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