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Two Ways to Stop Caring What Others Think

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At the retreat center I just visited, the automated coffee machine worked on an honor system.

It dispensed coffee whenever you pushed the button, but you were expected to put a two-dollar coin into a little nearby box to cover the costs. I didn’t have change, so I put a twenty in on the first day, intending to use it exactly ten times.

Since I was meditating many hours a day, I was very aware and easygoing, but I still felt a faint pang of self-consciousness each of the nine times I got a coffee without putting money into the box. A casual observer might think I was stealing.

Interestingly, the fact that they’d be mistaken about that didn’t seem to matter much. I didn’t want to be seen as sneaky or selfish, whether or not I actually was.

We all worry, in our own tiny ways, about how we’re being perceived. You might worry than an email you sent came off as too harsh, with all those stark periods and no smiley face to soften the tone. Or your first trip to the gym may be nerve-wracking, as you try not to look too clueless.

We’ve evolved to be self-conscious in this way, continually monitoring how we think we’re being seen. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, being disliked could be dangerous.

Society, for them, often consisted of a nomadic band of maybe a hundred people, so it really mattered if someone thought you were lazy or untrustworthy—especially if they might convince others of that.

Having offended just that one person, you could wake up the next day and learn that twenty people—twenty percent of your society, perhaps including the people that make the decisions—want you expelled from the tribe. These are super high stakes, so it’s no wonder we’re so frequently wondering how we look to others. 

The fact that we’re being judged matters much more than whether those judgments seem fair or well-informed. I didn’t want anyone to think I’m a sneaky coffee thief, even if they’re wrong. We also don’t tend to worry about someone having an undeservedly high opinion of us, unless we can see how that might cause us trouble later.

Today, we still carry those deathly fears of rejection and judgment, even though we don’t depend nearly as much on being in good standing with everyone around us. Because being judged was a potential emergency in our ancestors’ lives, the suspicion that we’re being resented, dismissed or criticized still awakens in us a sense that something great is at risk.

Being judged should matter less than ever, but seems to matter more

When it comes to the importance of how we’re being perceived by others, there are two drastic differences between ourselves and our ancestors: we interact with many, many more people than they did, and there are far fewer people in our lives whose opinion of us should really matter much in a practical sense.

Rather than see the same hundred people every day for years, we tend to live in cities or towns of thousands or millions, and we’re connected to millions more through the internet. This makes for many more interactions than our ancestors had, on sidewalks, in traffic, in public places, and online.

Naturally, this means we’re party to many more judgments being cast between ourselves and others. However, most of these others are people we only see once or twice, and whose opinion shouldn’t affect our lives much.

Of course it still matters, in a big way, what your immediate family members, close friends, and employers think of your character. A falling out with this small handful of people could mean losing your livelihood, or your home (although it’s probably much easier for us to find another livelihood or home than it would have been for a similarly-shunned hunter-gatherer).

However, if a second cousin dislikes you, or a passer-by thinks you dress like a fool, it won’t affect your life much, aside from your own ruminations about it. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the negative opinion of anyone in your life, even those closest to you, would really threaten your survival in the way it would for your ancestors.

Our environment is totally different now, but unfortunately we still have the same brains. It still feels important that nobody sends you hate mail about your article, or that your blind date didn’t think you’re a total dope, even if in both cases you’ve had your last interaction with that person, and they don’t know anybody you know.

This is because we’re still calibrated for tight-knit tribal living, when it mattered to some degree that virtually everyone liked you, or at least didn’t think you’re worthless or worse.

And so we suffer anxiety around judgments that have little practical consequence. Faceless internet trolls really get to us. We’re afraid to present our creative work, even anonymously, to the public. Rejection, even through a message on a dating app, is painful. We resent being honked at by other drivers, whether or not we think we deserve it.

