How much of what we do is governed by what others think?
Why do we wear the clothes that we do? Or style our hair a certain way? Or shave, wear makeup, adorn jewelry. Or apply perfume or cologne?
Certainly there are the elements of personal comfort, but much of it is driven by how we’re perceived by others.
When I was in college and contemplating my impending full-time career, I distinctly thought to myself, “I hope I don’t have to wear those starched button-down white shirts and dress pants that all those old guys are wearing.” And by “old”, I meant anyone over 30.
Within a year of that privately voiced concern, my wardrobe very closely mirrored that of my work colleagues. What had happened?
I didn’t want to be labeled as an agitator or insurgent – I wanted to fit in. I completely sublimated my interests (at least as far as personal fashion was concerned) in order to be accepted, and ideally, liked.
When we help others, how much do we subtly desire appreciation or even admiration for our efforts? Whenever we find ourselves lamenting, “I can’t believe that person didn’t even thank me!” then we know our goals were clearly misdirected.
Why do we exaggerate? When I was in my first management role and had the opportunity to hire recent graduates, I was surprised by how many of them artificially elevated their GPA – even though their college transcripts indicated otherwise. While studies indicate some exaggeration can actually help people boost their confidence, at the core we magnify our accomplishments in order to look better in front of others. Or, in a conversely masochistic way, we put ourselves down that we might elevate others or garner sympathy for ourselves.
So much of our behavior and thought is directly correlated with what others think.
Why is that?
For starters, as healthy egos we crave validation, approval, and acceptance. Behind that is our deeply repressed feeling of insecurity and unworthiness. As one poignant passage in the Course reads:
You think you are the home of evil, darkness and sin. You think if anyone could see the truth about you he would be repelled, recoiling from you as if from a poisonous snake. (W-pI.93.1)
Everyone who walks this earth carries those dissociated, repressed thoughts as Freud so eloquently elaborated. Our ego is wired to concern us with what others think.
And our increasingly connected world makes it very easy for many others to offer their opinion of us – be it Facebook likes (or lack thereof), Twitter retweets, blog comments, email replies, and so forth. The nearly instantaneous feedback can be toxic.
When I first met Wayne Dyer – which was around the time his first PBS special was on-air – he shared a quote from one of his teachers (Abraham Maslow) that powerfully struck me:
The self-actualized individual is independent of the good opinion of others.
Imagine the burden lifted by leading a life independent of what others think. Which certainly doesn’t mean without compassion or empathy. Rather, it is a quiet confidence and gentle warmth that emanates from your being – encompassing everyone around you.
Join us in Monday’s class where we’ll explore this concept of concerning ourselves with what others think. We’ll dig into why we do it, and how we can practice the Course’s model of transcending the limitations of the ego. I look forward to seeing you then. In the meantime, consider these witty words from Eleanor Roosevelt: “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”