Zelophehad’s Daughters

Caring What Others Think

Posted by Lynnette

There is a conversation which I have seen repeated over and over. It goes something like this. Person A: “I’m upset because I did/said x and I got a negative reaction, people are annoyed with me, etc.” Person B: “Your problem is that you care too much what others think. You need to stop worrying about that.” Seeing variations on this basic exchange on a regular basis has led me to reflect on the question of whether it is necessarily negative to care what others think, a flaw to be overcome, as it is so regularly framed.

The ideal of not caring what other think, it seems to me, overlooks a basic element of being human: we are deeply social beings, and relationships with others play a huge role in both our identity and our well-being. Given that, how could the ways in which people react to us not be important? At least some amount of caring about such things seems to be the inevitable price we pay for belonging to communities. You may choose to pay no attention to the way in which others react to you, to ignore the effects of your actions and behavior in a single-minded pursuit of absolute independence and authenticity–but it is likely to come at the cost of  connections to others. (Here in our blogging community, I note, those who insist on saying whatever they want, however they want to say it, with no concern at all for how they might be coming across or affecting the community, are more likely to be banned than admired for their unconcern about such matters.)

I also see a bit of irony in the very ideal of detached autonomy. Because it is, like all other ideals, a value that is socially and culturally mediated. In American culture, there is a great deal of admiration for those who virtuously refuse to be affected by the views of the presumably brainwashed masses, who don’t go with the flow. To follow one’s own path in the face of overwhelming pressure to conform–that is our narrative of courage. Yet it is hard not to notice that this assertion of independence, this professed indifference to popular opinion, is in fact an extremely popular–and socially validated–stance to take.

I am all too aware that one can go too far in the other direction, censor oneself to the point of invisibility out of fear of making too many waves. Yet it is telling that in the culture in which we live, those who err on the side of “caring too much” are described in terms of weakness: they are too sensitive, they need to grow a thicker skin. Those who err in the opposite direction, by contrast, can speak with pride about how they refuse to be affected by such petty concerns as how others might react to them. Overlooked in this model is the fact that it also takes a kind of strength to allow oneself to be affected by others–in other words, to be in relationship.

I therefore have questions about the common narrative of personal growth in which one shifts from “caring what others think of you” to “being oneself, no matter what anyone thinks about it.” I wonder if there might be a better way to describe this than in terms of  “caring” (bad) vs. “not caring” (good).  I am also skeptical of the premise that “being oneself” and “caring what others think” are mutually exclusive, given that our relationships play such a foundational role in making us who we are. In an LDS worldview in particular, autonomy and independence will not bring us salvation, will not allow us to reach our full potential.  I would certainly concede that living one’s life crippled by anxiety about what others might think is far from optimal.  But I do not believe that the underlying concern, the caring what others think, is itself pathological or a problem to fixed.  On the contrary, I see it as a crucial part of what makes us human.

19 Responses to “Caring What Others Think”

  1. 1.

    “I am also skeptical of the premise that “being oneself” and “caring what others think” are mutually exclusive”

    Amen!

    This is why when dooce gleefully tells an embarrassing story about her mom and adds that her mom asked her not to put the story on her website, I just shake my head and feel really glad I’m not her mom. Especially when elsewhere she’s described how hard her mom works to maintain their relationship, I just don’t get how she thinks that this kind of mean-spirited thing is funny. It’s not, to me.

    I do think it’s important to have the courage to say and do what’s good and right in the face of all odds, but I don’t at all think it follows that offending others is always what’s good and right. While I don’t think we have to mince our words or cloak our actions in a hide-your-light-under-a-bucket way, and it’s true that sinners are frequently offended by righteousness, it’s also true that if we have real compassion and have developed our ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes and see through their eyes, we’ll be disinclined to intentionally do anything that would hurt them–unless we absolutely have to in order to be true to God. But I still think we’ll seek for ways to be peacemakers.

    By the way, I did assume that those people you’re describing who are being lauded for “being themselves” aren’t usually doing so in the cause of religion; (other than secular zealotry); I only brought up the example of being one’s self for the sake of following God because I think that’s a clear case where avoiding “fear of man” is definitely a virtue.

    On a related topic, I’ve noticed that when people have told me that they were “on their own path right now” or some variation of that sentiment, it’s usually meant they were pursuing a lifestyle out of keeping with the commandments.

  2. 2.

    I liked this post, Lynette, perhaps because I do care what others think. Normally I’m fine with that, but sometimes i do let the rhetoric get to me and think that that is a weakness of my personality. So I appreciated your defense of such caring.

  3. 3.

    I think that it is a balance. It’s important to remain aware of what other people think – what’s going on in your society/culture but also be true to yourself.

    After all, in the end, your opinion is all that matters. If you don’t approve of yourself, no one will approve of you. (You may not approve of all parts of yourself, of everything, but the main part is what I’m talking about).

    Others may come and go – but you have the final say.

    Finding that balance is very difficult.

