A few posts ago, I wrote about the amount of self help and continuous improvement advice that, under a bit of scrutiny, seems either very obvious or very wrong. The trouble with these ideas is the subtle and not so subtle affects they produce on perspectives, behaviors and relationships. To be fair, I cringe at some of the drivel I’ve written and said over the years. So, I’ve got the mirror turned my direction as well.
For example, take this article I read today entitled, “How to Stop Caring About What People Think of You.” The article includes a picture of a woman standing at the beach in a pose of complete freedom. Who wouldn’t want that?
Now, I don’t know the author of this article. Nor do I have any desire to attack him as a person. I’m sure he is trying to help people achieve a meaningful life. So, I share these thoughts about the article not to incite an argument, but to simply challenge the ideas offered. And, by no means is this the first article to articulate these ideas. Heck, I’ve said some of these things in past iterations of myself.
Here are just a couple of examples…
Let’s start with the title: How to Stop Caring about What People Think of You. This sounds like a good idea, right? Why spend time on something as crazy-making as what other people think of you. But, the title alone sets off my alarm bells. My first question is, “Is this advice possible?” My second question is, “Is this advice a good idea?” The title of the article runs contrary to what we know about biology and evolution. I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but what those who are have learned is that “status seeking” has been embedded in our DNA over the millennia. So to start an article by saying, “Hey stop doing what you’ve been doing for tens of thousands of years,” seems a little presumptuous.
Here’s a study on status-seeking behaviors of humans.
Here’s an interesting Harvard Business Review article that explores evolution and human behavior. It touches on the idea that we can’t ignore our past as we seek to move into our future.
The author then goes on to write,
Are you caring too much about what people think of you? I used to be a very self-conscious person who cared way too much about what people were thinking of me. I would make sure I got unnoticed, afraid that I may do something other people judge as inappropriate.
But, isn’t it tiring to be constantly thinking about every single thing you are about to do, worrying about other people’s reactions. Who wouldn’t want to be free to do whatever he/she wants without caring a bit about what people think of him/her? That’s real freedom, isn’t it? So, why do we care so much?
A lot of us can certainly relate to worrying too much about what other people think. So these words could strike a chord that would lead people to yearn for a release from such a condition. But, look at the writing a bit more carefully and you’ll see it’s laced with extreme phrases, “every single think you are about to do,” “free to do whatever he/she wants,” “that’s real freedom, isn’t it?”
The trouble here is that the extreme language eclipses the possibility of a real discussion. If someone is worrying about every single thing she is about to do, then she might be dealing with a bigger issue. Most of us don’t worry about every single thing we do, and how it will play. Status seeking behavior is more like this low-grade fever that’s with us all the time, but doesn’t necessarily consume us in every moment.
A careful articulation of ideas is important when you’re going to dive into the waters of self help or continuous improvement. And that means, more critical thinking about those ideas before you write them.
Maybe instead of trying to rid ourselves of caring about what people think, we should care together about how we care about what each other thinks. Maybe, if instead of trying to jettison something that seems fairly embedded in our make-up, we could talk more honestly about it and, in doing so, diffuse some of the excessive anxiety it creates. And, maybe we should ask, are there important reasons to care about what others think and how can we do it with wisdom.
If we get beyond platitudes, there just may be some actual help in these overused ideas.