How many times a day do you stop yourself from doing or saying something because you’re afraid of what someone else will think? If you actually take this question seriously and start noticing, I would bet money that you’d lose count before the day is done.
That sounds depressing (and kind of pathetic), doesn’t it? But take heart, dear reader. You are in good company. I believe that most of us, unless you were raised by super enlightened parents (or wolves), have been trained to care what people think. It’s a huge part of our cultural conditioning and not easy to shake off.
I was in my mid-forties before I realized how deeply I cared what other people thought. And the extent to which it controlled me. It took a major event—my marriage breaking apart—to help me see this.
If you ever want to come face-to-face with this one, here is the recipe for a surefire walk through hell. Take a private situation and make it public (a relationship that breaks up is a good example). Make sure it’s something that people have opinions about (e.g., Marriage should last forever. Good people stay married. Especially the ones who have children.) Choose the action that is unpopular (be the one to leave the relationship, causing separation and divorce to ensue).
When my marriage ended, the shame and guilt and remorse I felt were compounded by the fact that everywhere I turned, it seemed as if people were judging me. Close friends quickly became acquaintances. Others decided they needed to take sides. There was more than one unexpected and awkward meeting at the market or the grocery store.
It’s interesting to me now to note that at the time, I was far more focused on the friends who I felt were failing me. Likely because I was feeling so badly, it was easy to see myself reflected in that mirror. I hope that I properly thanked the few extraordinary friends who went out of their way to stay in contact with both my ex-partner and I during those early dark days. Their love and support for both of us, without taking sides in a complex situation, was profoundly important.
One day, many months in, I had a huge realization. While people’s actions seemed to indicate they were making judgements about me, I actually had no idea what was happening in the inner workings of their hearts and minds.
In a bit of a lightning bolt epiphany, I understood that I was imagining what they thought. And more than that, there was no way I could ever know the truth. Even if I cornered them in the Superstore and was bold enough to ask why they were avoiding me, they would likely make up a story to lessen the discomfort.
All of the thoughts I attributed to them were my own creation! While it was obvious that they thought and felt something, it was me that was filling in all the blanks. And I was doing so gloriously, in a very writerly fashion, with vivid, detailed dialogue. (e.g., “How could she do that? I always knew she was selfish. Completely self-absorbed. How could she inflict that kind of pain? They have a child!”)
My light bulb moment extended out. While I had no way of knowing or controlling what anyone else thought, I did have a choice. If I cared so much about what other people thought, and I could never really know what they were truly thinking (how’s that for a crazy-making situation?), then I would attribute different thoughts to them.
The next time I saw someone who I imagined was thinking I was a shithead, I said to myself: “You have no idea what they’re actually thinking. Maybe they aren’t being honest with themselves about how unhappy they are in their own relationship. Maybe their mother left their father and they get triggered when they see breakups. Maybe they secretly want to leave their marriage and they can’t right now, so seeing you sets them on edge.”
This might seem completely delusional, but for me, it worked. When I look back on it now, I see that it was a first step in actually forgiving myself for hurting the people I loved on the way to a sound decision for myself. Rather than assuming that others saw my situation as black and white and were sternly judging from some lofty place, I let myself imagine that their situations were also complex.
This small kindness I granted myself was one of my first experiences with the power of what I now call “telling a different story” or “choosing a different thought.” There is no doubt in my mind that choosing to be kinder to myself helped to quell that inner critic who wanted me to understand (with terrifying ferocity) that I had done something awful. In choosing compassion and gentleness over judgement, I began to feel better and my life began to shift.
Here’s the thing. And maybe you can apply this to your own lives and messy situations. Those negative thoughts and judgements that came into my mind had felt like the truth, but I countered them with something else which could just have easily been the truth.
So, what is true?
Is someone who leaves a marriage a home wrecker or someone who is following their heart? Is someone who supports a family and quits a lucrative job they don’t like an idiot or someone on a quest for authenticity? Is a driver who cuts you off in traffic a menace or someone simply having a bad day? If you call in sick because you need a day to recharge your batteries, are you a slacker or someone who knows how to take care of yourself?
Try it for yourself. Play with this notion of turning something that you think is “true” (about yourself or someone else) on its head. Allow yourself to have the usual thoughts and then really search for the flip side of that. What else could you tell yourself? What else might be true? And then see how you feel.