How often do you find yourself making a decision or taking an action based on what you believe others will think?
We worry what family, friends, co-workers – even complete strangers! will think of the clothes we wear, the way we cut or color our hair, what we choose to eat and drink, the car we drive, the house we live in, the friends we hang out with.
If you make a comment or a joke in a conversation, do you spend the next hour worrying if the others thought it was inappropriate, uninformed or unfunny? Do you second-guess yourself constantly because of what others might think?
Worrying what somebody else thinks about your hair, shoes or sense of humor can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. But things become downright debilitating when major life decisions are influenced or even dictated by the opinions of others. Choices about who you should date or marry, the school you select, the education you pursue and the career you choose will affect you for life. When choices like these are made in an attempt to please everybody else, you sentence yourself to a life of frustration and heartache.
It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to see what’s going on: We’re constantly seeking the approval of others because we don’t get enough approval from ourselves.
The psychology can run deep and have many origins. Perhaps we weren’t praised enough growing up. Maybe we were taught that our opinions didn’t matter. Possibly we’ve spent our lives with people who weren’t comfortable expressing positive emotions.
I specifically recall a boss early in my career who told us point blank that we were grown-ups and ought to know when we’d done it right. His job was to point out (in the loudest and most public way) when we’d screwed up.
All human behavior is an attempt to avoid pain and seek out pleasure. Since we’ve been trained to associate powerful negative and painful emotions to disapproval, we’l seek its opposite wherever we can find it.
The approval we’re seeking is just another term for connection, relevance and love. But we’ll never find it in a true, lasting and meaningful way while we look for it from everybody else. It’s an unwinnable game.
Why is it unwinnable? Why can’t you simply spend your life conforming to the preferences of others?
Imagine two different people, both of whom are close and important to you, both of whose approval you seek. Now imagine a situation in which the way one of them wants you to behave is the opposite of what the other wants? Who should you attempt to please?
Now imagine a situation in which what both of them want of you is incompatible with what you want of yourself? Who should you attempt to please?
It’s useful to ask yourself whether or not this need for approval by everyone else is serving you. Do you enjoy it? Would you prefer a different reaction from your emotions? The choice is yours.
No matter how it began, once you’ve recognized the problem, it’s easy to fix. It’s easy to blame your upbringing, but you can’t go back and change that. Fortunately, whatever you used to be and wherever you came from does not dictate where you go from here.
You simply need to love and approve of yourself so much that you don’t require the love and approval of others.
This isn’t narcissism or ego. It’s much-needed self-care in which your self-esteem and confidence are restored to their factory settings. Nor is it shutting yourself off from the world and not caring what others think or feel. It’s simply choosing what and who are important to you. It’s cutting the puppet strings from everyone who wants to manipulate you for their purposes. It’s learning to steer your life in the direction that you want to go.
First, take every possible opportunity to celebrate yourself. Pay attention through your days and catch yourself when you get it right. This actually happens more often than you think. When it does – maybe even multiple times every hour, take a second to pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Catch yourself winning at life and celebrate those wins.
Second, keep a victory log. Write down your successes at the end of each day. They don’t have to be earth-shaking. In fact, it’s the steady stream of simple victories that build a solid foundation of confidence and self-esteem. Write in your journal that you balanced your checkbook, remembered to call your mother, fit into jeans that are one size smaller, cleaned out your inbox or exercised for 30 minutes.
Third, practice a daily “mirror exercise.” Before going to bed stand in front of a mirror, look yourself in the eyes and spend at least three minutes appreciating yourself, out loud, for everything you’ve accomplished during the day. Appreciate your achievements, the disciplines you maintained, the temptations you resisted. Maintain eye contact with yourself through the exercise. When you’re finished, continue to look deeply into your own eyes and say, “I love you (your name).” Then stand still for a few more moments to let the love sink in. This is guaranteed to feel beyond weird at first, but I guarantee that if you stick with it for at least 10 days you’ll feel an incredible transformation in your self-esteem.
