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Ways of Seeing: Other people’s opinions about you don’t really matter

My hairdresser passed on to me a bit of wisdom she had learned from a television talk show with the psychologist Dr. Phil: “If you’re worried about what other people think of you, don’t, because they aren’t.”
(For the record, here is the quote from Philip McGraw I found on Google afterward: “You wouldn’t worry so much about what other people thought about you if you knew how seldom they did.”)
My hairdresser must be a receptive and adaptable person (or Dr. Phil is an amazing psychologist): She claimed that watching this TV show had cured her of her tendency to obsess about other people’s views of her. When she finds herself preoccupied by what other people think, she quotes Dr. Phil, lets go of her worry, and goes back to snipping hair or changing her baby’s diaper. I was impressed!
Her initial complaint — that she was way too anxious about other people’s opinions — is a common one. I hear the same thing from many college students, but also from middle-aged people, men and women, who sometimes call themselves “people pleasers.” They don’t like the amount of time they spend worrying about other people’s impressions of their character, their motives, their performance. Sometimes they’ll break their own backs to spare someone else a bit of strain. Their efforts are motivated in part by genuine concern for other people, but at bottom, they say, they are bending over backwards to be seen as a good person.
They have a lot of company. Whether or not this particular anxiety rules our lives, most of us can identify occasions when we have focused overmuch on our appearance, or making an impression, or how we want other people to feel about us, or what we imagine are other peoples’ needs — so much so that we lose track of what we ourselves are thinking and feeling, and what we actually want in a given situation. At times, seeing reflections of ourselves in other people’s eyes may become more exciting and more important than making choices or experiencing our own desires.
When that happens — when we fail to consider our own feelings and desires — we become vulnerable to all kinds of self-deception. We may think we are noble because we sacrifice so much, when really we are driven by our wish to be seen in a good light. We may come to feel a slave to another person’s needs, when really we have failed to make our own needs known. In conversations, we may ingratiate, flatter or subtly skew information, without recognizing our efforts to control.
And the worst of it is, even when we get what we think we want — a smile or a compliment, even a ringing endorsement — the happy buzz only lasts a little while. If we are addicted to other people’s approval, praise only adds fuel to the fire.
Because, in the end, no one else has the power to confer a lasting approval and make us feel that at bottom we are really and truly worthy. No one else can do that kind of work for us — self-acceptance can’t be outsourced.
Of course we all benefit from other people’s true respect, and when it is not motivated by helplessness, obligation, or impression-management, a desire for approval can be a sign of our respect for others. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with pleasing other people when we do it because we really want to: That’s just giving and receiving love.
It takes commitment to break an addiction to approval. The hardest part may be recognizing and accepting our own motivations, and practicing the art of self-compassion — learning to give to ourselves what we’ve tried to get from other people. It also involves tolerating the anxiety that comes from speaking up when you disagree, saying no when you want to say no, and being yourself in the presence of others who may be judgmental about the kind of person that you are.
But if we have a base of self-acceptance and we follow our own desires, we may find that our relationships become more authentic, deeper, and more vital — an experience so life-affirming that it needs no approval from anyone.
Devon Jersild, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Weybridge.

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