From the moment we’re born until the day we die we are continually absorbing messages that tell us who we are, what we’re worth as human beings, what we should be doing at any given time, how we should look (and especially how we shouldn’t look), what we should eat, what we should buy, what activities or careers we should or should not engage in, and so on.
Opinions come from near, they come from afar, but for sure, they come, and they never stop.
So it’s no surprise that by the time we’re in our 40s or 50s, the stereotypical desire to ‘find ourselves’ begins to settle in. In other words, many of us have been so influenced by ‘outside’ opinions throughout our lives that we’ve literally lost touch with the only opinion that really matters: our own.
A day doesn’t go by in my role as a psychotherapist where I don’t witness the enormously painful impacts the opinions of others have had upon my clients.
Many of them have spent their lifetimes attempting to gain approval or recognition from others, even sacrificing their own sense of self-esteem, and worse, self-respect, to do so.
When we’re young, we live in fear of being viewed as ‘different’, as an ‘outsider’, or even more terrifying, as a ‘weird’ outsider and, unfortunately, not much changes as we grow up. Most of us still try to live within societal expectations, as well as family expectations, in order to fit in, and often once we do, we find our life doesn’t bring us much authentic joy or happiness.
But once we realize that, do we step out of that framework and commit to being ‘our own person’?
Rarely. Most people continue to live in fear of not fitting in, not being accepted, and not being approved of by others.
In my youth, I spent more than two decades struggling off and on with an eating disorder, and the root of it? Well, the messages that I received from both ‘near and afar’ about how I should look as a young woman.
It was a painful struggle, and it was at the time when few people (even doctors) understood eating disorders. In fact, when I sought help from my family doctor after losing a tremendous amount of weight, his eyes widened with interest, and he asked if I would be willing to share my secret with him because he needed to lose some weight, too.
Yes, mind-blowing, indeed.
At the time, eating disorders were generally written off as an odd, or even ‘neurotic’ behavior (or as an envied skill, as per my doctor). Perhaps I was neurotic, but that’s altogether another issue!
But for sure, in the absence of framing eating disorders within a sociological context, we surely wouldn’t be able to understand why thousands of women (and many men) suffer from this devastating, and often fatal, disease.
We live in fear of not adhering to the status quo, to the prescriptive demanded of us to look a certain way. And, in the end, those who struggle with eating disorders let the opinions of others matter so much that they literally put their lives at risk to fit in.
Of course, eating disorders are only one example of the ways in which people will adhere to the opinions of others (again, family, friends, and the wider society), but there are many, many more examples, and even more insidious ones when they are rooted in every day decisions.
A few examples include:
- The student who won’t raise their hand in a class (from preschool to university) because they fear that others might ridicule them for not knowing the answer to the question(s) they may have; the isolated person who won’t join in with others who share similar interests because they fear being judged by them;
- the person, who’s gained a reputation as the ‘go-to’ for any number of favours that are requested by ‘friends’, who can’t say no to any of them for fear they will no longer be liked; and,
- the person who works an intolerable number of hours in a job they hate because they didn’t want to disappoint their status-oriented parents by telling them they had another career aspiration, but one where their parents won’t necessarily obtain the ‘bragging’ rights they currently experience.
I can think of a thousand more ways where we acquiesce to outside forces due to fear, and lose ourselves in the end; I’m sure you can, too.
So what to do?
Well, to simply say that you need to stop doing that NOW is to minimize the fear that’s been driven by all the years of ‘giving in’. It’s not easy to change our old ways, or old fears, even though they may be causing us a lot of pain. We tell ourselves that at least it’s the kind of pain we’re familiar with, so in a crazy sort of way it makes pain somewhat easier to live with.
Often, when we contemplate changing, we fear outcomes that we predict will be far worse than the pain we’ve learned to live with thus far. So, to just ‘jump’ in and say “to hell with everyone, I’m going to live my life by my own set of principles” is perhaps not the best way to go about it, although it is most certainly the goal to aim toward.
Changing typically begins with small steps toward a healthier direction that include courageous daily actions that will give precedence to what’s important to you, rather than to someone else.
And, as I mentioned in the beginning, if you’re someone who’s spent a lifetime focusing your attention on others to gain approval and recognition in order to feel good about yourself, you may not even know what’s truly important to you.
In this case, you’ll have to spend some time focusing on getting to know yourself in order to understand how to answer that question.
An easy way to begin is to take an assessment of your life to see where you’re satisfied but, more importantly, where you’re not. And, if you’re not, why not? Is it a result of giving too much credence to the opinion of others? Has your life, or parts of it (small or large) been sacrificed to gain the approval or recognition of others? If so, what do you need to do to reshape those parts so you can feel more in charge of creating the life you want?
Taking small steps to change will be far more sustainable in the long run than rushing forward in haste to make large decisions in order to change everything right away.
In time, everything may change, but give yourself the space to make solid decisions that will result in you building a stronger sense of self, and the kind of self-esteem that you continually sought from others throughout your entire life but were never successful in hanging onto for very long. In the end, you’ll discover that self-esteem is a gift we can only give to ourselves, and the person we become in the process of this courageous journey is who we were really meant to be.
So begin freeing yourself from the opinions of others by taking your own small steps toward positive change.