The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages. – Virginia Woolf
Most people are victims of an odd obsession, one that causes them to spend their time worrying about what other people are thinking.
It’s odd because it’s just guesswork; pure fantasy that we create in our minds.
Somewhere inside of us, we know this truth, but we continue nonetheless.
And it is this incessant fascination with what fills the minds of other people that is the cause of so much anxiety and worry.
It’s time to quit this habit. It’s time to take back control of your mind. It’s time to stop caring what others think of you.
But let’s take this one step at a time.
First, we need to explore the reasons why you care so much what anyone thinks.
Then we need to identify some of the things that might be making the situation worse.
And, finally, we’ll dive into some of the ways that you can break free from this need to dwell so long on the thoughts of others.
Why Do I Care What People Think Of Me?
There isn’t a single cause or reason why we worry so much about the perceptions of other people. There are many.
Identifying the combination of reasons why YOU care so much about how you come across to others is vital if you are to begin to care less and eventually not care much at all.
Most of the reasons stem from one part of your psyche…
Your ego is the part of you that you likely identify with most. It is the “I” that speaks much of the time; the “self” that you refer to.
And it’s not all bad. The ego sometimes plays an important positive role in how we act or feel or view the world.
But the ego also generates some of the negative thought patterns we experience, including our obsession with what others think of us.
Why does it do this?
Self-doubt: when we are unsure in ourselves and our abilities, we look to others to provide reassurance. We ask them to fill our ephemeral, ethereal beings with confidence.
We seek regular reinforcement of our fragile self-belief so that we may push our self-doubt down into a dark corner of our minds where it cannot affect us.
The problem comes when we do not receive the necessary words of encouragement from others to convince us of our self-worth.
Instead, we turn to our imaginations and construct our own versions of what others think. We fabricate their opinions of us.
But when you already feel insecure, the thoughts that you put into other people’s heads are likely to be less than kind.
You project your feelings of self-doubt outwards and convince yourself that others have the same doubts about you that you have of yourself.
If you think of yourself as weak, you believe that others see you as weak. If you worry that you’re not attractive, you convince yourself that others think you’re ugly.
Whatever negative thoughts you have about yourself become the negative thoughts other people must have of you too. This is what you tell yourself.
If you are self-confident, however, this need for reassurance is markedly reduced and so you worry less about what others are thinking.
The need to be liked: another way in which we put a value on our selves is by judging how well liked we are by others.
We want to feel like we belong, we want to be a part of something, we want to believe that we can depend on those around us should we need their help in times of trouble.
This is why loneliness is so detrimental to our mental health. When we have no one around us, we have no safety net to catch us when we fall.
And even when we have friends and loved ones in our lives, can we ever really be sure what they think of us and how far they would go to lend a hand?
That nagging self-doubt we just spoke about will rear its ugly head and cause us to doubt the true feelings of our friends and family.
We worry too much about the thoughts of others because they are hidden from us. They are unknowns and this scares us.
Until we can be sure that a good friend truly is a friend and not someone who just “keeps us around” for ulterior motives, we will fixate on what they think of us.
Our desire to impress: tying in closely with the need to be liked is the need to impress others.
This need is often motivated by some personal gain – whether to boost our prospects of a raise at work, to win favor in a social circle, or to attract a romantic interest.
So we do things that we think will excite, inspire, or arouse feelings in others.
Unfortunately, the signs that our attempts have worked are not always forthcoming. It is not always obvious when someone has been impressed by your efforts.
And even if they are on show, many people are rubbish at reading these signs.
So they question themselves.
“Am I not good enough? Am I not worthy? Did I do something wrong?”
You try to peer inside the minds of others, but you can’t. So you worry and fret and occupy your mind with made up thoughts about what they are thinking.
Avoiding humiliation: why does it feel so bad when others laugh at you, mock you, or pour scorn over your choices in life?
Humiliation is not only an act by others, it is the resulting wound inflicted upon your ego. Humiliation makes you feel small and poor and worthless.
