Why can’t I stop worrying about other people’s opinions?

Other people’s opinions about us are not facts.  They are just thoughts in other people’s heads.

But those thoughts take up a lot of space in our brains. This is true whether we are 15 or 50 or 75. Tim Urban calls it “the defining paranoia of the human species.

The other day on Facebook a mom posted that her high school senior had “just dropped a bomb and was considering changing from studying to become a pediatrician to becoming a nurse”.

People went nuts, and she got hundreds of comments.

It was a perfect display of how people’s reactions depend more on their personal thoughts and what was going on in their lives, than what they are actually reacting to.

Let’s call the mom that wrote the original post “Beth”. And let’s call one of the people that commented on her post “Christie”. Christie commented on Beth’s post about how difficult it would be for Beth’s daughter to get into a good nursing school so late in the game.  (Mind you this is summer before senior year.  At the time this was posted, common app hadn’t even dropped.)

Now is this true? Maybe. But this comment likely had more to do with how worried Christie is about something regarding her own child than with Beth’s child’s situation. Christie is reacting based on her own worries rather than reacting based on the content of Beth’s post.

Other people’s minds:
Looking through the comments from this perspective was really interesting. See how many different angles and viewpoints are expressed through these comments?

  • Some people focused on her “dramatic language” and told her she needs to relax.

  • Some thought she was implying that being a pediatrician was better than being a nurse.  They were deeply offended, and they let her know.

  • Some people used it as a chance to brag about what their child was doing.

  • Others offered specific advice based on their own experiences in the medical profession.

Clearly, people’s responses depended on more than just the plain facts of the situation. Facts don’t depend on anything. Facts are just facts. So in order for there to be so many different responses, people’s thoughts and experiences must be influencing their reactions.

So, if people’s judgments of us depend more on them than us, why do we worry so much?

Caring what other people think is hardwired into our brain through the limbic system. This is a part of our brain that we share will all social pack animals like dogs, chimpanzees, whales, and horses.

There is an evolutionary reason that we care about what other people think.  Back in the day of our ancestors, if you were banished from the tribe, your very survival was threatened.  So worrying that someone thought you were weird or lazy or creepy was practical. Because if enough people started to think you were unacceptable you could get kicked out.  And on your own, you were likely to be eaten by a lion (who is also a pack animal).

Stronger for teenagers
This fear of being kicked out of the tribe is especially strong for teenagers. 
They are trying to leave one tribe (their family) and find a new tribe (their friends) to bond with.  And that new tribe is trying to do the same thing. Honestly, it’s a miracle it works as well as it does.

So the first thing is to let yourself off the hook for having wanting other people to support of your choices.  Approval feels good. But the practical implications of prioritizing other people’s opinion are different now.

If someone doesn’t like our Facebook post or their comments imply we are bad parents, we don’t have to react.  We won’t get kicked out of the tribe and eaten by a lion. We don’t have to obsess over the thing they said. We can use the thinking part of our brain to remind ourselves that not everyone has to agree with us.  Or that people can be wrong about us.

We can look at their comments and decide if they are useful or destructive or neutral.  They are just opinions after all.

Let me know what you think. Where in your life are you worrying about what other people think?

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