Our ancestors had the luxury of seeing (and being seen by) the same people again and again, so it didn’t make sense to dismiss someone as a jerk or an idiot because of one thing they said or did. As evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright put it:

…in a hunter-gatherer village, your neighbors would have had a vast database on your behavior, so you’d be unlikely, on any given day, to do something that radically revised their opinion of you, for better or worse.

Contrast that to today’s world of constant one-off interactions, where we are often nothing to other people except the one thing they saw us do or heard us say (plus their unqualified assumptions about why we did it). In a sense, we’re living in a “golden age” of self-consciousness and interpersonal judgment. But because we’re not so dependent on a tribe for survival, these judgments should matter less than ever, if we’re going by their actual impact on our lives. And they don’t matter all that much—except for how much we worry about them.

The problem is very complex, but there are a few adjustments we can make to help free ourselves from thinking so much about what others think.

Two ways to worry less about what others think

Firstly, we need to recognize that it’s impossible to be fairly judged. Nobody will ever understand you perfectly. You will continually be both underestimated and overestimated, shortchanged and given undue credit.

Even with friends and family, the people whose opinion of you really matters—each of them “knows” a slightly different version of you, and you don’t get to see it! Each person in your life, even your parents, partner, and children, has incorrect and unfair beliefs about you, and you’ll never know quite what they are.

In fact, your own assessment of yourself is hardly the “right” one. We tend to either obsess over our faults or overlook them completely, and we often don’t quite appreciate both how kind and how petty we can be.

And with strangers, there’s no hope of anything approaching a fair assessment. They have zero context for what they see in you. All you can do is cultivate good qualities, such as kindness, generosity, and open-mindedness, and let the chips fall. No matter what you do, you can expect that people will be constantly mischaracterizing you in their heads (and sometimes aloud).

We can understand that kind of unfairness much more easily from the other side, by learning to become a lot more aware of our own judgments of strangers. Notice how quick and careless they are. You’ll discover that they’re almost always categorical (good person or bad person), that they’re provoked by a single behavior, and that we rarely second-guess these judgments.

Notice what it feels like to judge a person, how absolute and uncomplicated it seems, then remember that you’re seeing this person through the keyhole of a single moment in their lives.

There is a direct relationship between how quickly we judge and dismiss others, and how strongly we fear being judged or dismissed. Try it. The more agnostic you are about the true inner character of other people, the less uptight you’ll be about how you’re being perceived.

Great virtues and great faults co-exist in the same people, and every one of us, if we look inward, can see the proof.

***

Photo by Deva Darshan
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{ 55 Comments }

Darren June 12, 2018 at 1:29 am

Great post, very thought provoking :)

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Zoey June 12, 2018 at 2:27 am

Such a delight to read your fresh prospective on the topic of judgement. It’s true that most people don’t even realize that they judge others and themselves on a daily basis while being hyper sensitive to the critisism and judgement by others. Maybe off topic a bit but I wonder how much media and our culture in general contribute to it and possibly promote it as well since judgement is good for consumerism… Anyways just wanted to thank you for thought provoking material. Much needed!

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David Cain June 12, 2018 at 8:34 am

Media is surely a huge part of the way we’re conditioned to judge. In fact, much of what we get out of certain forms of media, everything from headline news to reality tv shows, is the gratification of feeling “for” or “against” somebody, or some group of people.

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Nicolas June 12, 2018 at 5:18 pm

Well said David, but you missed out on an opportunity to link back to your post about the best response to criticism.

I can say that because it’s the first post that I thought of as I was reading through this one. It does matter to understand the nature of yours and everyone else’s snap judgments, and it does matter to understand the inherent unfairness of others judgements, but it also matters to remember the inherent impersonal nature of those judgements.

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David Cain June 14, 2018 at 9:50 am

@Nicolas:

Ah I forgot about that one!