Finally, sit quietly for a few minutes once a day and ask your heart what it wants to do, how it wants to dress, what career it wants to seek. Just for a moment, filter out the opinions of anyone else and ask what you would choose if there was no one else around to judge you. Carry the answers that your heart provides around with you. Reflect on them regularly and slowly you’ll begin to really feel and understand, in the depths of your soul, that the only person’s opinion that matters is your own
There’s a scene in the 1995 James Bond film, Goldeneye, with Pierce Brosnan as the iconic British spy, in which Bond is under attack and taking cover behind a concrete pillar. A bullet hits the pillar mere inches from his face and he nonchalantly cocks his head away from the impact without so much as a flinch.
In another scene he’s driving a stolen tank while chasing the bad guys through the streets of St. Petersburg. After he smashes through yet another building, he coolly takes a moment to straighten his tie.
Although the majority of superheroes have always, and rather chauvinistically, been men, we can also count on Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Captain Marvel, Black Widow and others to save us in a jam.
But whether it’s Chris Evans as Captain America or Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, our culture has created a conception of fearlessness that is all about guts and glory. The kick ass hero who’s afraid of nothing and no one and will run into a burning building to save a kitten and then humbly deflect any adulation as they head off into the sunset.
Our heroes are impregnable. Bullets bounce off them, they never stay down and, aside from the occasional rip in their leotards, they never even get cut or scratched. Once in a while their creator will give them one small flaw, just to make the story line more interesting. But we always know who’s going to win in the end.
None of these characters could ever be real because they’re missing a key trait that makes us all human – vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to know that things might not turn out all right, but to go ahead and dive in anyway. And that is living fearlessly.
Living fearlessly isn’t about being afraid of nothing. It’s about having the courage to be crap-your-pants scared, but choosing to go ahead and try it anyway.
Why on earth would we go ahead and try it anyway? Because to stay where we are has become unbearably painful. And because the place where we might end up could be glorious.
In contrast to those action heroes who always defeat the bad guy who comes from somewhere else, our kryptonite lies inside us. We carry it around with us every day. The things we’re most afraid of aren’t out there in the world, they’re inside our heads.
They are the beliefs we hold about what we can and can’t do. Our thoughts about our limitations. The fears we carry around about what others think of us. Our fears that we don’t measure up, that we’re somehow not good enough
That’s why superheroes are so appealing. They’re everything we wish we could be so we live vicariously through them.
The fears we run from have nothing to do with aliens or evil villains. Instead, we’re afraid to say “I’m sorry” to someone we’ve hurt, to open our heart to a new love, to listen openly to a different point of view, to admit that we were wrong.
If Spider-Man ran away and hid under a rock, it would be pretty obvious. But our fears are easy to hide. You can easily go about your day without anyone ever knowing that you’re afraid to apply for that promotion and risk being turned down. It’s easy to pretend that your relationship with your kids is just fine or that you’re not really reliant on pain killers.
But you know. And in the middle of the night, those demons that have been haunting you come back to remind you of what you could be if you were willing to try.
Deciding that you’re finally going to stare those demons down is living fearlessly.
Sitting down to begin that novel you’ve had in your heart forever is living fearlessly.
Quitting that soul-crushing job without another lined up is living fearlessly.
Starting that side-hustle business before you’re ready is living fearlessly.
Walking away from that dead-end relationship is living fearlessly.
Moving alone to that new city is living fearlessly.
Sitting down to have that tough conversation is living fearlessly.
Allowing yourself to fall in love and risk getting your ass kicked by it is living fearlessly.
Only you know what living fearlessly specifically means for you.
As long as we refuse to confront those fears our lives will always be less than they could be. As long as we put the hard stuff off till Someday we’ll be looking back at what we could have been, could have done, could have had.
Action heroes never doubt that they will succeed. Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Matt Damon, Daniel Craig… The characters they play aren’t actually fearless. Because they always have bigger guns, thicker armor, better aim or cooler gadgets, their outcomes are always certain. There’s nothing for them to fear.
But our outcomes don’t have those guarantees. Which, when you’re willing to risk that emotional, financial, spiritual and social uncertainty, makes you far braver than any superhero.
