I was once chewed out for being too happy. Not kidding. Someone out there disapprove of everything. And I mean everything, even things that you may think are common sense. Say you don’t clean your plate, someone will disapprove of that. Say you do clean your plate all the time, someone else can disapprove of that. Someone out there disapproves of you for being from the country you’re from, or your skin colour, or your gender.
Caring too much about what other people think is completely futile. Not only can you never please all the people all the time; the diversity inherent in the six billion or so people in the world today ensures that someone out there disagrees and disapproves of everything you do.
As another example, say you don’t talk to strangers because you’re afraid of what they and other people will say. Well, what about those people that disapprove of your fear, or your inaction? Bad actions are not the only thing you can get criticized for; you can also get criticized for inaction.
You may be afraid of what other people will think of you if you start a business. Well, unless you’re around a lot of business owners or your family background involves business owners, you would likely be around people who would disapprove of that. But what about those people who disapprove of your choice to remain an employee? And what about business owners that disapprove of your decision not to start a business, whether you’re an employee or not? Not making a decision is still making a decision.
Even writing this, I’m getting anxious. I can speculate as to the reasons for this. There is a possible sociological reason that a society requires a broad sort of conformity to exist and thus we’re socially conditioned to care about what other people think to keep our actions within some boundaries. A more palatable option might be that we’re not very smart individually, and we try to borrow other people’s brains as much as we can, and we also use those brains to indicate to us how we’re doing and get anxious if the collective judgment isn’t very good.
Another reason might be an evolutionary/neurochemical one. Humans have primate dominance hierarchies and being higher in the hierarchy is better from a survival/reproductive purpose. In fact, at least some aspect of happiness is keyed into this idea, in that the only case where wealth brings happiness is when the wealthy are wealthier than those around them. An oft-cited example is that the person with the cheapest apartment on Park Avenue (a posh neighbourhood in New York) feels like crap. Anyhoo, so caring about your position on the dominance hierarchy is tied into how other people view you and think of you and you care about both because they helped your ancestors survive and give birth to you. Neither of the two explanations is mutually exclusive and neither is not changeable. The Power of Now has helped me care less about what other people think and I highly recommend it.
You may not be face-to-face with these people now, but knowing that you will never, ever gain the approval of everyone all the time forces you to make some choices. The first one is whether you will rest your sense of self on what other people think or believe. Of course it’s a bad idea to rest your sense of self on anything impermanent and especially not a good idea to rest it on something as fickle as other people’s opinions. The point here is not to listen to other people, period, but to become immune to the suggestions that impact your self-worth. If you have a strong idea of who you are, that’ll help. Having multiple and broad roles in life helps, too. For example, if I’m an employee, business owner, brother, son, actor and someone tells me that my acting sucks, then I’ll handle it a lot better than if I was just an actor.
Another piece of advice that comes from The 4-Hour Work Week is to do fear-setting. As in, say you do whatever you want to do and make a complete fool of yourself. What’ll happen? Everyone will think you’re incompetent and no one would want to talk to you? You’ll become so socially repugnant that you won’t even be able to get a job interview for a caretaking gig? Figure out exactly what your worst possible case scenario is. It’s a lot better than weird uncertainty.
In the end, though, the best advice I have is not to care too much what other people think and go about your life and your goals the way you want to.