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Zoey June 12, 2018 at 5:22 pm

Exactly. Media is designed to divide and polarize, and to charge emotionally cuz it’s effective for manipulating a large crowd. Plus seems like nowadays everybody is encouraged to have an opinion on everything, and even punished or looked down upon if you don’t express it. So it’s almost like if you don’t judge or take a side you are rejected by your tribe, seen as weak or lacking principles, especially among the young who highly depend on their social circles and value their rep… Kinda depressing but I guess similar dynamics have been around for centuries and humans have survived. Plus there is a handful of sites like these so there’s hope more people will wake up :)

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Anselm June 12, 2018 at 2:31 am

Superb.

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Jenny June 12, 2018 at 2:37 am

For what it’s worth, I judge you to be a very helpful writer about things that matter.

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David Cain June 12, 2018 at 8:34 am
Accidental FIRE June 12, 2018 at 5:33 am

Contrast that to today’s world of constant one-off interactions, where we are often nothing to other people except the one thing they saw us do or heard us say (plus their unqualified assumptions about why we did it).

I present to you the internet.. or rather social media. Very perceptive and spot on. It’s easier than ever to judge and even stereotype because the transparency the internet allows. And it allows it to the widest possible audience.

Awesome post man, well written

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David Cain June 12, 2018 at 8:37 am

Thanks AF. Social media is really the pinnacle of unqualified, one-off judgments, isn’t it… Twitter in particular seems built as a rapid-fire judgment-inducing machine.

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DiscoveredJoys June 12, 2018 at 5:41 am

For what it is worth I’ve adopted ‘The Pause’ – a brief period between what I think other people expect of me and my reaction to it. In that brief pause I can decide to react more thoughtfully and less automatically. This very much aligns with the article about stopping caring about how others think.

I’ve also started work on a second stage (‘The Return of The Pause’?) where I’ve started pausing between automatically judging *myself* (especially for historic events) and my considered reaction. I find that if I choose to smile over past social bloopers or poor decisions then that frees me to make better choices in the present.

Whenever you find yourself
Going over old distractions
Smile and set them aside.
Whenever you find yourself
Going over old joys
Embrace them and smile.
~ Orig.

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David Cain June 12, 2018 at 8:45 am

Having a little space to recognize a judgment can change everything, because it’s the only way to respond to it consciously. I’m sure we don’t even recognize most judgments without reacting to them. If I hadn’t been on retreat while I got that coffee, the self-consciousness might have gone right to resentment for other people for “loitering” in the lobby, or some other unconscious pushback. But I was nonreactive enough that I could see what was happening. Judgment is so reflexive we don’t notice it most of the time, whether it’s outbound or incoming.

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Ani Castillo June 12, 2018 at 8:50 am

Holy guacamole,

I really needed to read this. I’ve been sick to my stomach for a week over this kind of issue.

It’s hard to let go, but seriously, you cannot control anything about other people. Specially how they, consciously or unconsciously, decide to perceive you.

Thank you so much David, as always.

Ani

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David Cain June 12, 2018 at 10:52 am

The funny thing is that we think we can “know” another person’s thoughts about us, but they’re really just our thoughts! And quite often the criticism is completely derived from our own view of ourselves… ironically our fear of another’s judgments is essentially a judgment of them.

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k June 12, 2018 at 9:33 am

we are as free as we permit the freedom of others. Wish I remembered where I heard that phrase, but it has been a keepsake :)

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David Cain June 12, 2018 at 10:53 am

Ah I like that!

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Wildly Imperfect June 12, 2018 at 10:23 am

Thank you for this perspective – I’ve never thought about how we have evolved to be concerned about what others think! I have recently taken notice of my concern of judgment from others and the judgments I make myself. I find myself on autopilot worried about what “they” might think. I now try to stop and ask who are “they” and should I really care about them. This is helping me to be less concerned about outside opinions that don’t really matter.

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David Cain June 12, 2018 at 10:54 am

So much of what we do is on autopilot, and so much of that is completely under the radar of our awareness. This is why I am such an advocate of meditation — you can start to see so much of what your mind is doing that normally is both automatic and invisible.

