Why you have to care about what other people think of you.

Hero-WorshipA friend just linked, on Facebook, to this article about why you should stop caring about what other people think:

Living a life that follows the ideal notions of what other people think is a terrible way to live. It makes you become the spineless spectator who waits for other people to take action first.

I agree with several things about this article. Other people are the worst. And, generally speaking, they–even your closest friends–are not able to help you make decisions that will increase your emotional well-being, because they have no access to it. I give people advice all the time that I would never take. For instance, when people are agonizing over their novels and wondering whether to give up, I’m all like, “Don’t give up. Keep trucking! Quitting makes you a quitter! Revise it and send it out!”

However, I’ve given up on plenty of novels in my life, and it’s always been an excellent decision. That’s because I have observed myself, and I know what’s good for me. But I don’t tell them it’s okay to quit, because I don’t trust them to know when it’s alright to quit and when it’s not alright.

So yes, in principle, it’s best to not pay attention to what people think.

In practice, though, it’s not possible.

This is for three reasons. Firstly, sometimes you just want this person to like you (or continue liking you), and you need to take their thoughts, opinions, and desires into account. Secondly, sometimes people tell you things–even painful things–that you genuinely do need to hear, and if you’re in a mindset where you’re always like, “Rah, I know what’s good for me!” then you’ll tend to ignore them.

Those two are the uncontroversial reasons. I’m sure even the article writer would agree that in those cases, it’s wise to listen.

However, there is  third (and much more common) reason why you need to listen to what other people think.

And it’s because you’re living a lie.

Yes, right now, you are living a lie. You’re living in some weird fantasy version of your life where you possess all kinds of attributes (talent, determination, beauty, ruthlessness, kindness, etc) that you, in actuality, don’t really have. That’s because we, as human beings, are not really capable of understanding how mediocre and non-special we really are. Because we are ourselves, we craft a narrative whereby our lives are, for some reason, worth living. We tell ourselves that there is some weird way in which the universe cares about and notices us. I think this is true even for people who are depressed or have low self-esteem. We are all constantly building this narrative around ourselves (“I used to be like this, but then that thing happened, and now I am this other way…”)

And that narrative is what gives meaning to life. It tells us the next thing that we ought to do.

But that narrative relies on other people to support it. You can’t be anything–kind or tough or beautiful or earnest or whatever–except in relation to other people.

In order to hold onto your narrative, you need other people to support it.

In practice, they don’t need to give it very much support. Because human beings are so good at creating patterns, we’ll ignore anything that doesn’t fit our narrative and hold tightly to any evidence that does. But we do need other people to give us something.

When other people say things that make us question our narrative, then it’s extremely painful. When our narrative comes into question, we all have to face up to the truth that we are living a lie. And no one wants to do that. So, in response, we need to do something when other people question us. We either need to change their opinion of us (by acting differently) or we need to seek out someone who’s willing to contradict it for us or we need to put ourselves in a situation where they’re no longer able to speak to us.

But I do not think that not caring about other peoples’ opinions is an option, because our narrative cannot be maintained without the help of other people. The exception, of course, is if you’re willing to abandon your narrative and try to live without it.

However, if you disregard the narrative, then you’re forced to confront the fact that you are not special and that life is meaningless. In this state, there is, literally, no reason to keep living. You might be able to keep doing it, out of habit or stolid resolve, but that hardly seems like a victory.

3 thoughts on “Why you have to care about what other people think of you.

  1. Matt

    I think the one nuance is that caring what other people say, or what they tell you, is different than caring what they think about you.

    If somebody gives you feedback, pay attention to it. But don’t guess at what somebody’s feedback might be if they were to give it to you, and then put a lot of weight into what you guessed this hypothetical feedback might be based on what you thought they were thinking.

    One is sensical. The other is just plain insecure and will hold you back.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I think they’re similar, though, in that you need what people think about you to accord, in some way, with your self-image. Sometimes, though, they say things that make it impossible to believe that.

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