The ego wishes to avoid those feelings at all costs. To achieve this, it must identify potential threats and act to neutralize them. It can be considered a defense mechanism of sorts, designed to avoid the emotional trauma of shame and embarrassment.
So you spend time worrying about who might dislike you, why they dislike you, and what you might be able to do to appease them.
The belief that we are defined by others: as stated earlier, your ego is the part of you that you most closely associate with your “self.”
But by whom is this self defined?
The ego believes that a large part of who you are – of who it is – comes from how other people view you.
Therefore, you must know what other people think about you so that you can know yourself better.
And who doesn’t want to “discover” who they really are? Truly knowing yourself brings a peace and serenity to life.
Hence why you can become consumed by the need to know what other people are thinking.
The belief that popularity equals happiness: another myth that the ego believes is that the more popular you become, the happier you’ll be.
But here’s the funny part, you can’t ever be sure if you’re popular or not because you’d have to be 100% certain that the affection being shown was genuine.
So what do you do? You think doubly hard about what others think of you.
Do these people really like you or are they just pretending? Do they like you for who you are, or for what you can do for them? Are they taking advantage of you?
So, in many ways, the desire to be more popular is more likely to lead to unhappiness than happiness.
You’ll spend so much time trapped by the fear of what others think, that you won’t be able to enjoy their company – whether they are genuine or not.
Aside from factors concerning the ego, there might be another root cause of why we care so much about what other people think of us.
Perhaps – and this now shifts into the realms of speculation – it comes from the way our ancestors lived and, indeed, how our primate cousins live now.
Maybe we have inherited some genes which predispose us to this kind of thought process.
There is surely some survival value in knowing how other members of our social groups view us.
Where am I on the social ladder? What role am I required to play? Do I need to change my behavior to please a dominant figure?
Does the dominant figure see me as a threat? Could I challenge him or should I submit?
Will that female let me mate with her? Is that male a threat to my offspring?
While it is highly unlikely that our ancestors spent as much time as we do tormenting ourselves in this way, they may have had to ponder such questions and consider how others in their group might behave.
That wraps up the first section. Did any of it jump out at you as the reason(s) you care so much about what other people think of you?
If so, that’s a good thing. Knowing the cause(s) is the first step to taking positive action.
But before we get to that, let’s explore some things that may be making your obsession worse.
Factors That Amplify The Worry
The root causes described in section one can be made worse by other factors. Think of these factors as fuel that gets added to the existing fire of thought burning in your mind.
Factors such as…
Insecurities: if you have particular hang-ups that get you down, you may think about them often. Some, potentially most, of these thoughts will relate to how others see or think about you.
Perhaps you have body issues, are unemployed, are concealing mental health issues, or are hiding other aspects of your personality because you feel ashamed of them.
If you think about these things a lot, you may worry that others think about them too (or, in the case of hiding something, that they know about it).
Personal and lifestyle choices: sometimes, it is what you choose to do in life that makes you wonder how others view you.
Whether that’s staying celibate until marriage, converting to a different religion, moving to another country, or going vegan, your choices may well impact how others see and treat you.
This can leave you more vulnerable to the types of thoughts we’re discussing here.
Your failures: when we try and fail, it can leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Sometimes, part of the disappointment stems from the worry about how others will react to your failure.
Will they laugh at you, will they belittle you, will they say “I told you so” and revel in your misery?
Will they look down on you, will they pity you, might they even turn their backs on you?
Social media: our virtual interconnectedness is both a marvel and a potential cause for concern.
Remember we discussed a need to be liked in section one? Well, through the rise of social media, we can now measure how well we are liked by how many “friends” or “followers” we have and how many reactions and comments people leave on our posts.
This also feeds the myth that popularity equals happiness. We think that our smiles will grow in proportion to how many digital connections we make.
Gossip columns: “Revealed: celeb shocker as star displays bingo wings on Mexican beach holiday!”
That’s the sort of headline that sells magazines and drives internet clicks all over the world.
But it also makes you wonder: if people are thinking about how this celebrity looks or acts or who they choose to date, they probably enjoy gossiping about their friends/workmates/acquaintances/complete strangers too.