True fearlessness is not about kicking ass and taking names. It’s about accepting and embracing our humanness, our vulnerability and our exposure to risk. And doing the scary thing anyway.
Brené Brown is a professor, lecturer and researcher at the University of Texas who studies the concepts of courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. In her book, Daring Greatly, she describes vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” We know it as that stressful feeling that comes when we step out of our comfort zone, knowing that we may not be able to control the outcomes.
It takes tremendous courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be emotionally open, to admit that you don’t know everything, that you were wrong. We all feel the fear. The difference is in how we decide to act in the face of it.
But here’s the payoff: When we do eventually face our fears – which we always will – we invariably discover that we’re made of far superior stuff than we ever imagined
If you were paying attention in 10th Grade physics, and if your memory goes back that far, you may remember a little experiment with tuning forks.
If you recall, a tuning fork is a little metal thingy that looks like a two-pronged fork. When you strike it, it vibrates, emitting a musical tone that’s unique to the size and shape of the fork. A fork that is tuned to sound the note of A, or 440 Hz, can only ever emit an A.
The experiment needed two tuning forks tuned to the same note. When the science teacher struck one of them and it began to vibrate, the other fork, located some distance away, would start to vibrate and emit its note too.
What we’re hearing is a phenomenon called sympathetic vibration or resonance. When the first fork is struck, its vibration sends energy waves outward. Because it’s tuned to the same vibrational frequency, the energy waves resonate with the second fork and it begins to vibrate as well. This is the trick behind the opera singer who can shatter a wine glass with her voice.
Now let’s move on to some advanced physics. (Stay with me, I promise that this is going somewhere!)
Since the late 1800s, and most famously by Albert Einstein, scientists have been learning about quantum physics, the structure and behavior of the tiniest particles in the universe. Among the discoveries are two remarkable notions.
First, the smaller the particles get, the less and less ‘stuff’ is actually there. In other words, what we see, touch and think of as ‘matter,’ the hard stuff of the world is, at its most fundamental level, nothing but energy. When we look at the tiniest ‘things’ through the most powerful microscopes, we discover there are no ‘things’ at all, just vibrating energy.
Second, as scientists experiment with these most minute particles, the results of those experiments actually depend on their expectations. Odd as it may seem, if a researcher expects one result, she gets it. If she expects something different, she gets that. The researcher’s thoughts and intentions truly do influence the experimental outcome.
Researchers are concluding that, like the vibrations of the tuning fork, our thoughts are actually a form of vibrational energy that go out and resonate with other thoughts. Additionally, since everything in the universe is also nothing but vibrating energy, our thoughts also resonate with things that match their frequency. This is the basis of what you’ve likely heard of as the Law of Attraction.
This concept states that, because of their vibrational nature, your thoughts have the power to attract similar thoughts and even events and circumstances that match your thoughts. In other words, if you spend all your time thinking that bad things are going to happen to you, you’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s been said that worry is using your mental energy to create a future that you don’t want. If you spend an inordinate amount of time worrying – about money, about love, about your health – it’s extremely likely that your worry is actually bringing those fears into your life. Rather than helping you find solutions, anxiety is making the problem worse.
There are two sides to every anxious thought – the aspect of it that you want and that which you don’t want.
I DO want to be slim and healthy.
I DON’T want to be overweight and sick.
While your brain might be thinking about the “I DO…” or the “I DON’T…” and assuming that those are the significant parts of those statements, your subconscious and your vibrating thoughts are focused on either “slim and healthy” or “overweight and sick.”
Try it for yourself: Close your eyes and focus on the thought, “I DON’T want to be overweight and sick.” Notice the subtle feelings that you evoke. They’re likely feelings of fear and aversion and you can’t help having images of oversized clothes, doctor visits and low energy.
Now close your eyes again and focus on the thought, “I DO want to be slim and healthy.” Again, notice how different this thought feels than the previous one. It feels uplifting, happy, lighthearted and even joyous. The images in your mind are about healthy eating, an active lifestyle and high energy.
