overcoming what other people think

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Oftentimes people will say ad nauseum that you shouldn’t care what other people think. My response to that used to be, “Easier said than done.” I think this is a sentiment that echoes with many people.

But during my self-revolution quest in the past five months, I began to ask myself, why is it hard to not care what others think and not take things personally? And that is a very loaded question… everyone’s answer to that would be different. But if I were to attempt to boil down the reasons in an overview, it would be this:

Family of origin. Any issue or problem in our relationships can be traced back to our family of origin. Why? Because that is where every human being learns how to relate to another human being–be it functional, or dysfunctional. Maybe you were abused, and in your search to feel like a “good boy” or “good girl,” you try to please others. Or maybe you were shamed by your parents or family when you attempted voice your thoughts or assert your individuality. Or maybe your parents pressured you to be someone who they wanted you to be, regardless of what you wanted or how you felt–so you learned other people matter above you. I could write a book on all the possible ways family can affect us. But bottom line, it is helpful to look at how your family may have taught you–explictly or implicitly–to care what people say or think.

Lack of personal boundaries. Although this can be traced to your family of origin, boundaries are important to mention because they affect us in our present relationships. When you have too rigid of boundaries, you don’t allow people in and you suffer a dearth of intimacy and social connection. On the flip side, when you have too open of boundaries, whatever anyone says goes, and you give up all power over yourself and your choices. Both extremes are dangerous spaces to be in. Someone with open boundaries will be the one who overly cares what others think, because they have not yet learned that not what everyone says is right or true (in actuality, a lot of what others aggressively claim can be flat out wrong or illogical). But people with open boundaries don’t consider that possibility, and operate with the belief that everyone else is right and true, and they are wrong. Boundaries are necessary in this light, because it is essential to know where you stop and the other person begins.

Lack of identity. This too can go back to your family of origin. But for whatever reason, a person has not developed a strong sense of self, so they depend on others for acceptance and approval–it is like the cocaine hit to your sense of self. But then it disappears, and the person looks for the next hit, the next person to give them approval. They conform to what “sounds good,” sometimes borrowing others’ identities to gain a semblance of stability. On the flip side, someone with a strong sense of identity may face criticism or rejection, but is able to consider each individual instance with rationality, judging what is true or untrue to them. They can support a viewpoint they agree with without hesitation, or they can reject another’s opinion without growing angry or reactive.

I write this in hopes that this may inspire others. I, like many others, cared what people thought–I would seek to please others and make them happy at the expense of myself, while growing reactive when people said hurtful things. My last relationship was a perfect example. But it is by enduring that dysfunctional relationship I realized how much my thoughts and behaviors were hurting me.

If I were to simplify the many lessons I learned from that experience, and provide some tips to others who may be going through the same journey as me:

1. Boundaries are essential to a healthy relationship, not just for the other person, but for you. You do not have to put up with hurtful or abusive behavior from others if it affects you negatively. Everyone has different tolerance levels, so find what yours is. Our well-being matters and it is up to us to take care of ourselves.

2. How people act or react to you is a reflection of who they are, NOT OF YOU. I would bold this one ten times more if I could. If you’re like me and have a tendency to blame yourself for everything, this is important to know. Even if by chance you are being hurtful to someone else, there are healthy ways of asserting yourself in those circumstances without disrespecting them. And it works conversely. How you treat others is a reflection of who you are.

3. Your thoughts and feelings matter. ALWAYS. What matters most though, is that you understand that within yourself. If someone disagrees and invalidates you, as long as you validate yourself, it won’t matter much what others say. Even if the person doggedly tries to convince you that you should feel something different, or that your needs are not important, remind yourself that that is untrue, because everyone’s needs, including yours, are always important.

4. It is okay to reject another person’s worldview. People have opinions, it doesn’t mean they are always right or true. If you’ve considered someone’s worldview and it does not resonate, then you are allowed to reject it. All of us are trying to find our truths, and not every shoe will fit.

There is hope for change, if you are willing to do the work. I personally am still a work in progress, but I feel like I’m arriving to a place in my life now where people’s thoughts and reactions don’t matter as much to me anymore. The reason for that is because I’ve taken time to know who I am, and in that knowledge, I feel assured in trusting myself and my judgments. Sometimes people are right, sometimes they’re wrong, but it really comes down to discovering yourself and what you stand for–then the answer you seek will come easier and clearer.

