‘I couldn’t possibly go out like this. WHAT WOULD PEOPLE THINK?’
Those four little seemingly innocuous words, how often they have cramped our style, made us duller at parties or rendered us mute during discussions with the boss.
It’s like there’s a Simon Cowell-style commentary going on in our heads. If this is you, you might recognise some of the themes on the mental ticker tape:
No, those jeans don’t make your bum look big. They make it look like a space hopper
You call that an idea? Just keep quiet and nobody loses their job
Pimple? That is more like a pulsating orb. People will be horrified. Best to call in sick today…
In the name of avoiding embarrassment (importantly, embarrassment that we likely imagine), we tone ourselves down, dress more conservatively, pipe down in meetings. It’s easy to feel the oppressive weight of being judged and critically eye-balled.
Research calls this the “spotlight effect,” the tendency to think that other people notice something about us, far more than they actually do. That includes your bum, your brilliance and your breakouts. And even if someone does notice, they’re probably not that bothered.
Nathan Heflick, PhD, explains that the spotlight effect is the result of egocentrism – we see the world through our own experiences and perspective. But here’s the light bulb moment peeps: everyone else does too.
I asked a coaching client who was struggling with self-consciousness this simple question:
Who would you be without the thought that everyone is constantly judging you?
She thought for a long time, and finally said, “Free. I’d be free.”
When we discussed the research, she closed her eyes, sighed, and spoke softly.
“My God, all this time I’ve wasted….”
Ethel Barrett famously said, “We would worry less about what other people think of us, if we realised how seldom they do.”
Here are three simple, yet powerful, exercises to try when you’re in the wily grip of over-caring what others think.
Self-validate (and choose others’ opinions wisely)
So much of how we are and what we do is about seeking approval. We say ‘yes’ to things, not necessarily because we want to, but we feel the guilt gremlins creeping in if we don’t.
Or we leave something crucial unsaid to avoid the discomfort of not being liked or agreed with.
Or we don’t ask for what we want, because what if someone says ‘No’? That would mean something about us, right?
How would it feel to let go, even just a little, of the need to be validated by others?
Try this cut to the chase question: Who really matters?
I recently did a course with Brené Brown. She had us do an exercise where we drew a heart and inside, wrote the names of all the people whose opinions truly mattered.
She encouraged us to think of that heart in those moments when we’re hustling for approval.
Who is in your heart? And equally importantly, who isn’t?
Be OK with feeling awkward
In my informal scientific research, I have never come across anyone who died of awkwardness.
Yet many people I know dislike networking events (‘I won’t know anybody. It’s so awkward standing there next to the potted plant, reading the fire escape instructions’).
Or perhaps they’d love to wear something colourful, but fear it will draw too much unwanted attention. People might comment. Gasp!
So we don’t attend the event, or wear the magenta, all in the spirit of avoiding the mortifying experience of potential awkwardness.
I love Martha Beck’s use-anywhere, all-purpose question to ask in those moments:
It works like this.
If I wear that bright colour, people might notice. They might even comment!
If I introduce myself to someone at the event, they might blank me.
Try it, and then revert back to your heart to check in.
Be aware that you’re going to die
There’s nothing like mortality to help us to get our priorities straight.
For many years, Bronnie Ware was a palliative nurse, who counselled people in the final weeks of their lives. She was so moved by these conversations, that she’s captured them into a book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. She also blogs here.
The number one regret of the dying was: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
How would it be if you permissioned yourself to live a life truer to yourself – not the life others expect of you?
What would it feel like to cast off the thought that others are judging you? And even if they were, try your new tool:
That thing you really want to do? You should go and do it. We promise that somewhere along the way, we’ll try to pay attention…
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