We would love for people to look at us when we walk into a room and say, “I’m happy you’re here.”
Anxiety and depression often, but not always, involve caring deeply about what other people think of us and anticipating a negative evaluation. When we anticipate being embarrassed, ashamed, rejected, ignored, or scolded when around others, we exert a lot of effort trying to control how we appear, what we do, or what we say.
Some of us have experienced feeling disconnected from our families, caregivers, or friends, and this is very painful. Depending on when and how often this occurred, we might come to blame ourselves for the lack of feeling connected or bonded. We might have the experience of deeply caring what others think about us, but also feeling like we have done something wrong to cause a feeling of disconnection.
I used to care a lot about what others thought of me. I still do, but it’s different now. I don’t try to change my behavior for others or spend as much time worrying about what they could be thinking, but I do care. I think it’s a very human thing to care.
Before, I would notice that I was feeling anxious, nervous, tense, and fearful prior to being in a situation where I could be evaluated – situations at work, social events, and speaking in groups, were all situations that would drum up immediate fear and trepidation. My heart would beat ferociously as I tried my best to offer inner consolatory pats on the back which would fail to provide any semblance of comfort.
“If only I didn’t care so much what others think of me, I wouldn’t be so anxious,” I thought. I struggled for many years to stop caring about what others thought. I tried convincing myself that it didn’t matter if people thought I was good or bad, likable or annoying, and it just mattered that I tried and did my best.
I would find some sort of relief in this, coming to the conclusion that the only thing I can ever be really sure about is how I feel about myself. But no form of relief would ever stick, and I would find myself again and again in situations that brought up this same fear and discomfort.
Experiencing the same fear over and over, I started getting frustrated. How do I stop caring what others think once and for all? Why do people make it sound so easy? How come I can’t just tell myself to stop?
One day, I realized that it was impossible for me not to care, and I started to accept myself for wanting to make a good impression. I started to see that what I wanted more than anything was actually for someone to give me positive feedback and tell me that they really cared about me and thought I was doing a great job. Even if I wasn’t doing a great job, I wanted someone to tell me that they could see I was trying really hard and wanted to help me be successful.
I started to imagine what it would feel like if I could simply know deep down that everyone really cared about me and wanted me to do well. Even though this was an interesting thought experiment, it was also difficult because I couldn’t help but fixate on past experiences and how they seemed to “prove” that people really did hold negative evaluations of me.
So then I began to imagine what it would feel like if I could simply know that there was a large group of people in existence, somewhere in the universe, that really loved and supported me. These people deeply and completely supported and cared about me. They were as happy to see me as a dog is when greeting his owner.
Every time a worried thought came into my mind, a concern about another person’s evaluation of me, I would go back to this large group of people and imagine what it would feel like to be in their presence. I tried to really notice how my body felt to imagine this, how it felt reassured and relaxed, and little by little my anxiety became less and less.
It’s okay that we care what other people think about us. We live in society, we are human, and it feels good to be bonded to others. Rather than trying not to care what other people think about us, we can accept that it’s natural to care, and that beyond praise or accolades, what we really want is to be accepted, seen, and inherently valued. When we practice tapping into this experience through visualization, we can actually make ourselves feel better and feel more confident about moving about in the world.
If you notice that you have a lot of fears about what others think about you, it is likely something that impacts your mood and relationships. It’s always helpful to speak to a therapist in this case, and you can also answer the questions below to gain more insight and to practice feeling better:
- If I walk into a room full of ____________ (friends, coworkers, family, etc.), what do I believe they are thinking about me?
- Knowing this, does it make sense that I would feel __________ (anxious, depressed, angry, fearful, etc.)?
- How would it feel to walk into a room full of people who deeply valued and accepted me and were happy to see me?
- Knowing this feeling, can I revisit it every day, and especially when I am worried or upset about what other people think?
- Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW
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