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David Plouffe June 12, 2018 at 10:26 am

Two useful take-aways for me…

1. I like the comment referencing taking a “pause” before reacting.

2. The metaphor of seeing someone else through a “key hole” in time is a useful reminder to avoid judgment when combined with number one! Good post David.

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David Cain June 12, 2018 at 10:56 am

That “pause” is all-powerful, but quite often we’re too conditioned by our patterns to even know that we’re judging, let alone recognize the possibility of pausing. In my experience, when I’m really mindful, the judgment (the aversion or approval) still occurs reflexively, but I can recognize it as a judgment, and then have an opportunity to pause and question it.

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Adam June 12, 2018 at 10:47 am

I can’t help wondering if it was possible to take change from the box, or if it was sealed. xD

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Adam June 12, 2018 at 10:49 am

Although if you take the change, you then worry someone will catch you with your hands in the communal money box…

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David Cain June 12, 2018 at 10:51 am

It was just a kleenex box with wrapping paper on it, so definitely possible to take the change, yeah. There were also other $10 and $20 bills in there sometimes so at least I knew others were suffering the same issue :)

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Stubblejumperscafe cafe June 12, 2018 at 11:10 am

Great article.
Also important to keep in mind how very little time any of us actually spend thinking about other people. We’re too busy thinking about ourselves and what others think of us! A silly habit, it seems to me.
-Kate

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David Cain June 12, 2018 at 11:25 am

Haha.. yes. We definitely think more about how others are thinking of us than they actually do thinking of us.

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Jennifer June 12, 2018 at 12:07 pm

I’d like to stop caring about what others think of me, but in a world where you can get doxxed and SWATTED and I’ve had people dislike me enough to actively try to get me fired… It’s life or death if people don’t like you these days. It risks my life to not be liked. I can’t just be “haters gonna hate” any more, it’s more like “haters gonna try to destroy me.”

Yeah, I don’t care about the one off people hating me for five seconds because I didn’t want to donate my change or some shit at the movies (they were trying to upsell me 5 times in a minute), but making people mad at work, which I somehow manage to do all the time because most people are in a very bad mood in my industry, is dangerous.

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David Cain June 13, 2018 at 9:23 am

Obviously there are some circumstances where it matters what people think (I mentioned employers, significant others, etc.) But being doxxed or swatted are probably not common occurrences for most people. If people dislike you enough to actively get you fired, there may be steps you want to take on your end to deal with that.

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Donna June 12, 2018 at 12:41 pm

Lovely measured piece, David, I really enjoyed it.

I have two thoughts that I try to hold on to as I go about my day : one, EVERYONE is struggling, so be kind; and two, what other people think of me is none of my business. Some days are easier than others, but I try!

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David Cain June 13, 2018 at 9:25 am

Yes, definitely. Compassion is always appropriate. I like the old adage “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

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Adam June 12, 2018 at 1:05 pm

This arrived in my inbox after an evening of work on anxiety, uncertainty, and all-or-nothing thinking. It’s hard to remember that I can’t control what other people think about me. I was raised by a parent who was obsessed with “what will the neighbors think?” and I guess that I’ve absorbed that outlook too.

In therapy yesterday I said “If I do X, they will be mad at me!” and the therapist said “Who’s ‘they’?”

I could only respond, “You know, people. People will be mad.”

She asked “Which people?”

I had no answer, but that bedrock certainty that “they” will be mad at me was right there in my face. The “they” is probably only that parent and certain teachers, but almost all of them are dead now, and none of them are in my life – so why am I so anxious about their opinions?

Thanks for this important food for thought. It came at the right time for me.

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David Cain June 13, 2018 at 9:28 am

I have fallen into this sort of thing, to the point of mentally “flow-charting” phone calls — if they say X, I’ll say Y, so that they don’t think Z. It’s a fool’s errand to try to control what others think with any kind of specificity.

