Not Giving a F**k: A 2-Step Approach to Stop Worrying What Others Think Of You
If you can let go of your identity, then all fear disappears.
I am not the perfect person to write this article. I don’t know if there is a perfect person, but there are still many times when I care what people think about me.
And by “many times”, I mean many times per day.
However, those times are many fewer than they were a couple years ago, and when they happen, I now notice quickly and move on, usually not letting it affect me or my life very much.
So yeah, I’m not the perfect person to write this article. But you should read on anyway, because it’s important enough.
First, a quick story…
My Friend, Who Cared Too Much
In high school, my friend John was the most popular guy in my little social circle. He was unpredictable, funny, and would do/say things that the rest of us would be way too embarrassed to do. John would say whatever came to mind, he’d play pranks on everybody (including adults in positions of authority), and he was completely oblivious to both the consequences and also what other people thought about him.
(What I didn’t realize at the time was that John was quite unstable and was acting out for attention, but that’s a story for another time).
Mark – one of my other friends – was way more reserved. He was super smart, very nice, and fairly funny when he was in a small group of friends. But in almost any other situation, he was also super-shy.
I remember riding in a car one time with Mark, and he commented how he wished that he could act more like John. He was tired of worrying and thinking twice before he said or did anything. He felt like John lived much more freely and effortlessly by doing and saying whatever came to mind.
I’m not sure if Mark ever stopped worrying as much – I don’t think so – but that was the first time in my life that I remember seriously thinking about how much I cared about what other people thought. And I definitely remember thinking that I was probably closer to Mark than I was to John.
Even at 16 years old, I knew I shouldn’t care so much…
You Already Know That You Shouldn’t Care What Others Think of You…
I’ve never met anyone who thought they should care more about what other people thought of them. And I doubt you believe that either. You already know that you should care less.
So unlike a lot of other articles on this topic, I’m not going to spend any time telling you why you should care less.
But caring less about what other people think of you is NOT the same as not caring about them at all. You can still love and care about people. You can even act in ways that you believe will make them happy.
But when you don’t care what other people think about you, you can start acting from a place of love rather than from a place of fear. And there’s a huge difference. In one case, you’re acting to protect yourself from embarrassment or other bad thoughts, and in the other case, you’re acting to benefit someone else.
And one other point: EVERYBODY cares about what other people think of them for pretty much their whole life. So you’re neither unique nor unusual. You could argue that it’s a matter of how much you care, but in the end, everybody cares a lot – some people just manage to hide it more than others.
In actuality, people don’t really think about you very often. Even your parents and spouse think about you less than you imagine. They care, but they’ve got a million other thoughts running through their heads.
On the other hand, people do judge you. And there’s pretty much nothing you can do about that.
Living your life according to other folks’ expectations and judgments isn’t very much fun. It makes you feel unfulfilled, unhappy, and – in the end – bitter and angry, even if you don’t yet realize it.
When you care what others think of you, it stops you from doing what you want and what you need. You get in your own way and don’t do the things that you otherwise would. And as you’ve likely heard, people on their deathbed almost never regret the things they did during their lives. They usually regret what they didn’t do.
I don’t need to tell you that caring what other people think is holding you back, because deep down, you’ve known it all your life. However…
It’s HARD to Not Care What Other People Think About You
Obviously, even though you know that you shouldn’t care, you still do care.
And if knowledge alone were enough, then you’d never see anyone cheat on a diet. The problem is that our brains don’t necessarily care what we know, especially when it comes to fear.
If you search around for tips on how to stop caring about what other people think, the advice is generally terrible. Here’s a short list that I came up with after 10 minutes of research:
Acknowledge that External Validation is a Bad Habit
Don’t Take Things Personally
Enjoy Your Individuality
Remember: People Will Think What They’ll Think
Remember That You Can’t Please Everyone
Know Your Values
Really, that’s some of the worst advice you could get or give.
The problem with all of that advice is that each suggestion is a matter of changing your mindset. And your mindset is already driven by the fear of what other people think about you. It’s like telling you to stop caring what others think so that you won’t care as much.
For instance, it’s a nice goal to not react to what others might think about you. But that’s the issue to begin with. You’re already scared about what other people think, so not reacting (or not taking things personally) is pretty much impossible. Otherwise, you would have already done it.
What you need is both a practical and a complete solution (and I’ll offer suggestions for both below).
Why Do You Care At All About What Other Folks Think?
The primary reason that you care what others think of you is because of fear and shame. You’re afraid that you’ll look bad in some way (embarrassed, silly, dumb, fat, etc.). It’s always something about yourself that makes you afraid of what other people think, because you don’t feel perfect or good enough in some way.
And worrying about what other people think is an evolutionary trait. It starts when we’re babies, and we draw most our emotions from the people around us. So it’s something that you’re born with (just not to the same degree).