 

behind the facade

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It’s been mentioned, time and again, how social media can warp our perceptions of reality, in addition to increasing our anxiety and depression. But it is only a manifestation to a greater phenomenon: we often define ourselves by others’ actions and choices, based on where the herd walks.

Social comparison theory, formed by Leon Festinger, states that humans have an internal drive to evaluate their abilities and opinions, mainly through their comparison to others. Hence why it is not very surprising that social media becomes a means of ultimately evaluating ourselves and our lives, whether we realize it or not. We all want to know we are good in some way… whether it is a good person, a talented pianist, an attractive performer, an excellent engineer, a great writer.

For me, what is also wrapped up in appearing as if I have a good life, is the social expectation to be happy and positive all the time. I post pictures on Instagram of my delicious Italian dinner, or a selfie during a fun day out with friends. Yet again, my mind goes to the same bigger picture. I should be happy and positive and always good. Everyone around me comments on my wise words and my positive mindset, and gives me multiple likes for posts that show my rolling every setback off my back. Thus, the pressure builds and mounts, and soon I am burdened with the need to be a person I am not. Deep inside, I begin to cry out, why can’t I just be honest? Why must I pretend that I am okay when I know that in reality, I’m struggling to stay afloat?

And this is my reality: I’m not always okay. Perhaps I am strong, but I have my breakdowns when I feel quite the opposite. I have garnered many scars in my life, and they have made it difficult for me to overcome as I would like to. And honestly speaking, the setbacks are getting to me. Submitting my novel to multiple agents and receiving rejections one by one twist my insides with pain. I am discouraged and fearful, and losing touch with the passion others have frequently admired. The worst is when they say I should stay positive, not giving heed to the emotions and pain I express. The silent message is not lost on me: just get over it. The pain does not matter, just be happy and positive.

But it’s never that easy. If there is one thing I have learned in my work as a mental health therapist, it is that healing from pain is never as easy as “getting over it.” It’s okay to feel angry, sad, discouraged, fearful, anxious, nervous, etc. Those emotions matter too, just as much as the happy ones. Contrary to what we think, ignoring those emotions only make matters much, much worse. I have seen it too many times in others in order for me to say this with full certainty. It is the pressure, the facade that are now choking my passion, creativity and ability to overcome.

The herd has a tendency to lead people into a shallow, confined existence, one we never come to see until the nihilistic thoughts and empty feelings gnaw us from the inside out. Social expectations can silence us and severely restrict us from actualizing our true individuality and potential. But the antidote is this: we need to give ourselves permission to feel, to experience the full spectrum of emotions in this life. We need to allow ourselves to simply be who we are. We cannot live a whole-hearted life if we do not acknowledge our full humanity. We are wired to feel, and things won’t always be easy or good… so we don’t have to lie and pretend that it always is.

Sometimes putting down the facade, in whichever form we have, is what we need.

the two selves

                     Naty Chabanenko

It’s the same with people. You put up disguises, masks and decorations so that all they can see is your version of the perfect self, with flaws covered and hidden away. Because people will make assumptions about you, whether it’s right or wrong, whether you like it or not. Since you know you’ll always be judged, you don on your delicately placed mask so they will take your disguise as who you are. But if the onlooker is astute enough, he or she will see past your dogged attempts to hide. The masks protects you, but if you take it on for too long, its artificial quality will become you. You’ll begin to appear false, fake, cold and weak. You become one without bravery and courage. You stop seeing yourself truthfully… you become incapable of loving yourself.

But if you make no effort to conceal your flaws to the world, people will recognize the real person. The real you. You appear genuine. Honest. You are unapologetic in who you are and take no shame in being that, flaws intact. Paradoxically, you become a mystery, an enigmatic thing. And people grow curious, is there something more? They see you for your true potential and find security in your being. You do not become a false image as is the fate of wearing a mask… you simply become you, for all you can be. In the act of being real, you begin to love and accept you.

