It’s been said that more people are held captive in the prison of their own minds than in all the jail cells in the world… and Worry is their warden. There are countless things that may weigh heavily on our minds, but I have worked with many people who significantly struggle with worrying about what people think about them, and they always pay a price.
Many of the decisions you make on a daily basis, like what to wear, the music to listen to, what to say in a conversation, or who to associate with are governed, in large part, by a goal-directed conscious or unconscious process that attempts to influence what people think about you. We call this process impression management.
As humans, we all have needs for belonging, significance and acceptance. To not think about how others perceive you to some extent is to deny these needs. Unfortunately, many people are trapped by a powerful impulse to over-engage in impression management. In other words, they are overly focused on trying to manage what others think about them in an effort to feel like they are acceptable or good enough.
When a person excessively worries about being accepted and/or approved of by others they likely possess what is called a self-worth contingency. It is the belief that your worth and value are contingent upon the approval or acceptance of others. It is the voice that says, “I am worthwhile as long as I perceive that people accept or approve of me.” This type of self-worth contingency reveals a dependency on the real or imagined opinions and behaviors of others. Unless you work hard to meet this contingency your sense of positive self-worth will always be in jeopardy. This is one of the reasons a person can feel good about themselves one day and then feel completely worthless the next day.
Until you are able to fully understand and accept that your value (significance and importance) and worth (priceless) are intrinsic, and therefore have nothing to do with the opinions or judgments of others, you will always be vulnerable to excessively worrying about what others think about you.
When you successfully internalize the truth about your value and worth you will no longer be held hostage by the opinions of others. It is in this transformation you will experience the freedom to be the genuine article – the real person God created you to be.
In a further effort to help my clients diminish the power they place in the judgments and perceptions of others I encourage them to memorize the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” The truth is, most people are so focused on their own impression management efforts that they really don’t have that much time to think about others, including you.
It’s also important to keep in mind that negative judgment and criticism, more often than not, comes from those who are most dependent on the approval and acceptance of others. People who possess a strong and stable self-esteem are much less likely to negatively judge or critique others and to accept them based on their intrinsic value and worth.
So, does this mean we should never consider how we come across to others? Certainly not. The way others respond can be a valuable tool to gauge our behavior. For many of us, when we were children certain things we said or did would result in getting “the look” from Mom – and she usually didn’t have to do anything but show her disapproval on her face. Her reaction was helpful in teaching us to behave appropriately. As adults, it’s very appropriate to put your best foot forward and to use your gifts, talents and abilities in an effort to maximize your potential and fulfill your purpose; however, never forget that the impressions and perceptions others have of you – good or bad – will never determine your real value and worth.
Live, Work and Relate Well!
Dr. Linaman is a psychologist and executive coach providing counseling and professional development services to individuals, couples, work teams and organizations.