    I will note your first conversation, where someone said “you care too much about what other people think”. Believe it or not, I used to hear this quite frequently.

    Then I stopped sharing my thoughts and feelings with the people who would say something like that. Instead, I shared my thoughts and feelings with people who truly cared and were truly ready to listen. And who would call me on my stuff – making sure I wasn’t dwelling in self-pity. I’ve also shared with loved ones that saying something like “you’re too sensitive” is simply not very helpful.

    Now I don’t hear that criticism (it’s been some time) and it’s wonderful. I stop myself and think before I share – framing things in terms of anger or fear – my own feelings.

    You have a right to your own feelings and perspective.

    Sometimes a person’s reaction has much to do with _them_ and not at all about you, about what you did or didn’t do. Just some random thoughts I had reading your post.

  4. 4.

    .

    Oh great.

    One more paradox to navigate.

  5. 5.

    n an LDS worldview in particular, autonomy and independence will not bring us salvation, will not allow us to reach our full potential.

    That’s a complicated statement, particularly when we assert that we are punished and saved on our own merits…

    Sure, exaltation depends on a marriage relationship (either entered into here or in the eternities somewhere), but it’s an individual effort that comes first…

  6. 6.

    Queuno, I agree with you in the sense that no one can force us to be saved without our consent, but I agree with Lynnette in the sense that to be saved we have to have done everything within our power to help save others by bringing them to Christ. If we’ve done all we can and yet everyone around us chooses to go the other way, then we’re free and clear, but I can think of plenty of scriptures that make it clear that once we’re saved we should turn our attention to helping others.

  7. 7.

    I always care what other people think. It’s hard not to be myself, but I feel very badly when it upsets people, even if I don’t like them.

  8. 8.

    I think that the context may matter. When it comes to how many children I have, my hair color, what I eat, what car I drive, etc., I truly don’t care what anyone else thinks. Those are outside the stewardship of most people who give their opinion to me, which doesn’t stop them from giving it:) And if they get offended, tough, because it is none of their business, anyway.

    About things like how I serve in the church, my co-workers, etc. I am part of a larger organization when I function in those ways, so they do have a legitimate say, and I do care about serving them in a manner that meets their needs.

    The notion of a “narrative of personal growth” seems to imply that all caring is alike, and I think the context does matter.

  9. 9.

    But I do not believe that the underlying concern, the caring what others think, is itself pathological or a problem to fixed. On the contrary, I see it as a crucial part of what makes us human.

    Indeed. Even radical revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock and their colleagues recognized what Lynnette identifies as crucial. The famous sentence in the Declaration of Independence beginning “When in the course of human events …” ends with the acknowledgement that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

  10. 10.

    Now Lynnette, you don’t have to beat around the bush, if you’re really that upset that you didn’t place first in the Niblets, you can just come out and say it.

  11. 11.

    I find it interesting that this conversation hasn’t (yet) addressed the idea of caring about the opinions of some people but not others. In my mind, the key thing is to identify the people who have good judgment and shared values, and to give their opinions more weight. Remembering that I have wise friends and mentors who have helped shape my actions and values helps me ignore the crazy or annoying people who don’t approve of my choices.

  12. 12.

    I decided that I don’t care what people think of my process, but I do care what they think of my product.

  13. 13.

    Last Lemming,

    That is a marvelous way of phrasing it. I think I agree with you (I’ll know better after I’ve mulled it for a bit . . . you know, processed it). I’m going to quote you . . . Thanks.

  14. 14.

    Katya, so true. You know, my daughter drives me crazy because she will hang on my every word and attribute meaning I didn’t mean, then hate me for it. I wish she didn’t care so much what I said, because it makes me a nervous wreck.

  15. 15.

    Thanks for the comments, all; you’ve brought up some points I hadn’t really considered.

    Zina, thanks for your thoughts; I like what you say about seeking to be peacemakers. And this got me thinking:

    By the way, I did assume that those people you’re describing who are being lauded for “being themselves” aren’t usually doing so in the cause of religion; (other than secular zealotry); I only brought up the example of being one’s self for the sake of following God because I think that’s a clear case where avoiding “fear of man” is definitely a virtue.

    This probably isn’t quite what you’re talking about here, but I do think this dynamic plays out in the area of religion. I’m thinking of the way in which this narrative shows up in the context of our own religious community–we love stories about people who defended the faith in a hostile environment, but we don’t tell as many about people who realized that there are times when loudly proclaiming your testimony isn’t actually the best move. And more internally, we talk about the liberal who dares to challenge a conventional interpretation at church, or the conservative who bravely stands up for truth among a group of apostate-sounding Mormons.

    This is something I really struggle with personally as far as finding a balance—on the one hand, I get frustrated when I feel like I have to drastically censor myself at church, but on the other, I do think there’s something to be said for respecting community norms. (On a related note, I also think it’s worth acknowledging that of course community expectations affect us, rather than lecturing people for caring too much if they at times find those expectations difficult.)

