Why It Matters What People Think

24 March, 2016

Can you relate to being preoccupied with what other people think of you, rather than what you think of yourself? Have you ever had a time where your motivations were only to influence other people's thoughts of you, to ensure they were favourable?  Ever worried so much what people thought of you that it has stopped you doing things? Have you ever felt exhausted by this?!  Seriously, how is it working for you?  Time for something else?

I think if we were being really honest with ourselves we can all relate to these patterns of mind.  I can put my hand up and say that before I started working on and developing myself when I came to New Zealand 11 years ago, I was almost entirely motivated by what other people thought of me.  I had a compulsion to impress those around me, and a need to be liked and accepted into various groups (not just one).  If I got an inkling of not being liked or accepted, I would worry about this a great deal, and I would be easily ‘threatened’ by other people if I thought they would be liked and accepted more than me.  I’d immediately make them either friend or foe - foe so they would bugger off somewhere else, and friend so they would fall in love with me and therefore not pose a threat to any of my other relationships.

As far as strategies go, I wouldn’t say it was entirely unsuccessful.  In fact, it’s very functional in lots of ways - I have a lot of friends! (ha ha).  And - it was exhausting trying to manipulate and control other’s views of me just so I felt OK in the world, and, as you might imagine, leaves your self-esteem in the hands of others. It's the mentality of ‘as long as people like and accept me I’m OK’.  This is understandable and we are going to look at why in a moment.  AND, if it is our only strategy for self-acceptance, then it’s fragile and can be easily broken.  It means that the converse is true - 'if people don't like and accept me I am not OK'.  I agree with Brene Brown’s terminology of ‘hussling for self-esteem’ - doing whatever you need to only to win the approval from others.

So, why do we care, what function does it serve and what can we do about it?

I watched a documentary a while ago called March of the Penguins which followed the journey of the emperor penguins in Antarctica.  The thing that stood out most of all was how they had to huddle together in a blizzard.  Not just because it was nice, but because they would die without each other’s warmth.  In fact, any penguin that got accidentally omitted from the huddle would die.  Not all the penguins needed to know each other in order to be surrounded in a huddle, they just needed a small immediate group of warmth in order to survive.

It got me thinking about how, at the heart of it, we are all social and tribal beings. We need to belong somewhere.  In our hunter-gatherer days, if we weren’t part of a tribe, we would die. We couldn’t hunt and gather, sleep, fight, fly and create warmth and shelter all alone, the circumstances made it impossible to do so.  We know from social psychology research that group or community identity and affiliation is critically important, not just for self-esteem but also for health outcomes.  Belonging to a certain tribe or community is good for us.  This, as we know, can lead to hostility and the rejection of seemingly ‘opposing’ groups which we won’t go into here.  Putting it another way, we need our huddle of penguins not just to survive, but to thrive.

If we’re not accepted into a certain ‘huddle’ - it hurts.  Our nervous system believes it poses a real threat to our survival. This is my theory on why it matters so much to us what people think, and why we can spend so much time trying to make sure this is favourable.  Deep down our nervous system believes this equation - not liked/not accepted = impending death.  The pre-frontal cortex part of our brain is evolved enough to know that this isn’t true these days - we can eat, stay warm and hydrated and make a shelter all on our own, no problem.  However, this isn’t what our deep programming wants.  We are hard-wired for connection to others, and when this is threatened, our very sense of survival is threatened.

So, let’s first develop a deep respect for that deep programming, for our nervous system. It’s doing its job incredibly well, and doing exactly what it’s supposed to do and protect us from threats and harm.  Thank you ancestors!

The only problem is that it can take it too far, and instead of being concerned with the basics of survival we over do it.  We often have more than our one essential huddle of penguins, we have multiple ones: family, friends, church, work team, sports team and so on.  More groups to be positively identified with, and, more potential threats of rejection and non-acceptance.

I listened to some fascinating research given by Barbara Bradley Hagerty on radio the other day. She was mainly talking about ‘mid-life crises’ and how to avoid them, and she talked a lot about relationships, specifically partnerships and marriages.  One piee of research that stood out to me was this:  they had a group of women who were happy in their marriages (‘happy wives’) and a group who were dissatisfied (‘unhappy wives’).  They scanned their brains in a controlled environment and were told to expect an electric shock to their left ankle.  For both groups the fear centre in their brain lit up like crazy.  Then, their husbands came in and held their hand while they were expecting their electric shock.  For the happy wives, the fear significantly reduced.  For the unhappy wives, it actually increased - i.e. not just didn’t reduce but actually increased.  The conductors of the experiment concluded that for these women, their brain had coded the husband as a threat, rather than an ally, a partner or a source of comfort.  Interestingly, after 20 weeks of couple’s therapy and a repeat of the experiment, it changed, and they got the same result as the happy wives.  Said differently, as soon as they learnt to trust their husband again, as soon as they felt safe in their parnership, the coding in their brain changed and they became a source of safety rather than threat.

So my question to you is this - who in your brain could be coded as a threat and why?  What would need to happen for them to feel a source of safety instead?  Who or what CAN you trust that would secure your huddle?  Do you have your huddle, and is your huddle enough?  What’s safe and secure about your huddle?  And if not, how can you make it so?  What would you need to minimise the importance of some of those other penguins?

As always, I am interested in your comments and feedback.  Leave a comment and let’s have a chat.


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