In this society, it seems that it is much harder to be real than it is to maintain an image. Yet as you get older, you’ll grow weary and the mask will crack. Perhaps, now, it is already cracking. And you are right, being the real you is certainly a battleground in of itself as well. But if virtues are our tools to carving our future and identity… then authenticity and honesty will be the order of my day.

asserting your identity

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Erik Erikson proposed that during adolescence, we seek to find and develop our identity. We try out different roles, experiment with different activities, all in order to find who it is we are.

But one key aspect that does not seem to be as emphasized by Erikson, or by most texts I’ve read in my classes, is how we assert that identity once we “find” it… especially in the face of a society that pushes all of us to be a certain way, or adhere to a social construct of “normal.” Because when we don’t fit the mold of “normal,” we are criticized harshly, told to change ourselves, to modify our identities because it is simply “wrong.” We end up feeling the enormous pressure of having to change what may be true to our real selves, so that we can be loved and accepted by others. What a painful dilemma, that is.

People have argued to me that sometimes other people just know better, and it sucks to be rejected or not loved. True, it does suck when someone doesn’t like who we are. In an ideal world, we can be our true selves and have everyone who encounters us likd us. But it’s not a realistic expectation. Not everyone will like who we are… but that’s okay. Because it is just as painful, if not more, to live a life that is not yours. And I would argue to the death that sometimes people DON’T know better. That you know you better than anyone else. Only you have the power to define who you are and who you want to become, what your values are, what drives you, what you choose to make up you. In the same vein, you also have the power to give the reins of that control over your identity to someone else, or to society at large, if you so choose.

Personally, I grew up being bullied most of my childhood. People called me many, many names; I’ve experienced racial slurs to attacks on my physical attractiveness. I’ve had rocks thrown at me in 5th grade, and eggs in 7th. If I choose to give the reins of my identity to others, then I would be defined as an ugly, unattractive, loser girl, who no boy ever, in his right mind, would want to date. I would be on the bottom of the totem pole, invisible, unimportant, unworthy, not good enough, stupid, in need of a diet, deserving of a stoning… the list goes on. For a long time, I did live and think this way. And I suffered with depression for nine years as a result. If I continued to believe what everyone told me I was and took their words as indisputable truth, I wouldn’t be alive today. My demons are very ugly and dark, and I’m certain I would have killed myself by now. Because an ugly shit like me who is unimportant and not good enough doesn’t deserve to live.

But we always have a choice. I cannot stress this enough. We have the choice to either define ourselves by the mountain of shit people throw at us, or to take the wheel and create who it is we are. And in the latter, there is so much power in that. We can take control. No one has power to define our identity except for us. I know who I am, and surround myself with those who see that. And whenever someone tries to define or place a label on me, I respectfully reject their opinion, while in my head I think, “Fuck that shit.” Because I control what goes in, and what goes out… and I don’t need others’ opinions to define me anymore.

I think Friedrich Nietzsche said it best: The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.

the fight

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For one moment, I will be unabashedly blunt.

It’s fucked up when a six-year-old kid anticipates being rejected. Ignored. Bullied. Treated like shit. When people see me, they want to treat me like shit. There’s something wrong with me. And then she grows up, believing she is ugly, unnattractive, worth shit, not good enough, unlovable. She still expects maltreatment; hell, she welcomes it. Because that’s normal. And being treated like a human, with respect, is weird, not right. Words cannot adequately describe how many levels of fucked up that contains.

As she grows up, she begins suffering with depression. She hates herself, but won’t subconsciously admit it because society likes optimistic and perky, not sad and pessimistic. People can’t handle sad. They can only handle happy. So she hides, stuffs her feelings away, smashes them down every time they fight to come out. When the tears stings her eyes, she quickly wipes them away and lies to herself that it’s all alright. She numbs that part of herself, to the point that it becomes unconscious habit. And then she wonders, why do I not feel anymore? Why do I feel so empty? All the while, never realizing how she has internalized the treatment the world gave her. People said her feelings are worth shit, so she doesn’t attend to them. People said she isn’t worth shit, so she looks in the mirror and hates her reflection.