In which case, I need to worry about what they are saying about me (or so the flawed logic goes).
Stress and anxiety: when events put us under pressure, our minds can react in various ways, one of which is to think that we are also under greater scrutiny.
If we’re given a tight deadline at work, we worry what the boss will say if we miss it.
If we end our marriage, we reflect on who people will blame and whether they’ll disapprove.
If we’re running late for dinner with friends, we fret that they may think we’re unreliable.
On the whole, stressful times tend to lend themselves to negative thoughts and assumptions, some of which will concern how others view us.
Meeting new people: it’s pretty obvious, but when you have to meet new people for the first time, you may be more self-conscious and wonder what they think of you.
After all, you may be trying to impress them – a cause we looked at in section one.
Imposter syndrome: perhaps you feel as though you are a fraud and that you will get found out as such any day now.
Without question, if you suffer from this, you will be thinking a lot about what other people think about you.
After confrontation: if you’ve had a bust-up with someone – be that a friend, partner, family member, or colleague – once the dust has settled, you’ll probably wonder what they’re thinking.
Are they still mad? Do they blame you for the fight? Have you hurt them? Will they be able to forgive and forget?
Comparing yourself to others: maybe you see the success of others and you envy their lives.
If it seems as though they have everything going for them, it might make you question what you have going for you (feeding the insecurities we spoke of above).
And if you question these things, you’ll probably worry that other people will be thinking these things about you too.
Social media only makes this worse because we are able to peer into the carefully curated lives of others multiple times a day.
Anything that makes you feel judged: many of these amplifying factors share a common thread: judgement.
In any situation where you feel someone is judging you, the mind can’t help but wonder what they are thinking and why. After all, wouldn’t you want to know these things?
This is more common for those whose race, religion, sexuality, or political beliefs are in the minority, especially if these things cause tension in your community.
The things mentioned in this section all intensify the thought processes that cause us to become consumed by worries of what people think.
As with section one, being able to relate to one or more of these points can help you when it comes to addressing the problem.
So let’s look at this final step now…
How To Care Less About What People Think And Focus On Yourself
If you spend half your life worrying what other people are thinking, how can you turn the tap and stop those thoughts flowing into your head?
Many of the steps you can take involve challenging your thoughts and rationally counteracting them.
In this way, you can begin to change your mindset from one that cares what people think to one that doesn’t give a damn.
Let’s take a look at some of the things you can do.
Realize that people don’t really think about you much: if you could look inside someone else’s head for a minute, you’d see that they have many of the same worries as you do.
And, more importantly, you’d realize that they spend most of their time thinking about their own lives, their own problems, and their own actions.
In other words, they are not thinking about you. Not unless you are someone really important in their lives.
Even our good friends probably spend very little time thinking about us when we’re not with them. And as for the person on the street, they will probably walk past you without giving you a second thought.
At age 20, we worry about what others think of us. At age 40, we don’t care what they think of us. At age 60, we discover they haven’t been thinking of us at all. – Ann Landers
The important people think highly of you: those who really mean something to you aren’t going to go around thinking bad things about you.
Whatever problems you may be facing or insecurities you have, if they love and care for you, they’ll be thinking compassionate thoughts and asking how they can help you.
They won’t be ridiculing you in their heads or criticizing your every move.
And those who aren’t important to you? Who the hell cares what they think – they’re NOT important for you.
Your happiness and peace of mind are not dependent on other people: IF someone IS thinking about you, what does that mean for you? In the immediate here and now, not a lot.
You won’t ever know for sure if someone is thinking about you or what they’re thinking. You worrying about it makes no difference to what they may or may not be thinking.
All you can do is focus on your own thoughts. What this means is that your happiness depends on what you choose to think about, not on what other people might be thinking.
What they are thinking is irrelevant. They may be criticizing you or even focusing anger, resentment, jealousy, or some other negative emotion at you, but that’s in their heads, not yours.
You can choose to think about something positive, or to not think at all and just be mindful.
Perfection is non-existent: if we go back to those causes from section one, we can remind ourselves that we might obsess over what others are thinking because we want to be liked and we want to impress others.
