I often talk with people about the idea that they spend a lot of time worried about what other people think of them, or are saying about them, or just in general comparing themselves to others. This focus is an “External Focus”; everything outside of me controls my emotional states, and in this focus we give much of our emotional energy away. We spend or waste a lot of energy being worried, or angry, or hurt about what others think of us, have said about us or to us. No matter what anyone says or thinks of you, they won’t ever tell you anything about who you really are, or why you have done the things you have done, it only tells you about them and what they think. This doesn’t mean that if someone gives us some honest feedback, we shouldn’t listen. But, before we start making changes in ourselves, we should really sit with their feedback and see if it fits for us. Does this feedback feel true? And, if it does, what do we feel we can adjust in ourselves to help us on our journey to being the best human being we can be?
Here is an example: Lets take a person, Jemma, who gets hurt easily and is sensitive. Along comes another person, Jim, who talks badly about Jemma behind her back Maybe she wasn’t friendly enough when they met, according to Jim anyway. She finds out about it. She may be angry or she may be hurt, or just maybe, she really won’t care. The Jemma who is angry and the Jemma who is hurt are both letting what Jim says have meaning (external control). Folks like Jemma care about what other people think of them. They may start talking smack to put Jim in his place. They may withdraw and think people suck, but either way they are letting someone else’s opinion about them harm them or threaten their sense of self. The Jemma who doesn’t care what Jim thinks, (Internal Control), knows that Jim doesn’t really know her, he is just being ugly. That tells her more about Jim than herself. This Jemma can make choices. She can choose to spend less time with Jim or other people like Jim. This Jemma doesn’t waste any energy on someone who has a lot of negative opinions about her and she doesn’t feel the need to engage Jim in a big drama either. She isn’t angry or hurt. She just figures “that’s Jim, and he is who he is.” Part of not being attached to what others think about us is that we learn how to take care of our emotional selves. We learn to develop some clear boundaries with people. Boundaries are important. On the other hand, if my boundary is inflexible or harms another, I may need to look at that. If in looking at it, I may find that the boundary is in fact protecting me from acting in ways that go against my values. The boundary protects me from situations where I may get resentful, or angry, or hurt, then I need to choose my needs first. No one else can decide where my line in the sand on the issue is. If they don’t like it, well, ok. That’s their choice.
It’s a funny grey and wavy line that we have to navigate in life. We need to be flexible enough to reflect on what is in our own best growth interest, and also be able to see where we are being affected by other peoples opinions. I am not responsible for how others feel about my choices. If I am not physically or emotionally harming them, then I get to choose my own path. And, this is important, they may be hurt emotionally that I don’t do something (like date them), or help them in some way (like give them money or time). They may feel hurt, but I don’t have to solve that for them. For example, let’s say I have a friend, the friend is in a terrible financial struggle, due to poor choices and a bad economy. They have a great need for financial help. I could give them money, but it might put me into a financially hard spot. Not helping by giving them money may feel hurtful to them, but I might need to set a line in the sand here, to take care of myself. I might ask myself, did I create their life situation? No. Am I responsible for their struggle? No. If I help them and they don’t return the favor, will I be resentful or angry? Maybe. This may just be the opportunity that I need to strengthen my internal self, shifting to an “Internal Focus”. By my choosing myself and my needs over their needs. I may make them mad at me, but in a situation like this their opinion of me is not any of my business. If they are scared and ask for emotional support, I can be of more help to them in brainstorming solutions. I liken this to the Flight Attendant model, “If the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling, place the mask over your own face first, before helping others.”
Work on being the best human being you can be. Letting go of your attachments to other peoples’ opinions is a step. This step allows us to not take anything personally. When I am not angry or hurt, I can care for others without a lot of expectations about how they are supposed to be. I also get to learn that I can actually take care of my emotional self along the way.