"Two Ways to Stop Caring What Others Think “
by David Cain
"One should judge a man mainly from his depravities.
Virtues can be faked. Depravities are real."
- Klaus Kinski
"At the retreat center I just visited, the automated coffee machine worked on an honor system. It dispensed coffee whenever you pushed the button, but you were expected to put a two-dollar coin into a little nearby box to cover the costs. I didn’t have change, so I put a twenty in on the first day, intending to use it exactly ten times.
Since I was meditating many hours a day, I was very aware and easygoing, but I still felt a faint pang of self-consciousness each of the nine times I got a coffee without putting money into the box. A casual observer might think I was stealing. Interestingly, the fact that they’d be mistaken about that didn’t seem to matter much. I didn’t want to be seen as sneaky or selfish, whether or not I actually was.
We all worry, in our own tiny ways, about how we’re being perceived. You might worry than an email you sent came off as too harsh, with all those stark periods and no smiley face to soften the tone. Or your first trip to the gym may be nerve-wracking, as you try not to look too clueless.
We’ve evolved to be self-conscious in this way, continually monitoring how we think we’re being seen. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, being disliked could be dangerous.
Society, for them, often consisted of a nomadic band of maybe a hundred people, so it really mattered if someone thought you were lazy or untrustworthy—especially if they might convince others of that.
Having offended just that one person, you could wake up the next day and learn that twenty people—twenty percent of your society, perhaps including the people that make the decisions—want you expelled from the tribe. These are super high stakes, so it’s no wonder we’re so frequently wondering how we look to others.
The fact that we’re being judged matters much more than whether those judgments seem fair or well-informed. I didn’t want anyone to think I’m a sneaky coffee thief, even if they’re wrong. We also don’t tend to worry about someone having an undeservedly high opinion of us, unless we can see how that might cause us trouble later.
Today, we still carry those deathly fears of rejection and judgment, even though we don’t depend nearly as much on being in good standing with everyone around us. Because being judged was a potential emergency in our ancestors’ lives, the suspicion that we’re being resented, dismissed or criticized still awakens in us a sense that something great is at risk.
Being judged should matter less than ever, but seems to matter more: When it comes to the importance of how we’re being perceived by others, there are two drastic differences between ourselves and our ancestors: we interact with many, many more people than they did, and there are far fewer people in our lives whose opinion of us should really matter much in a practical sense.
Rather than see the same hundred people every day for years, we tend to live in cities or towns of thousands or millions, and we’re connected to millions more through the internet. This makes for many more interactions than our ancestors had, on sidewalks, in traffic, in public places, and online.
Naturally, this means we’re party to many more judgments being cast between ourselves and others. However, most of these others are people we only see once or twice, and whose opinion shouldn’t affect our lives much.
Of course it still matters, in a big way, what your immediate family members, close friends, and employers think of your character. A falling out with this small handful of people could mean losing your livelihood, or your home (although it’s probably much easier for us to find another livelihood or home than it would have been for a similarly-shunned hunter-gatherer).
However, if a second cousin dislikes you, or a passer-by thinks you dress like a fool, it won’t affect your life much, aside from your own ruminations about it. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the negative opinion of anyone in your life, even those closest to you, would really threaten your survival in the way it would for your ancestors.
Our environment is totally different now, but unfortunately we still have the same brains. It still feels important that nobody sends you hate mail about your article, or that your blind date didn’t think you’re a total dope, even if in both cases you’ve had your last interaction with that person, and they don’t know anybody you know.
This is because we’re still calibrated for tight-knit tribal living, when it mattered to some degree that virtually everyone liked you, or at least didn’t think you’re worthless or worse.
And so we suffer anxiety around judgments that have little practical consequence. Faceless internet trolls really get to us. We’re afraid to present our creative work, even anonymously, to the public. Rejection, even through a message on a dating app, is painful. We resent being honked at by other drivers, whether or not we think we deserve it.
Our ancestors had the luxury of seeing (and being seen by) the same people again and again, so it didn’t make sense to dismiss someone as a jerk or an idiot because of one thing they said or did. As evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright put it:
…in a hunter-gatherer village, your neighbors would have had a vast database on your behavior, so you’d be unlikely, on any given day, to do something that radically revised their opinion of you, for better or worse.
Contrast that to today’s world of constant one-off interactions, where we are often nothing to other people except the one thing they saw us do or heard us say (plus their unqualified assumptions about why we did it). In a sense, we’re living in a “golden age” of self-consciousness and interpersonal judgment. But because we’re not so dependent on a tribe for survival, these judgments should matter less than ever, if we’re going by their actual impact on our lives. And they don’t matter all that much—except for how much we worry about them.
The problem is very complex, but there are a few adjustments we can make to help free ourselves from thinking so much about what others think.
Two ways to worry less about what others think: Firstly, we need to recognize that it’s impossible to be fairly judged. Nobody will ever understand you perfectly. You will continually be both underestimated and overestimated, shortchanged and given undue credit. Even with friends and family, the people whose opinion of you really matters—each of them “knows” a slightly different version of you, and you don’t get to see it! Each person in your life, even your parents, partner, and children, has incorrect and unfair beliefs about you, and you’ll never know quite what they are.
In fact, your own assessment of yourself is hardly the “right” one. We tend to either obsess over our faults or overlook them completely, and we often don’t quite appreciate both how kind and how petty we can be.
And with strangers, there’s no hope of anything approaching a fair assessment. They have zero context for what they see in you. All you can do is cultivate good qualities, such as kindness, generosity, and open-mindedness, and let the chips fall. No matter what you do, you can expect that people will be constantly mischaracterizing you in their heads (and sometimes aloud).
We can understand that kind of unfairness much more easily from the other side, by learning to become a lot more aware of our own judgments of strangers. Notice how quick and careless they are. You’ll discover that they’re almost always categorical (good person or bad person), that they’re provoked by a single behavior, and that we rarely second-guess these judgments.
Notice what it feels like to judge a person, how absolute and uncomplicated it seems, then remember that you’re seeing this person through the keyhole of a single moment in their lives.
There is a direct relationship between how quickly we judge and dismiss others, and how strongly we fear being judged or dismissed. Try it. The more agnostic you are about the true inner character of other people, the less uptight you’ll be about how you’re being perceived. Great virtues and great faults co-exist in the same people, and every one of us, if we look inward, can see the proof."