An elderly gentleman, living in a small village in rural India went to see his son in a large metropolitan city.
The son in his early thirties is a successful businessman living with his wife and son.
The father, having spent most of his life at his birthplace in the village, hardly understands the language let alone the life in a large city. But, he did not care. ‘I have come here to spend a few days with my son and his family,’ he thought, ‘I don’t have to go out and socialize with the city people.’
But, the son was very excited about his father’s rare visit to his home. He wanted to make the best of it. He and his wife wanted to show him around the city.
The son also thought of enjoying some evening hours, when he and his father can go out and sit in a good restaurant, sipping their favorite drink. Later in the week, he was in a very good mood. ‘Let’s go and see the city tonight,’ he told his father. It was a beautiful evening. Talking about everything under the sun, they went to a bar and restaurant where they had a few drinks. As usual they were offered some mixed nuts, roasted peanuts, cashews etc. as accompaniments with their drinks. When they got up to leave, the father simply picked up a handful of roasted peanuts and stuffed them in his shirt pocket. He thought about munching on them, while going home.
Unfortunately while walking in the lobby, he missed a step and stumbled. Down he went, scattering the peanuts on the plush carpet.
Now, try to visualize that scenario. Someone else in his son’s position would have been mortified, and embarrassed to death. He might have cursed not his father but his own self for causing this awkward situation. ‘Never again will I take my old man to such hotels’, he would have vowed.
But, not this son. Gently, with a smile, he helped his father get back on his feet. Instead of feeling irritated or angry, he was amused. He found the whole incident very funny. Laughing, they both went home and on the way they decided to return to the same place the following Sunday. The elderly man liked the place and liked the peanuts too.
Few days later, at a friend’s place they both described this event and made everybody laugh. “Weren’t you embarrassed?” Somebody asked the son. ‘Oh, come on now,’ replied the son, ‘he is my father. He talks in his native language, prefers to wear a dhoti (like Gandhi used to wear) even to a posh city hotel, takes peanuts from the bar to eat later, does whatever he feels like… So what? Why should I feel embarrassed with his nature and habits? Nobody has a right to stop him from doing whatever he feels comfortable with, as long as it is not harmful to others.’
The son did not care what the staff in the hotel thought about that incident. He said, ‘They should be concerned only with their bills and tips. I am concerned about my father’s happiness.’
The wife too totally agreed with the husband on this issue. She felt there are enough other qualities in her father-in-law to feel proud of.
Accept them. I am not telling this story just to show the love and devotion of a son for his father. More than love, it is a matter of understanding and a healthy respect for the other person’s lifestyle. A 70+ year old man doesn’t want to change his lifestyle now. He likes the way he eats or dresses or talks. In his eyes there is nothing wrong with the old ways of living.
The son says, ‘Everybody has a right to live as they like. Now at his age, why should he be forced to learn to eat with a fork and knife, if he doesn’t want to? I will feel bad if he is doing some harmful activities. But, otherwise it is fine. I am not going to try to change him at this stage. He is my father. I love him, respect him.’
Really, what is there to feel ashamed of? Most people always have this fear of other peoples’ opinions and comments. What would others think?
Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. – Dr. Seuss
Are you who people think you are? Or, do you let them see only a persona carefully crafted for likeability? Do you tiptoe through life, saying and doing only what passes through your internal social acceptability filter?
Fear of social judgment wears many masks: shame, shyness, etiquette, prudence, perfectionism. Whatever form it comes in, its impact is to limit, to constrain, to constrict.
People who fear social judgment miss out on much of life. Across the room they see what could be the person of their dreams, but they don’t approach because of what a roomful of strangers might think if they are rejected. By caring what these strangers think, they are allowing people they’ll never see again to control their behavior.
Fear of social judgment also makes people think small. Accomplishing anything big is going to annoy some people, who will try to deter you. To really have an impact, you can’t let them get in your way.
Why are we so concerned about what others think of us? As with so much else, we inherited this trait from our ancestors. The ancient world that shaped our genes was one of small hunter-gatherer tribes. Everyone in the tribe knew each other and built their lives together. Survival and reproduction were all that mattered, so people did whatever it took to stay alive and get the best mates they could. Status was pursued, authority was revered, and group cohesion trumped individuality, so fitting in and being liked were essential.
In such a world, as we evolved, obsessing over every word and act was justified. Those who said or did the wrong thing could be ostracized from the group, which would be disastrous. Dreading public speaking, seeking approval from those with status, and tending to go along with the crowd are all ancestral relics.
These innate tendencies that served our ancestors so well do not serve us in our modern world. You can choose what tribes to belong to, and what roles to play in each. If you mess up with one group, it rarely affects your status in others. And you have far more potential romantic partners to choose from now than your ancestors did, and if you are rejected by one it rarely affects your chances with others.
More importantly, while your brain is wired for survival and reproduction, you can choose to focus on other priorities. Survival is easy now, and reproduction is just one part of a well-lived life, to be weighed in the balance with other things you may choose to value, like happiness, meaning, beauty, or justice. Focusing on other values may help you worry less about what other people think.
When you stop trying to impress others, you can express your true self more fully and connect with people, more genuinely, openly, intimately. The less time and energy you spend on image management, on making your life presentable to others, the more time you can spend on things that really matter.
How can you stop worrying about what people think of you?
- Bring awareness to how your decisions are currently affected by what others will think of you.
- Be unswayed by social pressure, unaffected by criticism, immune to embarrassment. And take fewer things personally. We are biased toward sensitivity to criticism, insult, and rejection. And when these biases affect our behavior, we cede our power to others.
- Don’t look to others for guidance on how to behave. And don’t wait for permission from others. It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.
- Don’t be needy. If you don’t need anything, you don’t have a reason to try to impress people.
- Be authentic. Have the courage to allow people to see the real you. Be willing to be judged, and even encourage it. It’s good for self-knowledge and for developing thick skin. As you become and express your best self, others will think great things about you, and the few that don’t won’t matter anyway. If all this is too extreme for you, start by taking small steps. Expect it to be hard, and show yourself some compassion; you are swimming against ancient currents thousands of generations old. Rather than not caring at all what others think of you, start by just caring less. Be open to what they think and feel, and consider their opinions, but decide for yourself how to act. Care what the important people in your life think, but only those whose opinions you value.
Strangers should not get a vote in how you live your life.
Here are a couple of activities for you try:
- For each decision you make today, consciously observe whether you’re factoring in what others will think, and whether it benefits you to do this.
- Be ridiculous: allow yourself to be ridiculed. Break a few small unwritten rules of social etiquette in the company of strangers, and watch how they react.