Because the emotions you experience are the actual vibrations that your thoughts have generated, both your Reticular Activating System and the law of attraction resonate far more intensely to the feelings than they do to the conscious thoughts. And both will work to bring you closer to the thing that you spend most of your time and mental energy focusing on.
The beauty of both is also that, once we’ve learned how they work, we can use them to our advantage. Rather than using your worry and anxiety to create a future that you don’t want, why not turn it around and use your optimism and hope to create the future that you DO want?
In 1837, Hans Christian Anderson published what has since become a classic in children’s fairy tales, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’
In case it’s been a while since you’ve heard it, the story tells of two crooks who arrive at the court of a vain emperor. Posing as tailors, they offer to make him a magnificent set of clothes of magical cloth that they claim is completely invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. Thinking that he’ll be able to identify those who aren’t up to his intellectual standards, the emperor hires the con artists at great cost. While they pretend to work the emperor and his officials visit to check on the progress. They each see that the looms are empty but pretend to admire the beautiful cloth to avoid being thought of as a fool. When the tailors declare the clothes complete, they pretend to dress him and he sets off on a procession through the city. The citizens, also not wanting to appears as fools, feign admiration until a guileless child blurts out that the emperor is, indeed, naked.
There’s a term in social psychology that describes this kind of herd mentality. ‘Pluralistic ignorance’ means that everybody’s going along with an idea, not because it’s true or even makes sense, but simply because everyone else is. In other words, it’s normal, so it must be true and it must be okay.
The dictionary defines ‘normal’ as meaning usual, typical or expected. Since worry and anxiety are everywhere, everyone experiences them and no one questions them, worry and anxiety must, by definition, be normal.
But there’s a big difference between ‘normal’ and ‘useful’ or ‘desirable.’ There’s also a big difference between ‘normal’ and ‘unavoidable.’
You see, obesity is also normal. As are racial profiling, underfunded schools and potholes in the roads. But in each of these cases we recognize that we’d be better off without them and good people are working hard to make them abnormal, if not altogether extinct.
As much as they might be normal, anxiety and worry are neither desirable nor unavoidable and we’d be much better off without them.
Humans are hard-wired to respond to dangerous situations. It’s called a negativity bias and it evolved over millions of years. When we were wandering around in the same neighborhood as hungry saber tooth tigers, we were well served by a brain that made us notice, and respond to danger.
The incidents of imminent danger in our lives today, though, are incredibly rare. The saber tooth tigers are long gone so now, instead of a charging mastodon, our negativity bias alerts us to the insulting Facebook post or the (extremely remote) possibility of a bad medical diagnosis.
Where fear is a useful response to real and present danger, worry and anxiety are responses to threats that are neither immediate nor well defined. Social status, partisan politics and your finances in retirement are much more vague, distant and hard to comprehend than a fast-approaching bus. In fact most of the threats you perceive are only imagined.
Yet our bodies can’t tell the difference between a threat that is real and imminent and one that’s merely an illusion. Our systems are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, our bodies go on high alert, muscles tighten, breathing increases, heart rate goes up and we’re ready to take on the attacking barbarians. Even if they are only imagined.
If that ‘code red’ status lasts too long, nasty things begin to happen. Too much cortisol compromises your immune system, making you more susceptible to disease. Sustained anxiety has been linked to diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, panic attacks, hyperventilation, gastrointestinal problems, depression, headaches, irritability, muscle aches and loss of sex drive.
Whether you’re worrying about money, other people’s opinions of you or that mole on your arm, sustained worry and anxiety can not only make you sick, they can kill you.
Just like the emperor, strutting butt naked down the street, we’ve all been duped into believing that we’re supposed to worry. Throughout our lives we’ve been trained and conditioned to be anxious. Our parents, teachers, coaches and the entire world around us frets, so it must be the thing to do. It’s a time- honored practice that’s been going on for so long it’s become an unconscious habit.
Since no one ever questions the wisdom or usefulness of worrying, we assume it’s both normal AND natural.
When we do question the wisdom and usefulness of worrying we discover that it’s neither wise nor useful. In fact there are four major drawbacks to anxiety: 1) It feels awful, 2) it accomplishes nothing, 3) it makes us sick, and 4) it blocks our innate human potential. Four great reasons to let it go.
