Have you ever tried hard to stop caring what other people think about you? Hoped that doing so would free you from social pain and self-doubt once-and-for-all? It rarely works and here's why.
Katharine Di Cerbo left psychology research to start helping people build more nourishing emotional connections and started the website The Connections Crafts.
Trying to be your own island of self-support sounds like a terrific idea, but if you’ve tried (and failed), you’re in the company of many other brave but lonely souls.
First of all, if you’ve tried this advice in the past and only ended up feeling crappier than ever, please know right now that you were unintentionally led astray, and it’s not your fault that you didn’t "succeed". You see, the way this common advice is delivered is all wrong, and intriguing research now reveals why you (and many others who’ve also attempted to go down this road) have actually ended up feeling much worse than before.
But the good news is that now that we know what doesn't work, it's easy to take the correct actions, instead. Keep reading and I'll not only show you how and why this common advice falls apart, I'll also show you how to stop feeling painfully raw and vulnerable in social situations once-and-for-all.
(Although, it won’t be in the way you suspect - toughening up, not caring, and detaching are not the answers).
What Inspired Me to Write This Post
First, I’d like to tell you why I decided to write this post. It’s because I kept seeing photos with quotes about how to stop caring what others think on social media. Every. Day. If you follow personal development accounts like I do, you probably see these all the time, too.
Things like: "When you truly don’t care what anyone thinks of you, you have a dangerously awesome level of freedom” and “Why should I care what other people think of me? I am who I am. And who I want to be."
Now, I absolutely get the spirit of this advice. I know it is coming from a good place, and I know that there are aspects of it that are indisputably positive.
But photos like these started to drive me CRAZY because I know how much this well intentioned inspiration is, in reality, encouraging the wrong people to do exactly the opposite of what they need to be doing.
The problem is that most people seduced by the idea of “freedom from what other people think” do not yet have the prerequisite to get anywhere near the desired outcome of quiet confidence and inner-conviction.
Why? Well to begin with, they don’t even know what the prerequisite is in the first place. And it's not their fault, either (our culture tends to have a strange, love/hate relationship with it).
The fact is, remaining emotionally steady no matter how other people react to you is complicated and counter-intuitive. I’ll get there in a second, but suffice it to say, you cannot get there directly.
Just like you can’t (ethically) become rich by focusing only on money (money is a byproduct of creating value) you can’t stop being a prisoner to what other people think about you simply by freezing everyone out.
There is an indirect path you have to take.
You see, ironically, 'Not Caring What Other People Think' happens only after we have a core support network in our lives. That’s the part the little meme’s don’t mention in bold letters. The fine print says:
I don’t care what any of ya’ll think about me because I have the support of my little tribe, and that’s all I need! The prerequisite, then, is a reliable support network.
Even a very small support network, heck, even one person on your side can give you the sense of strength you need to "stop caring what other people think."
But wait, how does that even make sense?
How are you supposed to stop caring what other people think by depending on the support of other people?
Why It’s Actually Impossible to Completely Stop Caring What Other People Think
The thing is, when wise people talk about how to "stop caring what other people think" they don't really mean exactly that. What they really mean is: Stop caring what the crowd thinks. That's because it's actually impossible to completely stop caring what everyone thinks.
This fact is so important that I’m going to repeat it again using capital letters: It is actually impossible to stop caring, and caring deeply, about what other people think about you.
(Now, it is possible to stop going down the rabbit hole of wondering anxiously how you measure up every time you have a conversation, but that's not the same thing - and we'll be getting to that shortly).
Furthermore, just because you must be deeply invested in what some people think about you doesn’t mean you have to live in fear of loss. I’m sorry non-attachment fans, but Buddha had this one wrong.
In fact, the opposite is true. Caring about a special group of others’ approval and comfort (and having our approval matter to them, too) is a direct path to feeling completely secure and free from anxiety.
That’s because reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationships with other people are the ultimate balm to anxiety. A great body of psychology research supports this concept.
Human relationship researchers (John Gottman, Sue Johnson, John Bowlby and his disciples, among many others), Social-neuroscientists (John Cacioppo, Matthew Lieberman, & Naomi Eisenberger, to name a few) and many other types of social scientists all support the notion that, as social animals, humans thrive in socially supportive environments and wither in social isolation.