A consequence of this is that we strive to be perfect so that people will like us. We want to be the perfect friends or lovers, say the perfect things at the perfect time, look perfect, and have perfect things.
I hate to break it to you: perfection doesn’t exist.
No one is perfect because everything is subjective. There is no single version of perfection.
We all have good points and we all have flaws. That’s how we are. If you can accept that, you won’t care so much about what people are thinking.
Once you’ve accepted your flaws, no one can use them against you. – Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones
Be the person you want to be, not the person you think others want you to be: by caring so much about what other people think, you are effectively handing them the keys to your life.
You change your actions, make different choices, and believe different things. You present a person that you think others will like.
You tell yourself that if you do this, they will think better of you than they already do. This will quell the worry you live with.
Only, it won’t.
It won’t because you’ll still be forever in the dark about what kind of person they would like you to be. You’ll have to guess. And because you won’t know for sure, your worries will persist.
What’s more, when you look back on your life, you’ll realize that you’ve been living life for someone else, not for yourself. And you’ll regret it.
If you can look deep down and ask what type of person you really want to be, and then be that person, you’ll stop caring what other people think. You’ll be living an authentic life and you’ll be in control of it.
All stress, anxiety, depression, is caused when we ignore who we are, and start living to please others. – Paulo Coelho
Build your self-esteem and confidence: if you have belief and confidence in yourself, the thoughts and opinions of other people won’t matter so much to you.
In knowing who you are, what you stand for, and what you bring to the lives of others, you won’t feel such a need to be liked or to impress them.
Being such big topics by themselves, we recommend that you read this article on growing self-esteem and this article which contains some great affirmations to build confidence.
These things take time, so be patient and be compassionate with yourself as you go.
Change the stories you tell yourself: if you look at the causes listed in section one, you’ll find that most link directly to the stories we tell ourselves in our heads.
Just listen to that inner voice of yours; what does it say? What we tell ourselves is important because we are likely to believe it.
So when we say, “I must be popular because X, Y, and Z,” we believe it. This is what then leads us to question whether or not we are popular.
We don’t challenge our thoughts enough. We don’t question what our own mind is telling us.
But we should. We should examine our thoughts carefully and look for where they are irrational or unfounded.
Then we can dismiss unhelpful, untrue notions and replace them with more realistic, positive stories – stories that relate to some of the other points in this section.
Instead of “everyone is looking at me and judging the way I look,” we can remind ourselves of the truth that is, “people are not fixated on how I look; they are busy thinking about themselves.”
Exposure therapy: to train our brains to overcome our fears, we can try exposing ourselves to the very things we’re afraid of.
So, in this case, we can put ourselves in situations where we worry people might be thinking about us and judging us.
Perhaps you go out without makeup, or you throw some shapes on the dance floor, or you make your true views known about a particular subject.
If there is something where you feel like people are being overly interested in what you look like, what you’re doing, or what you think, do it. And do it again and again.
Then watch what happens.
You’ll find that the sky doesn’t come crashing down, your life hasn’t all but ended, your friends haven’t abandoned you, and you haven’t faced public humiliation.
Instead, you’ll probably experience a feeling of pure liberation. You’ll feel pride in yourself, utter relief in being able to show your true colors, and a sense of peace and calm as your frantic mind slows down.
Speaking of slowing your mind down…
Practice mindfulness: one way to stop caring so much about what other people think is to clear your mind and try to focus on the present moment.
Mindful practices like meditation, yoga, and carefree play can help break the cycle of obsessive thought and worry.
While being grounded in the now, it is virtually impossible to think or worry about other people’s opinions of you.
In this final section, we’ve explored some ways to stop worrying what others think of you.
One key message to come out of it is to worry about yourself, not others. Work on living an authentic life, one where your happiness does not depend on others.
Live a life that puts your own peace of mind first and challenge thought patterns that take this peace away from you.
When combined with the first two sections, we’ve explored the psychology of this common, but harmful mental habit and we’ve hopefully given you some insight into why you think this way and what you can do to stop it.