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.