    But getting back to your comment, I have to admit that I’ve struggled a bit with the ideal of fearing God more than [wo]man. Maybe if it were framed as “your relationship to God is ultimately the highest priority, but that’s not to say that other relationships don’t matter, deeply” as opposed to the, “don’t worry about what others think, only worry about what God thinks” version. I think I’ve had too many bad experiences with people using the latter as justification for acting obnoxious. Or using it as a kind of weapon (e.g, what’s wrong with you that you care what others think, and not just God? you must have no faith). Hmm. Maybe what I’m trying to get at is that as I see it, God doesn’t ask us to abandon our relationality to follow him, but rather wants us to follow him as the relational beings that we are.

    Thanks, Kevin! I appreciate your kind comment, because truth to tell, I care what you think. :)

    aerin, I appreciate your thoughts. I agree that it’s a balance–and often a tough one to find. Like you, I’ve found the line “you’re too sensitive” to be strikingly unhelpful; that’s great that you’ve found a better way of dealing with the issue. And that’s a good reminder that people’s reactions as often as not are about them; that’s something I don’t remember as often as I could.

    This is very much a challenge for me (as is probably obvious), and I think I’ve finally started to figure out that criticizing myself for being sensitive and reacting strongly to things doesn’t really get me anywhere. It’s much more effective, I’ve found, to accept that I’m prone to reacting intensely–a fact which poses both benefits and challenges–and my task is to go from there and think about how to responsibly work with that, instead of trying to turn it off.

    Th., admit it, you love a good paradox.

    queuno,

    That’s a complicated statement, particularly when we assert that we are punished and saved on our own merits…

    Sure, exaltation depends on a marriage relationship (either entered into here or in the eternities somewhere), but it’s an individual effort that comes first…

    I’m not trying to downplay the role of individual effort, but I’d take issue with the assertion that we’re saved on our own merits. The fact that salvation requires a relationship with Christ already goes against any ideal of autonomy, I would say. But my point here was more that in an LDS worldview, the highest form of existence isn’t to be a completely autonomous and independent individual. That’s an aspect of Mormonism that I really like, that relationships with other human beings matter in a way that’s eternally significant.

  16. 16.

    I always care what other people think. It’s hard not to be myself, but I feel very badly when it upsets people, even if I don’t like them.

    Awesome comment, annegb.

    Naismith, that’s a really good point about context. I realize that I’m talking about this rather vaguely, and you’re right to point out that there are different kinds of issues, and different situations. Clearly if you’re working in an organizational capacity with someone, their views are relevant. I’m probably thinking about this in a more informal context, and that’s where I need to parse this out more–because even in some of my more personal decisions, I can’t say I’m entirely immune to the influence (and anticipated reactions) of others.

    Thanks Ardis! Very nice to have the Declaration of Independence on my side.

    Jessawhy, you’ve figured me out. I saw the Niblets results and immediately composed this post in a fit of rage. (Actually—and this is only because I care so much what others think–I was enormously flattered that anyone voted for me for anything, especially given the extent to which I’ve fallen into blogging slackerdom.)

    Katya, that’s another good qualification that I hadn’t taken into account, and one that’s clearly relevant. Some people’s opinions definitely matter to me a lot more than others. Random person on the street telling me that the end is nigh—not so much. My advisor telling me that the end is nigh—a little more cause for concern. I think Starfoxy once mentioned that she found it more difficult to comment on blogs once she knew people, because she cared more what they thought, which is a dynamic that makes a lot of sense to me.

    Last Lemming, that’s an intriguing way of putting it; I’ll have to think about that.

  17. 17.

    Lynnette: #15, I like the way that you highlighted the paradox with Queno’s comment:
    “That’s a complicated statement, particularly when we assert that we are punished and saved on our own merits…”
    adding scriptural references
    2. We believe that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression.”
    and
    Rom. 14: 12
    12 So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.
    your counterpoint was: “That in an LDS worldview, the highest form of existence isn’t to be a completely autonomous and independent individual. That’s an aspect of Mormonism that I really like, that relationships with other human beings matter in a way that’s eternally significant.”
    So, I am left confused by the patriarchial attitude toward women demonstratred in the LDS Church.
    Men are punished for their own sins, and women are told we are to hearken to (listen and obey) our husbands due to Eve’s transgressions.
    This blog has eloquent participants, whose opinions I have learned to admire. What do you think the paradox would be in these two ideas.

  18. 18.

    I had one more link to this discussion to connect the ideas, but the mushrooms for dinner were starting to burn and I had to send and run. blogging is why my cooking is so inconsistent.
    If we acknowledge that this is a patriarchial religion, it would make sense that those who are not in power, would care much more about whether they pleased others, especially those who are in power in the organization. Does our status as women in a partirarchial system, influence our confidence and our willingness to engage in conversations that may cause conflict with others.

  19. 19.

    I recently heard a way of phrasing this idea (that we are social beings, and other people’s opinions do matter in meaningful ways) that was very concise.

    It’s like telling to a fish to just ignore the water and swim wherever it wants to.

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