Do you worry about what others think of you? Does it keep you from doing or saying things that you would like do? Today I want to talk about thinking errors and projection and how we can use stoic ideas to clean up our thinking.
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
A lot of what we do in our lives is geared towards what we imagine others think about us. We act certain ways, wear certain clothes, or buy certain things because we think that we will somehow gain approval or fit in with some certain kind of group by doing so.
But if we really think about it, we really don’t know what others are actually thinking about us. We are really just making assumptions and guessing based on our life experience and our own thoughts about ourselves.
What Others Think About Us
About a year ago, I did an episode about self acceptance which I consider one of my best and most important episodes. If you want to go back and listen to it, it’s episode 218 – Accept Yourself. The reason that it was such an important episode for me is that I had learned some hard lessons about how I was not very accepting of myself. Because of this, I had low self esteem, and I felt like I was just not a very good person.
At that time, I decided to figure out what it was that was so awful about me. I did an exercise where I made a list of everything that I didn’t like about myself. I realized that if I was going to work on self acceptance, I really needed to understand what I wasn’t accepting about myself. After I wrote down everything I didn’t like about myself, I realized that about half the items on the list weren’t things I didn’t like about myself, but were actually things that I thought others didn’t like about me. To be clear, these were not things that others had told me they didn’t like about me, they were stories that my mind made up.
As part of that practice I discarded those things because they didn’t fit my criteria. But it was a powerful lesson about how our minds will make up stories to keep things consistent. Meaning, if you believe that you are an awful person, your mind will try to find proof to back it up. It will catalog everything you do that you feel reflects negatively on you as proof of your belief. If it is unable to find things, it will begin to reinterpret things in such a way so that it helps to prove you right.
Because our minds seek to make sense of the world and create the consistency that it needs, our thoughts about ourselves are incredibly important. In fact, how we think about ourselves is far more important than what anyone else thinks about us. Who we think we are, guides our choices, which leads to the kind of life we have. We take actions because we think they are in line with who we are as a person. Our minds try to help us stay consistent with our identity.
For example, when I was religious, I said and did things that in hindsight I really wasn’t sure I believed in, but I repeated them because it’s what I was told was the truth about the world. Because I had a certain identity, I acted in accordance with that identity. Once I started questioning things, I chose my own belief system that felt more aligned with being the kind of person I wanted to be.
So why do we we get caught up so much in what other people think of us? There are a number of reasons.
We are social creatures and we thrive when we are part of a community. We are built to connect with other people and other people are a mirror of ourselves. It is through other people that we get to know who we are. For example, how do we know if we are a kind person if we have no one else to be kind to?
Because we want to fit in with our community, we are constantly trying to be aware of social cues and body language. But, it is all a guess on our side. We may think we know what a certain look or sigh means, but we can easily misinterpret things, and since we really do not have direct knowledge of what most people think of us, we make assumptions. We fill in the gaps because we don’t know what someone else might think of us.
The problem with filling in the gaps is that we tend to assume that others think like we do. So if we don’t really like ourselves, we assume that others won’t like us either. We may even treat them poorly simply because we assume they dislike us, based upon our own assumptions. They may have done nothing for us to be able to make a clear judgment about how they feel about us, so we’re really just guessing.
You Spot It, You Got It
“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”
— Marcus Aurelius
In psychology, there is a term called projection. The idea behind projection is that often people will accuse others of something that they are struggling with. For example, if someone is cheating on a partner, they will often accuse the other person of cheating. If someone is insecure, they may project those insecurities on other people and accuse them of the very thing they are afraid of.
Often, we project on to others the things we are afraid to look at about ourselves. As one of my therapists would say, “You spot it, you got it.” This is why people seem to be rather hypocritical when they point out the flaws of other yet seem completely oblivious to their own similar behaviors. For example, someone who often dominates conversations may accuse others of doing the exact same thing without recognizing their own behavior.
Now, it is not always going to be the case that noticing someone else’s behavior means that you have the same flaw. But if there is something that someone else is doing that really frustrates you, take a moment to see if you might be projecting some of your own thoughts, ideas, or fears onto this other person.
Out of Our Control
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.”
— Marcus Aurelius
The stoics have long reminded us that what others think about us is not something that is under our control. We could be the kindest and most generous person in the world, and yet someone may form an opinion of us that is unflattering.
