“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his new podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
A friend of mine once shared what I considered a bit of unadulterated wisdom: “If I wouldn’t invite someone into my house, I shouldn’t let them into my head.” But that’s easier said than done. Social media has opened up our heads so that just about any trespasser can wander in. If you tweet whatever crosses your mind about a celebrity, it could quite possibly reach the phone in her hand as she sits on her couch in her house.
The real problem isn’t technology—it’s human nature. We are wired to care about what others think of us. As the Roman Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius observed almost 2,000 years ago, “We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own,” whether they are friends, strangers, or enemies.
This tendency may be natural, but it can drive us around the bend if we let it. If we were perfectly logical beings, we would understand that our fears about what other people think are overblown and rarely worth fretting over. But many of us have been indulging this bad habit for as long as we can remember, so we need to take deliberate steps to change our minds.
Paying attention to the opinions of others is understandable and, to a certain extent, rational. As the philosopher Richard Foley argues in his book Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others, you trust your own opinions; your opinions are saturated with and shaped by those of others who are similar to you; therefore, you trust their opinions as well, whether you want to or not. Thus, if one of your co-workers says, “Squid Game is really great,” your opinion of the show will probably rise, at least a little bit.
Other people’s influence on your opinions about the world pales in comparison to their influence on your opinion of yourself. Evolution neatly explains why: For virtually all of human history, humans’ survival depended on membership in close-knit clans and tribes. Before the modern structures of civilization, such as police and supermarkets, being cast out from your group meant certain death from cold, starvation, or predators. This can easily explain why our sense of well-being includes others’ approbation, as well as why the human brain has evolved to activate the same neural substrates when we experience physical pain and when we face social rejection.
Unfortunately, the instinct to want the approval of others is woefully maladapted to modern life. Where once you would have justifiably felt the terror of being expelled onto the frozen tundra, today you might suffer acute anxiety that strangers online will “cancel” you for an ill-considered remark, or passersby will snap a photo of a poor outfit choice and mock it on Instagram for all to see.
In the worst cases, anxiety about the approval of others can blow up into a debilitating fear, a diagnosable psychological condition called “allodoxaphobia.” Even if it doesn’t become a mental illness, worrying about the opinions of others can lower your basic competence in ordinary tasks, such as making decisions. When you are thinking about what to do in a particular situation—say, whether to speak up in a group—a network in your brain that psychologists call the “behavioral inhibition system” (BIS) is naturally activated, which allows you to assess the situation and decide how to act (with a particular focus on the costs of acting inappropriately). When you have enough situational awareness, the BIS is deactivated and the “behavioral activation system” (BAS), which focuses on rewards, kicks in. But research from 2013 shows that concern about the opinions of others can keep BIS active, impairing your ability to take action. If you always leave an interaction kicking yourself over what you should have said—but didn’t—it may indicate that you are being unduly influenced by concern over what others think.
One reason we fear others’ opinions is because negative assessments can lead to shame, which is the feeling of being deemed worthless, incompetent, dishonorable, or immoral—and thus, given the weight we place on others’ opinions, feeling this way about ourselves. Fearing shame makes sense, because research clearly shows that feeling it is both a symptom of and a trigger for depression and anxiety. People will go to a lot of effort to avoid shame, which can explain behaviors such as virtue signaling on social media and giving money to strangers.
Just because our overconcern for other people’s opinions of us is natural doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable. The right goal for flourishing is not a complete disregard for the opinions of others. That would be abnormal and dangerous; this tendency could lead to “hubris syndrome” or even be evidence of antisocial personality disorder. But many of us could become better off if we learned to care a good deal less than we do. I recommend taking three steps.
1. Remind yourself that no one cares.
The ironic thing about feeling bad about ourselves because of what people might think of us is that others actually have much fewer opinions about us—positive or negative—than we imagine. Studies show that we consistently overestimate how much people think about us and our failings, leading us to undue inhibition and worse quality of life. Perhaps your followers or neighbors would have a lower opinion of you if they were thinking about you—but they probably aren’t. Next time you feel self-conscious, notice that you are thinking about yourself. You can safely assume that everyone around you is doing more or less the same.
2. Rebel against your shame.
Because a fear of shame is frequently what lurks behind an excessive interest in others’ opinions, we should confront our shame directly. Sometimes a bit of shame is healthy and warranted, such as when we say something hurtful to another person out of spite or impatience. But often it is frankly ridiculous, such as being ashamed for, say, accidentally leaving your fly unzipped.
Several years ago, I was nearing the end of my first 90-minute graduate class of the year and realized I had given the entire lecture with my fly unzipped. There was absolutely no chance that anyone hadn’t noticed. Afterward, I realized something odd: I felt liberated—not liberated to do it again, obviously, but from the fear of what might happen if I accidentally did something terribly embarrassing in class. After the fly incident, I couldn’t imagine anything worse happening, and as a result I relaxed and had a great semester. I am not recommending that you walk around with your fly down on purpose. But ask yourself: What am I hiding that I’m a little embarrassed about? Resolve not to hide it anymore, and decimate the useless shame holding you back.
3. Stop judging others.
“Judge not, that ye be not judged,” Jesus taught. “Whoever judges others digs a pit for themselves,” the Buddha said. Maybe you think you’ll face God’s punishment or karmic justice for holding harsh opinions of others, but these lessons are just as important while we’re on Earth. To judge others is to acknowledge a belief that people can, in fact, legitimately judge one another; thus, it is an implicit acceptance of others’ judgment of you.
The way to free yourself from this belief is to stop judging others, and, when you accidentally do so, to remind yourself that you might well be wrong. Try this experiment: Set a day in the coming week when you resolve to judge nothing, and instead merely observe. Instead of “This rain is terrible,” say, “It is raining.” Instead of “That guy who cut me off in traffic is a jerk,” say, “That guy must be in a hurry.” It will be difficult, but strangely refreshing. You will have relieved yourself of the burden of constant judging—and thus be less worried about getting judged.
In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu wrote, “Care about people’s approval / and you will be their prisoner.” He no doubt intended it as a dire warning. But as the years have passed, I have come to interpret it as more of a promise and an opportunity.
I have learned that the prison of others’ approval is actually one built by me, maintained by me, and guarded by me. This has led me to my own complementary verse to Lao Tzu’s original: “Disregard what others think and the prison door will swing open.” If you are stuck in the prison of shame and judgment, remember that you hold the key to your own freedom.