Getting dressed, buying food, choosing earrings… how many times do we consider what others think, when making everyday choices? Why does it matter so much what our friends think of us, and how can we start living life for ourselves?
Human nature and what your friends think of you
It’s part of human nature to worry about what others think of us. Our ancestors survived better in groups and fear of not being included often meant being cast out of a community. It’s not quite as drastic these days, but acceptance and fitting in is just as important. No one wants to be on the outside looking in. And we all remember the school playground and how awful it felt not to be included in the ‘popular group’. A study by the University of Michigan found that parts of the brain activated when we experience social rejection are actually the same parts activated by physical pain.
What your friends think of you and self-esteem
Whilst approval from others gives us a higher sense of self-esteem; feeling like you don’t belong dents our sense of self and our confidence. Fitting in is crucial both in family life, with friends and at work. This is why as humans we often make decisions based on others, not on how we truly feel: “My best friend is an interior designer so I based all my house decorating decisions on what she would think. Essentially, I was trying to impress her,” explains Natasha. “When my husband saw the colours I had chosen he burst out laughing and reminded me we have to live here every day!”
When do we worry most what friends think?
The Teen Years
The playground is a minefield for friendships and is probably where we learnt the fundamentals of how to fit in. But it’s the teenage years where what our friends think, really matters. Research has shown that teenagers who nuture good friendships during their teens are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety in their twenties. Teenagers spend the adolescent years moving away from their families influence and defining themselves as individuals. This is why fitting in with their peers (and spending less time with their families) is so important. Lots of studies have focused on the ‘Peer Effect’ of teenagers, where teens do something out of character because they want to feel valued and accepted by their friends. The teen years are undoubtedly where we care most what our friends think of us and make decisions (good and bad) based on this.
As we become more independent from our families and move into our twenties, our friends become as important to us as our families did. During this decade you’re likely move out of the family home and cut those familial ties as you start new jobs, move to a different location or country and forge an independent life. Luckily, we’re not as heavily influenced by our friends as the tumultuous teenage years and are less likely to be afraid to speak out or appear different. But this is also the decade where we have to prove ourselves; starting out in a new job, a new relationship or new city means we have to find new ways to fit in and seek approval from those around us.
“I was actually the most insecure about myself in my twenties,” Lucy, a Marketing Executive admits. “I think it was the fast-paced working environment I was in, but I cared about everything; what others wore, how much they earnt, where they lived, but mainly I agonised about what they thought of me! I’d love to go back to my twenty-year-old self and tell her it just doesn’t matter.”
A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that in an embarrassing situation, social mishap or work blunder, people often anticipate being judged more harshly than they actually were. Sian agrees with this: “I left my marriage after a year and assumed everyone hated me and spent years hiding from my old friendships,” she explains. “Years later a group of my friends admitted they thought I’d married too young and were glad that I’d got out of the marriage. I wish I’d know they weren’t judging me as harshly as I thought.”
“Having babies and mixing with a whole new set of mum friends, were the years I obsessed about what my friends thought of me,” reveals Heloise, mum of three. “I definitely made decisions about my baby based on what other mums thought of me (breastfed for a year, followed a very strict routine, for example). I realised my choices were to please the mum group I was friends with. I’m pleased to say with baby number three I was breaking all the rules and couldn’t give a toot what others thought!”
“I spent my twenties worrying I wasn’t thin enough and my thirties thinking my friends thought I was a bad mum,” says Olive. “I had an epiphany on my fortieth birthday and shouted, why do I care so much.”
When I quizzed my friends (all in their forties) the story was the same. They admitted caring what people thought and making decisions based on others until they got to their forties.
“It didn’t happen immediately,” says Charlotte. “But I slowly started to care less what friends thought and started putting my needs first. Did it really matter which trainers I wore, or where I went on holiday? It was quite liberating to realise the cushions on my sofa didn’t need to please anyone but me!”
No matter how hard we try it’s hard not to judge others. But as Lucy in her twenties and Sian in her thirties found out, making decisions based on what other people may think, rarely benefits you. We are all hardwired for survival and therefore judge others in order to feel better about our own decisions, but also as a defensive mechanism. If we feel threatened; a new person in your group who challenges your ideals, it’s easy to judge rather than finding out the facts.
“A new girl started in my workplace and was really stand offish and rude to everyone, so as a group we ‘collectively’ gossiped about her,” says Juliet. “Then on a work trip, she told me something awful that had happened in the past which explained her behaviour and I saw how easily we wrote her off as rude.”
The next time you feel yourself being judgemental, remember that you can’t take back words you say. Think very carefully before speaking your mind or sending an angry email. Do you know all the facts? Try to understand the place where that person might be coming from. It’s also an important lesson in trying not to be swayed by group pressure; do you agree with the ‘group’, or deep down do you have empathy and understanding that others can’t see?
How to stop caring so much what your friends think:
Create a Family feel
If you grew up in a secure loving environment where you were praised (but not praised too much as this comes with its own set of problems) you’ll care less what people think of you than if you were belittled as a child, or made to feel inadequate. We can apply this to our environment as we get older. If we are unhappy in our job, our relationship, our friendships, we are more likely to care what others think. Can you make any changes that will make you a happier person – changing your job or standing up to someone who belittles you for example?
Shed self-imposed conditions
Worrying what people think stops us from moving forward – taking risks, moving jobs, leaving relationships or doing things that make us happy.
Someone I know didn’t move abroad with an exciting new job, because she worried her very sensible friend would deem it too risky. There’s also plenty of situations where you don’t speak out because of fear of being judged. If you constantly seek approval of others, you’ll be living the conditions of someone else’s life. As Virginia Woolf put it:
“The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages”
When you next make a largish decision, consider whether you are making it for you, or the benefit of your friends. i.e Do you want to paint your front door pink because you’ve always fancied a pink front door, or because that’s what your friends expect from you?
Accepting who we really are is something that comes with getting older and realising we are ‘just enough’. But whatever age you are, you can embrace the things that make you different and unique. Who cares if you don’t fit in with the crowd? Make a list of famous women you admire (from Madonna to Michelle Obama) and cross them off the list if they didn’t take any risks in life. I’ll bet most of them stuck their heads above the parapet or were criticised for being different at some point.
Ignore those who judge
People who look down on others, often do so because of their own emotional needs. Their insecurities force them to judge in order to make themselves feel better. Make sure you are not changing who you are to fit in with someone else’s emotional struggle.
If you still find yourself worrying what others think of you, think back to those teenage years. Remember that what occupied your mind then, in hindsight didn’t matter at all as you got older.
If all those worries didn’t matter back then, the same applies to worries now. As you moved through life it’s the friends that accepted you for who you were that were important, not the decisions you made to impress them. Always remember, you have ownership over your thoughts and feelings, so don’t let anyone sway you into making decisions that aren’t your own. start tomorrow, and have a day when you only make decisions for yourself and not based on what others think or expect from you. Leave a comment here if you had a completely different day when you ignored others and made decisions for yourself.
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”— Dr. Seuss