Your ancestors worried about what others thought because it helped to protect them. Back when we were hunter-gatherers, if you did something really bad that ostracized you from your small group or tribe, then you were on your own in a very dangerous world. And being on your own pretty much meant death. There was nothing worse than being ostracized.
So feeling like you’re being ostracized creates a very strong fear and a strong motivation to do things that will please others. In fact, being “rejected” causes a pain that is almost the same as a strong physical pain.
This aspect of evolution, though, doesn’t necessarily serve us well in our modern lives. It might help keep us alive, but it doesn’t make us successful, happy, or content.
How to Stop Caring About What Other People Think About You
Getting over this fear pays off in every possible way. You’ll be more successful, happier, and eventually more at peace if you’re able to stop caring what other people think. And even if you just care less, then everything gets easier and better.
There are generally 2 approaches you can take. You should do them both, because the first approach will get you quicker results, but it has a limit to how much it can help you.
Here’s how to get started…
Approach #1: Start Acting Like You Don’t Care (Systematic Desensitization)
The first way to start caring less about what others think of you is to act like you care very little (or not at all).
Step 1a: Confront Your Small Fears. In order to act like you care very little, you need to start out with things you’re afraid of – but not too afraid of.
You don’t need to go skydiving or eat a tarantula. And you definitely don’t need to do highly dangerous activities.
But you do need to start conditioning your brain to understand that your fears are generally neither real or scary.
If you haven’t read it, Julien Smith wrote an excellent book called “The Flinch.” I’m a big fan. (You can get it here for Kindle, but it’s also available as a free PDF various places on the internet.) In his book, Smith talks about how our brains are wired to flinch at fear so that we instinctively protect ourselves.
But Smith also points out that this protective reaction is neither necessary nor beneficial in most areas of our life. It’s good to keep yourself from falling, getting hit, or getting attacked by a lion, but not for keeping you from being yourself just because you’re scared of what others think.
One of Smith’s first suggestions is to take a cold shower. And when you do, notice your hesitation – that’s what he calls the Flinch. He’s also got other suggestions for facing that Flinch, such as talking to strangers and more.
Whether or not you take his approach, the necessity is to start actions that scare you. And start small. Talk to a stranger. Record a video. Do something silly.
It doesn’t really matter where you start, so long as it’s something that scares you a little bit. The point here is not to do things until they no longer scare you. For instance, after taking cold showers for a couple weeks, you won’t really flinch much any more. At that point, you’re just doing something that used to scare (but doesn’t any longer).
So start with something small that scares you but then keep looking for small fears to confront in various areas of your life. And then…
Step 1b: Talk and Write About Your (Imagined) Shortcomings and Failings. After you’ve started confronting small fears, move onto something harder.
My suggestion is to confront an insecurity you have about yourself. Is there something that if people knew about you, you’d be scared they wouldn’t accept or like you any more? Maybe you committed a crime. Maybe you watch a lot of porn. Maybe you’re in a relationship that you really don’t want to be in, or maybe you’ve had an affair.
And there’s probably a lot more than just one insecurity. Start small here also by tackling a small insecurity rather than a huge one, because you’re likely not ready for a big insecurity, in which case, you’ll just put it off.
Whatever it is, you need to lean into it and get it out into the open. Have a hard conversation with someone you’ve been avoiding – whether it’s a friend, coworker, or family member. Or, at the very least, start writing and journaling about what you’re afraid of other people (or a particular person) knowing about you.
There are 2 benefits that you get from speaking to others on these topics. First of all, you’ll get a huge weight off of your shoulders. More importantly, though, your brain will start to realize that other people often like and accept you even more after they learn what you see as your most major flaws. And that’s hugely important.
Of course, some people won’t accept or like you more. It’s inevitable. But ironically, after getting something out in the open, you’ll automatically care a little bit (or a lot) less about what those people think.
The Cost of Not Leaning Into It. The point of doing these things is to unlearn the hesitation that keeps you from doing things that scare you. Because after all, it’s not really a big problem that you think about what other people think of you. It’s only a problem that you care enough to allow that fear to stop you from doing things that you want to do.
The easiest place to think about this is in terms of dating. Most of humanity is afraid – to some degree – of asking somebody out on a date. It’s a basic fear of rejection and embarrassment that most of us feel. But the problem is not that you feel that fear. The problem is that you avoid asking somebody out because you have that fear.
With this approach, you simply learn to start acting despite your fears. You accept that the fear may always be there (or at least for quite a while), but you can effectively ignore it.
Even doing little things like taking a cold shower, posting a video, or asking a girl out on a date will start to build up that muscle and conditioning. And the more you build it up, the less it matters what other people might think of you.
Approach #2: Lose Your Self
Approach #1 is practical. There are clear steps (e.g., start by taking more small actions that scare you). And there is a clear path (eventually build up your conditioning so that your fear doesn’t matter).
But there’s a limit to approach #1. The limit is that if you stop there, you’ll still always be afraid. And no matter how well you’re conditioned, there will still be situations where you hesitate and don’t act because of that fear.
