If you have a tendency toward worrying about other’s opinions of you, there are ways to unlearn that way of thinking. Just like any other cognitive skill, from learning multiplication tables to remembering to put gas in your car, our thoughts can be practiced and intentionally guided. It starts with observation.
How to Observe Your Thoughts
Most of us do not walk around consciously observing our thoughts and feelings; it is a skill that must be practiced and honed. Mindful observation exercises are a good starting point; set a timer for two minutes and jot down the varying thoughts that go through your mind during that timeframe. You may find that you spend a bit of time “thinking about thinking,” which is perfectly normal for this type of exercise. Try not to worry too much about the content of your thoughts, just observe them non-judgmentally; remember this is just a practice run. Try this in real time during situations in which you start feeling judged or dwelling on other’s opinions of you. What sort of thoughts do you observe yourself having? Common ones may be, “they don’t like me,” or “I’m not good enough.” Notice when you are having these thoughts so that you can begin to challenge them.
Challenging Unhelpful Thoughts
Once you are practiced in observing thought patterns, it becomes easier to start questioning their validity and usefulness in your life. In the example, “they don’t like me,” you can ask yourself whether there is proof to support that assumption, or whether it is possible that you are misreading a signal. Is there a possibility that you are basing this thought on a generalized belief that you are unlovable or not acceptable?
If you have challenged the validity of a thought, ask yourself another question about whether this is a helpful issue to focus on. Does it help you to think about not being liked, for example? What purpose does it serve to continue to dwell on this thought? Most likely, your emotions suffer when you dwell on the way others judge you, and this is suffering you choose when you allow yourself to ruminate on the topic.
Radical Acceptance Works
One of the most freeing ways to release your cares about the thoughts and opinions of others is through radical acceptance. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, radical acceptance is making a conscious decision to accept that which one cannot change. It is similar to the Serenity Prayer in that it recognizes the futility of battling against unchangeable forces and focuses on the useful practicalities of coming to terms with what is. To apply this concept, ask yourself the question, “so what if they don’t like me?” Think about the situation pragmatically; do the opinions of others make much of a difference in your life? If someone dislikes you, or disapproves of you in some way, does it harm you? Probably not. What you think of you matters far more. What do YOU think of yourself? What do you love about you?
Often the people we worry about judging us are not even in our close circle of friends and loved ones. We tend to spend a surprising amount of time and energy worrying about the judgments of people who are not a large part of our lives. When we become conscious of this behavior, it is easier to challenge and correct it within our own minds. With practice we can observe our thoughts, question our assumptions, and practice radical acceptance. We can focus on how we feel about ourselves and the relationships in our lives that matter, rather than dwell on the approval of others.