And I know that mysterious “they” you speak of. Like you say, the fear really breaks down when you investigate who it is specifically will react badly. It’s just a ghost most of the time! I think you are right that the unexamined “they” represents certain people in our past whose disapproval we fear.

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Curtis M Michaels June 12, 2018 at 1:58 pm

I seem to always come away from your blogs a bit lighter, a bit clearer and a bit happier. This one is no exception. Not only does it give substantial perspective on not caring what others think of us, but it puts the entire subject of judgment into a workable, intelligent and kind perspective. That latter is what is too often missing when this is the subject.

Thank you.

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David Cain June 13, 2018 at 9:29 am

Thanks Curtis

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Abhijeet Kumar June 12, 2018 at 2:00 pm

This is definitely one of the biggest challenges I face. As a child, I was shy and not very outgoing. Over the years, and over the last 3 years through self awareness practices, I have found more freedom from this.

But honestly, it is hard to pinpoint who we really are, when we live the human life. Looking at my behaviors, and my opinions (which inform my judgments), it is possible to see where it came from. Even the most core human behavior inside came from somewhere — upbringing, current social environment, ancestors, mammalian ancestors, fish ancestors, to single cellular ancestors.

So in a nutshell, who I am in motion, or living life is a motley, that always had a bit of a selfish survival instinct. Even the me that I am more comfortable with — mindful, aware, came as a result of a need to find peace in the midst of all this. The Buddhist way is also acquired, but seems to work in my current situation.

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David Cain June 13, 2018 at 9:32 am

I find the Buddhist perspective super helpful on this. We have to recognize that who we are is derived from eons of conditioning, not just in our lives, but who are parents were, what our community is like, back through evolution. So we are carrying the burden of endless, unknown conditioning, and we control so little of it. But recognizing this conditioning, and how it manifests itself in our moment-to-moment desires and aversions can be extremely liberating.

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Abhijeet Kumar June 12, 2018 at 2:09 pm

“There is a direct relationship between how quickly we judge and dismiss others, and how strongly we fear being judged or dismissed.”

Spot on. There is a phrase that goes like “When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back to you.”

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David Cain June 13, 2018 at 9:33 am

This is why I prefer to point all five of my fingers at people, like a wizard casting a spell

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Ameen June 12, 2018 at 2:18 pm

The coffee machine situation is very relatable. I get that same feeling when I walk in a store and then walk out shortly after without buying anything, thinking that the staff might suspect me of shoplifting! Even though I’ve done nothing wrong, it’s very odd that I’m still paranoid about what others might think of me.

For years I’ve struggled with not letting who I am and my sense of self-worth be dependent on what others think. I’ve only recently started to learn how to not be trapped by the opinion of others while still maintaining social awareness. It makes sense that our desire for universal approval probably stems from when were in small tribes where being an outcast would make our lives very difficult. I also think it originates from being afraid of upsetting our parents if we did something they didn’t approve of and thinking that might make them not love us anymore.

This desire for everybody to like us is not only unnecessary today like you said, but it could also be very problematic. It stifles people from fully expressing themselves socially and being happy with who they are without putting up a front which also torments them psychologically.

I also think the reason why we feel that people are constantly judging us is because we’re constantly judging ourselves and have low self-esteem. We don’t realize that most people we come across won’t even remember or even notice us beyond a glance or even a brief conversation. We overestimate how much people actually care to even have a lasting negative opinion about us and underestimate how quickly they move on. In fact, we do that all the time ourselves.

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Ameen June 12, 2018 at 5:27 pm

To clarify what I said about why I think people feel like they’re being judged all the time, I believe that while people think that they’re being scrutinized by others, what’s actually happening is that they’re scrutinizing themselves. They’re judging themselves under the guise of thinking that other people are judging them. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that whenever I felt like people think I’m (insert negative opinion), it’s actually me who thinks that about myself deep down inside.

