How to care less about what people think
Reading time: 6 minutes 10 seconds
You’re sitting in a dimly lit room, playing a computer game called Cyberball. You’re hooked up to an FMRI machine which measures your brain activity. The game is pretty much like playing ‘catch’ online. There are two other players. You all catch and throw to each other.
All of a sudden, you find yourself excluded. The two others are playing amongst themselves and ignoring you. Your heart beats faster, and you start to feel unusually anxious. What’s the big deal? It’s just a stupid computer game.
To understand why we feel so bad in such a situation, we have to go back tens of thousands of years. Our evolutionary history is one of tribal conflicts.
To survive in the hunter-gatherer days, being strong was not enough. You had to have a tribe you were part of. If you didn’t, you were significantly more likely to die. Safety in numbers.
‘The Cyberball study’ was a real experiment conducted by Kipling D. Williams and colleagues in the early 2000s. The most fascinating finding was that one of the brain areas that lit up when subjects experienced the feeling of being excluded was the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).
The ACC is also activated when we experience physical pain. Researchers therefore suggested that there is an overlap between physical and social pain.
The pain of social rejection
Rejection hurts. Exclusion hurts. Whether we like it or not, we care about what people think. We are social creatures, and the rare few who seem not to care about what other people think don’t seem to have gotten there from taking positive thinking classes. Instead, the story they tell themselves about what other people believe allows them to feel okay.
This new way of thinking is particularly important in a world where your ‘personal brand’ matters a lot. The size of your online audience can often influence your income. The tricky thing is that as you get more popular, what comes with that is the appearance of more and more trolls.
The more love you get; the more hate you get. The more people who insult you on the internet; the more successful you are probably are.
The key here is to realize that how you think about what people say or think about you matters so much more than their words. Some books can help with this.
In the book ‘The Courage to be Disliked’ by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga, the work of psychologist Alfred Adler is explored through a conversation between a young man and a philosopher.
The key takeaways suggest that we need to stop taking responsibility for other people’s emotions, and unhappiness often comes from the need to get recognition from others. While we need to be connected to a community, this does not mean we have to be liked by everyone.
Another more recent book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” by Mark Manson, became a runaway bestseller in 2016. While it is a terrific book, it would be a mistake not to give some credit to the power of its title. It resonates. A lot. Because we all know that there are too many things we care far too much about.
We know we only have so many things that we can care about, so we want to care less about the things that don’t really matter.
How to care less
So, given how wired we are to care about other people’s opinions, what are some ways to change how we feel? How do we care less? Here are some ideas:
1. Care about how they feel, not what they think.
Sometimes people go too far when they are trying not to care about what others think. They do what they can to shock others, or they act selfishly and hide behind the excuse of ‘boundaries.’ The truth is that while boundaries are important, it’s critical not to lose sight of how you make other people feel.
It’s important that we are aware of the impact we can have on their emotions and do what we can to avoid deliberately making them feel bad. That also doesn’t mean that we need to bend to their will in case they think badly of us. Care about their feelings but not their every thought.
2. It’s not about you. Literally.
In an interview with Michael Lewis, former president Barack Obama was once quoted as saying,
“One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama. That’s not you. Whether it is good or bad, it is not you.”
One of the ways to help you care less about what other people think about you is to realize that they don’t actually know you, really. People tell themselves a story about who they think you are. There’s often little you can do to change that story, as they have a vested interest in proving themselves correct.
As a result, you just have to accept it. When you take the criticism or negative remarks as remarks about this third-person version of you, it stings a lot less.
3. Stop giving them false authority.
The false authority effect is how I describe this tendency we have to give people credibility in some area when they don’t deserve it. If your parent doesn’t think you’ll ever be good at something, that doesn’t mean they are correct. They are not a physic or the world’s leading expert in your potential. They have an opinion. That’s all. It’s just an opinion.
It’s a great idea to ask yourself how much authority and credibility in this space the speaker actually has. What credentials have they? How likely are their predictions to be correct? How does their previous level of success influence how accurately they can make this observation?
4. Remember your tribe. Seek other perspectives.
For every person you feel judged by or hurt by, there are many more who care about you. Remind yourself of the people who think wonderfully of you and what they think of you. You’ll never have everyone liking you, no matter what you do. You need to focus on the people that actually matter.
You do need to have a tribe or community for your well-being, but you don’t need everyone in it to like you. It’s also not realistic to be liked by everyone. Sometimes the very same qualities that make you likable to one person make you disliked by another.
Whenever we focus on someone’s opinion, we fail to place our attention on everyone else’s opinion. It’s important not to fall for the trap of obsessing about what one person thinks. Instead, consider who else might have a better and smarter read on things than them.
5. Ask yourself, ‘How much do you care?’
One important strategy to practice is to ask yourself, ‘How much do you actually care about what that person has to say on a scale of 0 to 10?’ When you do this, you soon realize that you don’t care nearly as much as you think.
You can make this work even better by asking why you do not care more about it and notice all of the reasons you come up with as to why their opinion doesn’t really matter.
Often, we fall into the trap of feeling bad because it’s an automatic reaction we have to not being liked by someone. Fundamentally, them liking you not only has no impact on your life, it also isn’t really based on anything to do with you.
These suggestions can really help you let go of the need for everyone to like you.
Letting go and moving forward
Even in a simple psychological experiment, feeling left out can hurt. We construct the worlds we live in within a network of other human beings. We spend a lot of our time thinking about how other people think about us when the truth is, we will never really know.
All we can do is make a guess and try and predict our behaviors towards them accordingly.
If you want to be really successful in life, you absolutely must let go of the need to make everyone like you. If you don’t, you will be forever limiting yourself within the confines of their expectations of you.
When I was young, I remember arguing with my Mom about something I wanted to do. To win the argument, I tried the line ‘All of my friends are doing it.’ She responded, “If all of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you follow?” Touché!
Sometimes, we have to stay on the cliff and take the path alone back down. It’s better than the alternative.
P.S. ‘Why people fall for stuff (and how not to)’ is my latest Changing Minds podcast episode – you can listen and watch it here.