Arthur Brooks is a Harvard professor on leadership and also hosts a podcast series titled How to Build a Happy Life besides writing this column for The Atlantic. In this piece, he tackles a problem most of us face to varying degrees – worrying about what others think of us, which in turn inhibits us from being ourselves. He starts by saying it is natural and because of they way we are wired, thanks to evolution:
“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.”
We might no longer depend on others in the same way our ancestors did but we still harbour the need to ‘fit in’:
“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.”
As he usually does in his column, Brooks gives us a three step strategy to minimise this if not overcome it:
“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.
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.”
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