When it comes to what people think of you, it’s been said that ‘bad is stronger than good.’ In a given day, if you hear ninety-nine compliments and one criticism, you know which one will be running through your head as you try to fall asleep that night.
It’s normal to care what people think—most of us care deeply what the people we love and respect think of us. Indeed, it’s hard-wired: not so many hundreds of years ago, banishment was the worst punishment possible. We needed the group just to survive, so our good standing with that group could actually mean the difference between life and death.
Fast forward a few hundred years. These days, we may not rely on a group for food or shelter, but we still rely on those around us for belonging and support.
Talk to the Hand
But ask any given self-help guru about whether you should care what other people think and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get heated advice about how to stop giving two somethings or a flying something else.
Herein lies the problem: the tone of a lot of ‘how to stop caring’ advice is intense and contemptuous, and, at least for me, leaves me feeling like I need to accessorise with an eye roll and a straight-out-of-the 90s ‘talk to the hand’ stance. Not my style, and likely not yours either. (Plus, I always suspect such a vehement reaction means they actually do care—a lot—what people think.)
So let’s go for a middle ground. You want to be able to hear constructive criticism from people who matter to you, while filtering out the gossips, mudslingers, and plain old jerks.
Nine Ways to Shake Off the Hate
This week, we’ll offer a kinder and gentler version of ‘how not to care.’ So when the haters gonna hate, here are nine ways to shake it off.
1. Specify Who You’re Worried About
Our brains love to overgeneralize. If your brain makes you worry that ‘people’ will judge you, ‘everyone’ will think badly, or ‘someone’ will yell at you, ask yourself–who, exactly? Name names. List the specific people you’re worried will judge you. And watch as ‘everyone’ shrinks to just your boss and the gossipy receptionist, not actually everyone. There: much easier to deal with.
2. Identify Whose Voice It Really Is
If you’re afraid of being judged, even though no actual judgment is on the horizon, ask yourself who taught you to be afraid. Did someone in your childhood always fret about, “What will the neighbors think?” or say things like, “Hmm, we’d better not do that. People will think it’s weird.” It could be that the urge to people-please was soundly drilled into you from another generation. The good news? Whatever unhelpful beliefs you learned can be un-learned. With time and practice, you can replace, “What will the neighbors think?” with “Usually, others are too focused on their own lives to judge mine,” or “Most people are accepting and open,” or “Few people will go out of their way to give negative feedback.”
3. Don’t get Defensive as a Reflex
If the basketball arena in your mind yells DE-FENSE, DE-FENSE as a knee-jerk reaction to every criticism, consider doing something revolutionary first: listen. When we put up a wall of defensiveness immediately, everything hits the wall—gripes and complaints for sure, but also good advice and helpful feedback. After you’ve actually listened, you can sift through and decide whether any of the feedback might actually help you do better.
4. Consider the Packaging
If someone has taken the time to deliver constructive feedback to you in a caring way—say, they are careful to critique your product or behavior, not you, or they balance their critiques with genuine compliments—it’s definitely worth listening, even if you ultimately reject their advice.
But if vague, personal attacks like, “You’re an idiot,” are lobbed your way or you get a backhanded compliment like, “Well, at least you’re a hard worker,” you can reject it like last year’s Secret Santa gag gift. Indeed, if someone doesn’t take the time to present their criticism with a little polish, it says more about them than it says about you.
5. Just Because Someone Judges You, Doesn’t Mean They’re Right
It’s important to remember that their opinion isn’t the cold and final truth. You can disagree with your critics. But if you do get the nagging sense that they’re right, try the next tip…
6. Rise Above, or at Least Fake It
Even if you have steam coming out your ears, there are two reasons not to counterattack. Instead, by staying civil, even thanking your critic, you’ll accomplish two things. One, it will appear as if you are unscathed by rude comments and anyone witnessing this will be impressed with your steady rockin’. It’s a rare individual who can field haters without hate. Two, you’ll simply feel proud of yourself. You’ll stand tall instead of stooping to the their level.
7. Think About How Much You can Handle it
Our brains often get stuck in worst-case scenario mode—”Everyone will hate me if I walk in late,” “I’m going to screw this up and get yelled at.” If your brain always gets sucked towards imaginary catastrophes, think about how you would cope in the unlikely event it actually happened. Seriously—who would you call? What could you do? How would you make yourself feel better? Thinking that you’re someone who can handle things even at their worst makes the (again, unlikely) worst-case scenario that much less scary.
8. Remember that People Change their Minds
Today, a hater, tomorrow a fan. People are fickle. Think about how voting shifts from election cycle to election cycle. Think about how trends come and go. If there’s one thing that’s for sure, it’s change. So stick to your guns and let opinions change around you. Eventually you’ll come out on top.
9. Challenge Your Beliefs
Folks who are worried about judgment often carry around perfectionist beliefs—they often think that only a perfect social performance will stave off inevitable harsh criticism. Here’s a way to challenge those beliefs: make some mistakes on purpose and see what happens. Send an email with a deliberate typo, allow for a few seconds of awkward silence during a conversation, or ask the clerk at the hardware store if they carry sunscreen. You’ll learn what usually happens when you make a mistake: nothing.
To wrap up, you are your own worst critic. This makes sense; in your life, you have the most at stake. But every other person on the planet is also the biggest stakeholder in his or her life, which means they aren’t focusing on yours. So rest easy–criticism happens, but approach it like a yard sale: snap up the rare and helpful gems and walk away from the rest.
Ellen Hendriksen is the author of How to be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.