Approach #2 doesn’t have that limit. But it’s also not as simple or easy as Approach #1. There is no direct path, and you often won’t think that you’re making any progress, even though you will be.
Remember when I said that all of your fear comes from some deeper shame? If you want to truly stop caring what other people think about you, then you need to get rid of that shame. However, your notion of “self” is actually built on imperfection. When you’re a baby, you develop a sense of self only when you start experiencing shame and insufficiency. When you can’t get something you need (food, love, etc.) and when you’re not perfectly connected to everything else in the universe, your baby mind develops a sense of self that is imperfect.
So to get rid of your fear, you need to get rid of the shame. But to get rid of the shame, you need to let go of something else…
The reason that you’re afraid of anything is because you believe that you have an identity – you believe that you exist. (“Of course I exist”, right?)
But your identity/ego doesn’t actually exist. It’s just a story, albeit one that you believe as strongly as possible. All the memories you’ve had, all the experiences, all the sensations, all the thoughts, and all the emotions – you believe that all of these things have something in common (you).
And because you believe in yourself, you feel the need to protect yourself. It’s the way our brains work. But in the same way that fear is evolved to help keep us safe and alive, identity is the same way. It serves a basic human survival function, but it’s not conducive to much else, particularly peace and happiness.
If you can let go of your identity, then all fear disappears.
However, if you feel like confronting your fears is tough, then letting go of your self is perhaps the hardest thing possible (and ironically, also the easiest).
There’s no right way to do this, but there is one approach that works particularly well over time. This approach spans many spiritualities, philosophies, and religions, but I draw it mostly from an 20th century Indian sage named Ramana Maharshi. I call the process “Pursuing the I”, but the name is unimportant.
All that this process consists of is to always and continually ask “Who am I?”.
Whenever you have a thought or emotion, start by noticing that thought/emotion, then rephrase it as “I think” or “I feel.” For instance, if you think “that girl is really pretty,” then stop and rephrase it as “I think that girl is really pretty.” Or if you feel sad, rephrase it as “I feel sad.”
Once you’ve done that, ask yourself the question “Who am I?” (that thinks this thought or that feels this emotion or that has this experience).
And who are you? Are you your body? Are you your mind? Your soul? Of course, you are none of those things, because “you” have a body, mind, or soul.
At first, it might seem like this is simply a matter of not having the words necessary to say who you are. But it’s more than that.
The interesting part of this practice is that the “I” always disappears. You can’t pin it down. It doesn’t really exist, even though you commonly associate it with a body, mind, soul, or spirit.
“You” are simply an imagined being. At root, you are nothing more than consciousness (of experiences, sensations, emotions, thoughts, memories, etc.). And while you can medically and biologically explain consciousness in most ways, the concept of “I” or “you” is nothing more than a fiction of your consciousness.
Your Life’s Work. Part of the reason that I included Approach #1 in this article is because Approach #2 is probably a life-long process for most of us. I still use it moment-by-moment. It’s not that there is no end-point. It’s that you don’t know when or if you’ll get there.
But that’s ok, because as you confront your fears, and as you start letting go of part of your “self”, you’ll see gradual but enormous shifts in how much you care about what other people think of you.
So keep at it.
A Few Other Tips on How to Stop Worrying What Others Think Of You
I believe that the 2 approaches above are indispensable, but there are also a couple other practices that can make a difference…
Meditate. Meditation is generally my favorite part of the day. I used to do it for the supposed benefits, but I do it for no reason at all now.
However, in the context of caring less what others think about you, meditation can have a big impact because it will allow you to start noticing your thoughts and feelings more quickly. In general, we have a thought/emotion and immediately become attached to it. Meditation is one of the ways to create space/time between your having a thought/emotion and your attachment to it.
The more space/time you can create, the better you’ll be able to choose not to become attached at all. And in terms of not caring what other people think, that means you’ll still worry, but you’ll be better able to ignore it.
Hang Around With Other Folks Who Face Their Fears and Who Also Don’t Care As Much. If – as Jim Rohn is famous for saying – you’re the average of the 5 people with whom you spend the most time, then this also applies to your mindset. If you start hanging out more with folks who face their fears and who don’t care very much what other people think, then it will rub off on you.
It won’t be an immediate change, but it’s perhaps the easiest trick, because you barely have to do anything other than hang out with cool people.
A Final Word
Whether you’re an entrepreneur, parent, or teenager in school, getting over what other people think about you is one of the best and most important things you can do.
And yet, after I wrote the majority of this article, I did a little research to figure out what people search for on this topic. Turns out that people do search for it (with a variety of wordings), but honestly, people don’t really search for it very much at all.
If you’re here now, and if you’re tackling this issue in your own life, then you are already in a space that is beyond where most folks want to go. And you owe it to yourself to take it as far as you can, because it will positively impact every single area of your life.
Photo credit: (c) Fotolia Netfalls, Photocreo Bednarek, Gernot Krautberger