Since we have no control over what they think of us, we need to get comfortable with others not liking us. They may even hate us and there is little that we can do about it. And it doesn’t even matter why dislike us. They could be misinformed. They may have reasons that really have nothing to do with us. Nonetheless, we need to recognize that it is out of our control and not let what others think of us change how we act.
But, if I’m being honest, it’s hard to let go of what others think of us. Because we are social creatures, we get caught up in wanting to be liked, which is again something that is out of our control. Any time we do things to get others to like us, we are giving control of our happiness to someone else.
So how can we get better about not worrying what others think about us, and also be aware of the assumptions and projections that we make about others?
Just the Facts
“Accustom yourself to attend carefully to what is said by another, and as much as it is possible, try to inhabit the speaker’s mind.”
One thing we can do it take time to be sure that we are basing our judgments of others off of the facts. If we aren’t working off of what we actually know, there is a good chance that we are making unfair assumptions or projections.
One way that projection showed up for me was with my former partner. When we would get in to arguments I would accuse her of hating me, or thinking all kinds of rotten things about me. Now these were things she had never even said, but were things that I thought about myself. I would twist things that she said to make them sound like she had said mean or cruel things to me, all in an effort to somehow prove that I was as awful as I thought I was. Basically, I thought I was not a very good person, so I would unfairly project all those thoughts onto her.
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
— Marcus Aurelius
An important step to make progress in this area is to get to really know yourself. By knowing what you think of yourself and the world, you’ll be more likely to notice when you project your thoughts or ideas onto others.
I talk a lot about meditation and journalling on this podcast, and the main reason is, they are great tools for getting to know yourself. I know that many people talk about how hard meditation is, and they are not wrong. Our minds are constantly noticing the world around us, as well as constantly moving back and forth from the past to trying to predict the future.
Meditation is one of the best ways to exert your will over your mind. It is how you get started in knowing what you are thinking. Awareness is the first step in change, and meditation is how you become aware of your thinking. The more awareness we have of our own minds, the better we are able to direct our thinking.
When it comes to journaling, for me I think of it as my third mind. We all have the part of our mind that is the observer, as well as the active part which is more of the doer. When you put your thoughts down on a page, they are much easier to work with because you are no longer trying to remember them. It also gives space for the observer and doer parts of your mind to work together. You’ll start to make connections that you never made before. You may even hit some deeper parts of yourself that will surprise you.
Get to Like Yourself
“When someone is properly grounded in life, they shouldn’t have to look outside themselves for approval.”
After you get to know yourself, get to like yourself. We all spend so much time worrying about if others like us, but focusing on getting to like yourself is for more productive. I know I enjoy spending my time around those who are truly comfortable in their own skin. They’re happy with who they are, so anyone else’s opinion of them doesn’t change how they feel about themselves. They don’t also don’t need to tear down anyone else to make themselves feel better.
Getting to like yourself is also something that you have control over. You can decide to like yourself at any moment and immediately boost your mood. Now, I know this is not always an easy thing. I know that I get caught up in some negative thought loops about how I’m not a very good person or that people shouldn’t like me for all sorts of reasons. Usually it’s because I have some expectations that I think I have to meet in order to be considered a good person. I’m working on just letting go of this way of thinking and just accepting myself for exactly who I am.
If this is something you struggle with, I highly recommend listening to episode 218 – Accept Yourself and doing the exercise that I talk about. It was a real game changer for me.
“The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do.”
— Marcus Aurelius
The last and most important thing that you can do to not get bog down by the opinions of others is to live your principles the best you can. How we live our lives is one of the only things that is truly under our control. If we live according to our principles, then what others think or say about us doesn’t really matter. We uphold our principles regardless of the situation or what others think of us. As long as we hold to our core principles and act in a way that we consider honorable, then we should be confident with our choices and actions.
We don’t need to defend ourselves for doing what we think is right.
Worrying about what others think of us is not always an easy thing to do. We are social creatures and having that external validation feels good, but it is something that have no control over. When we learn to focus on what we can control, namely our own thinking and choices, we become more resilient. When we improve our own opinion about ourselves and like ourselves, then what others think of us has a far less impact on us. And, in my own experience, the happiest people I know are those that truly like and accept themselves just the way they are.
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