In fact, if you’d like to hear one tidbit that fascinated me recently, in 2008, Matthew Lieberman and colleagues found that the human brain’s default state - the state it automatically enters into when not directed towards another activity - is social review:
- Why did he say that to me?
- Does she like me?
- Did my status in my group go up or down today?
- Did I say the right thing to him?
- What can I do to be valued more by the people I care about?
Nature selected these kinds of thoughts as the default thoughts of every human brain when not engaged in goal-directed activity. And no, meditation will not break you completely free. Somehow, these thoughts have benefited us over time - most likely by deeply motivating us, indeed making us obsessed with, nurturing the social bonds that keep us safe from harm. When the answers to these questions are positive ("I am valued", "I belong", "I matter"), we feel at peace. When the answers are negative ("My co-worker just gave me a fake, brush-off smile. Maybe she doesn’t really like me…"), we feel like crap.
But if that’s true, you may be wondering: Why have all of my attempts at relationships and connection made me feel so bad, so inadequate, and so anxious? Why haven’t I experienced any of the good stuff?
Well, if you’ve been withdrawing and trying to ignore your pain whenever you fail to receive the love and support you crave, then there is a pretty clear explanation:
How Attempting to Stop Caring What Other People Think Leads to a Death Spiral Of Loneliness
The intriguing research I mentioned in the beginning of the post was performed over many years by famed psychology researcher John Cacioppo. You may have seen some of it referenced in the media yourself, here, here, or here.
The summary of his findings are that loneliness and social pain can push people into a terrible feedback loop that can be tricky to exit (unless you catch it early and take the correct steps - which I'll be sharing in a second).
All it takes to trip into this feedback loop is even a brief period of social isolation or rejection (maybe you moved recently, had a falling out with an important loved one, or maybe someone dear to you has passed away).
The "Loneliness - Stop Caring What Other People Think" Cycle
- For some - or any - reason, you start feeling a bit more vulnerable than before because of a decrease in the love from your tribe.
- You become hyper focused on protecting yourself from future social disappointment as well as threats in general. Your anxiety increases markedly, often without your conscious awareness! (Psychologists think that there are evolutionary explanations for why this happens).
- Your anxiety makes your social interactions increasingly uncomfortable. You become more and more sensitive to other people's reactions to you, and "Stop caring what other people think" starts to sound mighty appealing! You may start getting rejected more and more by people due to your increased self-focus and difficult mood.
- You continue to feel vulnerable and raw.
- Rinse and repeat!
So you may be wondering "Why does nature play this cruel trick on us?!" When we're starting to feel lonely and unsupported, why do our instincts make us do things that only make the problem worse?
Well, a really good analogy for this phenomenon is the human fever. A fever inflames the body to fight infections, and in the short term, it is highly effective. But chronic fever and inflammation will reek havoc on the body.
Likewise, temporary social paranoia and anxious self-focus can be helpful in the short term — if we know how to use them to our advantage — but really devastating in the long-term.
What we must do is use our hyper-awareness of how others perceive us to create new connections and deepen existing ones! We must not give in to our urge to push people even further away from us by "not caring what they think."
Trying to dive stubbornly into not caring what other people think is guaranteed to prolong and deepen the loneliness death spiral and cause chronic social pain.
So how do we make sure our "fever" does it’s job and kills off the infection instead of keeping us in chronic pain? It all comes down to using your new understanding of why you’ve been feeling so down socially to give you the confidence to take small steps towards discovering and building a supportive tribe of love.
What the the Lofty version of 'Stop Caring What Other People Think' Looks Like (and How to Get There)
So hopefully now you can see that the inherently socially-connected road to "happy and fulfilled" cannot be reached by taking a a left turn onto the bridge leading to your own island.
But you may still be wondering about that lofted state of inner-peace and self-reliance. You’ve heard a lot about it, and you’d still really like to get there someday.
How can you do it? And when is it okay to start writing off unsupportive people who are most definitely not part of your tribe of love?
It all starts with building a small group of “your people” as a first step - as I mentioned above, they are the key prerequisite to not caring with the crowd thinks about you.
If you feel deep in your heart that even one person "gets" you, supports you, and needs you too, you will be miles closer to less sensitivity in all of your social interactions.
Better still, your new bits of calm confidence will make will start making all of your conversations and encounters run more smoothly, and you’ll be able to add new quality people to your tribe as they happen to cross your path in life.
Instead of a death spiral of loneliness, you’ll be in a joy spiral of connection.