Yet slowly but surely, she starts waking up. She starts seeing a therapist, she takes up the value of being honest with herself, even if it’s ugly, even if it hurts, even if it means looking at those pieces of her soul she has fought to ignore. And she begins to realize how much the environment she grew up fucked her up so much that she cannot even see her true reflection. Her inner beauty. She has no idea what it looks like but deep down, she yearns so very intensely for it to be true. That she really is beautiful. That she is worthy. Loveable.

But in her journey to self-discovery and self-growth, she realizes that all this time she has been desperately seeking others’ approval. That her worth is still contingent on others: My worth only exists when someone acknowledges it. But that is not how it should be. Her worth is not contingent on others. Change does not come from “finally gaining the recognition of her beauty that she has longed for,” but from recognizing that beauty in herself.  Because otherwise, she will be stuck in the same vicious cycle of seeking validation, and being more than devastated when she does not receive it. The truth is, she is worthy, regardless of whether someone sees it or not. She is worth more than those labels and horrible, horrible names people gave her. No one defines her; she defines her. And that is a significant realization indeed.

It’s an ongoing battle, between the truth and all the lies she was told growing up. But it’s one worth fighting. Because she is worth so much more than the lies she was told.

fighting to be yourself

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I’m sick of being told who to be, of people who do not know the real me defining my identity, blubbering, “‘X’ is who you are.” Yet you judge me based on your experience of reality; your view and social construction of reality is not true for everyone else. I’m sick of you making generalizations based on minute encounters… you have not seen my mind, my heart, my passions. I’m sick of you making judgments of what I can and cannot do. I’m sick of you thinking that you can “read” people–spouting pride until you are naught but a forest of arrogance. I’m sick of you assuming without looking at the BIG picture, as if everyone views the world the same way as you, as if people are not any different, shaped by their own unique life situations. That social, familial, socioeconomic, gender, and racial arenas do not make a difference. I’m sick of you saying that you know who I am, and shoving that mold on me as if I’ll fit. I only have this to say to you. Get your head out of the fucking sand. You are not God. You cannot read my mind and you cannot judge my character when you made no attempt to understand who I am.

I spent most of my life letting people define me, telling me who I was and what I was capable of. People have given me unsolicited advice and have shoved their standards and views onto me, forcing me to accept them as “truth.” But growing up, I begun to see that their words have as much power as I give them. I think that many of us still continue to live being affected by this, subconsciously operating on the assumption that people hold much more power over us than they actually do. That their words somehow matter and how they view us is a reflection of who we are. But having spent my whole life encountering people who have gotten “me” wrong, I came to realize that people are much worse at reading me than they think they are. If I had continue to let everyone’s words define me, I would not be here writing this. Ever since I was 5, people have told me that I’m: ugly, unattractive, weird, different, a loser. Kids either made fun of me or ignored me. I was ostracized for my racial identity and experienced terrible racism. Most of the time, I was not worth attention, unless it was negative. I spent a majority of my life believing I was not good enough for others.

I suffered with dysthymia (a chronic kind of depression) for 9 years of my life and in all honesty, I may have followed through with killing myself if I continued to believe in those horribly untrue definitions people told me. But now those words have no power over me. Because I am a strong advocate of the postmodern view, that the world, as well as who we are and how we see others, is individually constructed. We all see life through a unique lens that is molded by our experiences. I construct my own identity, regardless of whatever interpretations or assumptions people make on that based on their experiences. Their words have no power, because I have stopped giving them power. Even if people today say that I’m: pretty, attractive, smart, intelligent, open… I do not need their confirmation to know I am those things. And when people say negative things, or things that are completely incongruent with my identity, I pay them no heed. Because whether good or bad, people are not constructing my identity.

And there is such freedom in that. Because when you break it down, life is based on your perspective. You, and only you, hold the power to construct your life and your identity. These people only define you when you let them. We always have a choice… a choice to rise above what society dictates, those harming standards, to not be like them or think like them, to be a complete you, without hesitation. There will always be people who will not appreciate who you are and what you are worth. But if their words don’t matter, then that won’t matter either. In your lifetime, the world will never stop shoving its standards on you, seducing you to follow as they do. But don’t give up. Be courageous. Push back. Define your own standards. Fight for your passions, for what’s true in your heart, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You have to learn to fight for yourself, in order to learn to fight for anything else in this world.