I am a recovering people-pleaser.
I’m not embarrassed to admit this, and I know I’m not alone. Before turning 29, I could practically count the times I had not cared what people thought. As in, I knew the moments exactly. There are more, but three stand out.
One was when I went paintballing with my sales team. It was blistering hot and dusty. I was wearing a black helmet that smelled like congealed sweat, lanolin and burnt plastic. The paintball gun was scratched and dented, from careless use, and I barely knew how to fire it, but I felt uncharacteristically at ease. Our team captain came up with a strategy and we scattered. I took a hidden, flank position–as in, I practically crawled through the dirt to get there–and picked off the other team as they tried to box in mine. The day ended with six paintballs shot point-blank at my back and my team lost. It hurt like hell, in more ways than one. But it was also one of the best days of my life.
Another memory was when I was debating in political science classes, in college. It didn’t earn me many relationships but, for me, facts and logic were king. I would listen, write down rebuttals and verbalize them all at once, with three or four opponents. It made me feel incredibly alive.
The final memory I’ll share was also one of the earliest. At my sixth birthday party, two of my friends and I got separated from the adult who was supposed to be watching us–at Disneyland. One moment she was there, the next she was gone. I wasn’t tall enough to see anything but a sea of faded jeans and fanny packs. My friends started crying. I remembered my mom’s warnings about kidnappers. I took their hands and marched up to the nearest, nicest-looking Disneyland worker. My mom had already spotted us and says she’s never forgotten the sight of three tiny girls, two of them crying and being dragged along by an equally tiny me. Honestly, I remember the moment and my personal satisfaction like it was yesterday.
Ah, the glory days.
But why? Why did I stop caring what people thought in those moments? What did these moments, and others like them, have in common? I suppose you could say my life was threatened in the Disneyland, but that wasn’t the case with debating in class. Perhaps it was the team aspect of the paintballing example, but that wasn’t really present with the other two.
Yet, during all three, I felt a deep sense of calm. When they were over, I came crashing back to the present moment and to my endless sea of anxieties. It wasn’t until I was older that I started really wanting to recapture this sensation of ease and simplicity. In retrospect, it was probably why I almost joined the air force when I was seventeen and, from time to time, find myself caught on the side of YouTube where burly father-like figures explain the elusive warrior mindset.
But back to the question.
So what made me not care?
There is so much online about how to look confident, how to come off a certain way, how to stop caring what people think. There is some great information out there about faking it until you make it and, to a point, I think it’s helpful. Power poses and bio-feedback are proven ways to calm your nervous system, which allows you to think past a sense of panic.
The trouble is, if you are constantly using tactics that primarily target panic-inducing situations, like public speaking or raising your hand in class, that means you are living your life in a mild state of panic.
As someone who lacked confidence for years, whose heart-rate jumped every time I felt the need to speak, the idea of faking it until you make it has had its downsides. Sometimes, it magnified my already-crippling impostor syndrome. It made me feel false. I could stick with it for a week, maybe two, but I’d always come back to the fact that it didn’t feel true. I moved slowly and still felt like I was at the bottom of the hierarchy. I didn’t respond to messages immediately and still felt like I was just lucky that someone was reaching out. I acted totally un-bothered, but totally was.
It was quite miserable.
We are built to aim for something. Aiming for the absence of something goes against what we are as humans. It’s the very definition of futile. Yet that’s what we tell ourselves: “Stop caring what people think.” No wonder there’s so much material on this. It is a fundamentally flawed premise. You can’t aim for the lack of something. It’s like reading a map upside down.
In political science class, other peoples’ opinions melt away in the pursuit of truth. In Disneyland at six years old, other peoples’ opinions fizzle when you need to find a trustworthy adult. And how you look doesn’t matter when you’re defending your teammates–even if it’s just a game of paintball.
The antibody to opinion is caring about something else, far more.
Think about all the times where your mind, heart and soul engaged and aligned, where the world disappeared and everything made perfect sense. I’d bet a hundred bucks that you were pursuing something that mattered more to you than anyone’s opinion possibly could. Maybe it happened during a theater performance, or an unforgettable sports game. Maybe it happened when you were hiking up a mountain. Maybe it happened on your wedding day or the day you asked someone to marry you.
It’s not about not-caring. It’s about caring about something else.
This is why I harp on having a vision for the future. And I’m going to harp on it again. If you don’t have a vision for the future or for the next few months that excites you, it is easy to get lost in other peoples’ opinions. It is easy to get bogged down by lists that don’t really matter and drown in the sea of what other people are doing, as a barometer for your own behavior. You’ll spend time living other peoples lives, not doing it well and feeling judged for it. Trust me. I’ve walked this road.
When I go to work, I might ask a lot of questions, but it’s because I want to play my role well and help a company that has been such a blessing in my own life. When I blog, getting a couple words wrong or making a misspelling no longer frightens me, because getting the message out supersedes any errors (this isn’t to say I don’t care). When I record a song, I might fumble as I try to explain what I’m going for, but I do it anyways because coming up with a great piece of music eclipses everything else.
This is also how you become a leader.
Martin Luther King Jr. Ghandi. Oprah. They all had such big visions for the future that millions of people listened and adopted their visions. If you can learn to cast a vision for yourself, so powerful that you don’t care what other people think as a side-effect, ironically people will come running. When you love your music, people will listen. When you love your book, people will read it. When you believe in a vision so completely that opinion becomes irrelevant, that vision becomes widely relevant.
But, again, not caring about what people think is just a side-effect. It is not a goal or even close to being the main focus. It just happens, naturally, when you care about something bigger.
A deeply happy, healthy person casts a vision for themselves. A great leader casts a vision so inspiring that other people adopt it as their own.
So, if you are struggling with caring too darn much about what other people think, forget the articles about faking it for a little while. They’ll be there when you get back. Take a few hours or a day to figure out a vision for your future that excites just you.
What makes you gasp? What made you want to get up in the morning, as a kid? You don’t necessarily need to follow every single idea to its ultimate conclusion (i.e. try to become a professional dancer at forty), but you need to know what those things are, if you want to develop a life you are proud to have lived and, incidentally, free yourself from the anxiety of internalizing everyone else’s opinion.