While our biology may date back millions of years, our intelligence has grown exponentially. When we discover that a behavior no longer serves us we have the ability to change it. Since there are no advantages to chronic anxiety, the wise person would conclude that they’re better off without it.
To gain control over and ultimately kick the worry habit completely the first step is to become consciously aware of our anxiety. We need to observe ourselves in the act of worrying.
This process of learning to become aware of when we’re worrying and then identifying the fear that lies behind the worry, teaches us to pull the worrying habit back out of our subconscious, daily ‘normal’ and into the realm of ‘front-of-mind.’
Once we’ve witnessed ourselves admiring the emperor’s non-existent clothes, it becomes much easier to establish a whole new, much healthier ‘normal.
Richard Bentall is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Sheffield in the UK. In 1992, while at Liverpool University, he published a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics titled, ‘A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder.’
His argument, although satirical, is that a psychiatric disorder is “a statistically abnormal psychological phenomenon that is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities.” In other words, it ain’t normal. So it’s a disorder.
Fortunately, Bentall was being ironic. But It doesn’t take much looking around to conclude that happiness is anything but normal. Listen in on most casual conversations and the prevailing theme is blame and complain.
Of course there’s much to complain about in the world and people who are chronically happy just can’t seem to understand that. Their cognitive ability to assess how bad things are is out of whack. As Bentall wrote, “It has been shown that happy people, in comparison with people who are miserable or depressed, are impaired when retrieving negative events from long term memory.” Research has also shown that happy people have inaccurate cognitive biases, such as overestimating their control over the environment.
Bentall concludes that “the unrealism of happy people [is] surely clear evidence that such people should be regarded as psychiatrically disordered.”
The bottom line: if you’re chronically happy, you’re weird.
Well please count me among the weird kids! And I invite you to join us as we OD on serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins.
Although the word chronic simply means “continuing for a long time,” it always implies there’s something awful going on: a chronic liar, a chronic state of civil war, chronic indigestion.
So let’s embrace our weirdness and repurpose it. Let’s use it to describe a quality that you’d love to have and cultivate. A quality that, if you were experiencing it every moment of every day, life would be a constant joy ride.
Happiness comes from feeling good about yourself and your situation. Since we can’t always control the situation (can you say COVID-19?) let’s focus on feeling good about yourself. Which we call self-esteem.
Nathaniel Branden was a psychotherapist and writer known for his work in the psychology of self-esteem. He said that self-esteem is “the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.”
Did you catch that? “Worthy of happiness.”
Just like every other human being in the world, whether you believe it in this moment or not, you are worthy of happiness. But, because it’s so unusual, it takes courage to claim your joy. You’re bucking the norm, swimming upstream and telling societal norms to take a flying leap.
Which is an act of fearlessness.
It takes courage, but it also takes practice to be chronically happy. And it requires that you break the mold that we’re all rammed into. The mold that tries to convince us that the world is brutish, that people are nasty and self-centered at heart and life is nothing but hard.
Of course there’s crap in your life. Anyone who pretends there isn’t is naïve. But when your 24/7 (or even 23/6) focus is on the crap, it comes to define your life. So yes, deal with the nasty stuff. Then instantly return your focus to all the joyous aspects of your life.
Happiness is a fearless decision about focus. The psychiatrically disordered, yet chronically happy person courageously chooses to spend most of their time focusing on what’s working, what feels good, the things that are going well.
As a result, they simply feel better and more confident than those who don’t. Feeling better and more confident, they’re more able to cope and are quicker to recover when the storms hit.
You can become one of the weird kids by making a conscious decision, regardless of circumstances, to simply choose happiness. To focus on those things that make you smile. Those things that are working. The people, the events and the circumstances in your life that please you.
When was the last time you felt truly happy and joyous for an extended period of time? When was the last time you were able to maintain your happiness even as it all hit the fan?
I dare you to demand the chronic happiness of which you are worthy. Do you have the courage?