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David Cain June 13, 2018 at 9:38 am

Ugh…. I have actually *bought* things I don’t need to assuage that feeling that I’m been seen as a thief. Insane.

I think you are right that the fear of being judged is really just a self-judgment. We don’t believe we have enough visible good qualities to risk having someone think a negative thought about us. When I was a kid I was absolutely devastated by critical remarks, as though they were evidence that I really was bad or stupid or selfish. It took years to get to the point where I could be comfortable with the thought of being disliked.

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Ash Cosm June 12, 2018 at 4:58 pm

Wonderful reminders! Truly, others act as a mirror to reflect back to us our own misconceptions.

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Zoey June 12, 2018 at 5:26 pm

Exactly. Media is designed to divide and polarize, and to charge emotionally cuz it’s effective for manipulating a large crowd. Plus seems like nowadays everybody is encouraged to have an opinion on everything, and even punished or looked down upon if you don’t express it. So it’s almost like if you don’t judge or take a side you are rejected by your tribe, seen as weak or lacking principles, especially among the young who highly depend on their social circles and value their rep… Kinda depressing but I guess similar dynamics have been around for centuries and humans have survived. Plus there is a handful of sites like these so there’s hope more people will wake up :)

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David Cain June 13, 2018 at 9:48 am

So it’s almost like if you don’t judge or take a side you are rejected by your tribe, seen as weak or lacking principles, especially among the young who highly depend on their social circles and value their rep…

Yes! I think this has always become a problem, but in the last ten years social media has amplified it greatly. There are very strong incentives to stick to the party line, on both the right and the left, and any questioning of your camp’s “orthodoxy” leads to being ostracized and shunned — not in ways that threaten our survival, but it still affects us greatly. To be on the left, and question affirmative action or gender self-identification, or to be on the right and support universal health care, you do run a risk of alienation from certain groups in your community. How important that is is debatable, but I think this is a social pressure we all know.

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Drew June 12, 2018 at 5:28 pm

This is a really important message for introverts because we can act our entire, rich scenarios in our head about what other people think of us and what we think of others without actually investigating by engaging with the one off encounter. It is likely the same energy in the end to act out the person’s entire story in our head as it is to investigate a little further.

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David Cain June 13, 2018 at 9:52 am

Meditation retreats are fantastic studies in this. Because everyone is in silence and you’re paying so much attention, you tend to build stories about what other people are like in your head, based on how they move, their posture, how much food they take, etc. Then when you chat with them after you are ALWAYS wrong about who you thought they were. A lot of the time you don’t even realize that you made up most of your “knowledge” about them.

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Maureen S June 12, 2018 at 8:08 pm

Oh boy. Timely. We just stayed in an AirBnB where we asked to use the washer. The page cleared stated that this was an available amenity, but the host was clearly not happy about us asking. I went back to my room and checked, while the clothes washed. Yep, washer and dryer available. So I told the host that we would be happy to pay for the use, and that I would not have asked to use them unless it had been listed as an amenity. She was shocked, and had no idea that it was listed on her page. But why do *I* feel like a heel? And this is one of those people I’ll nevet see again! Spot on article, as always.

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David Cain June 13, 2018 at 10:06 am

I think it’s natural to feel like a heel, because you sense the resentment, even though it was misplaced, and we’re conditioned to be sensitive to resentment regardless of the logic behind it.

Just over the past few years I’ve learned to enjoy a certain sort of not-caring whether I make people uptight with those sorts of reasonable requests, even if they clearly would rather I didn’t. It’s extremely liberating, and honestly I don’t think we’re doing the world any favors when we capitulate to cranky/cantankerous people.

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Amrita June 12, 2018 at 8:28 pm

Hello !
I looked and looked but there seems to be no 2nd page. Where’s the “secondly”???? Two ways but only one way given ?

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David Cain June 13, 2018 at 10:06 am

The two bolded lines are the two ways

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Rebecca June 13, 2018 at 6:55 am

Great post!

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Gergana June 15, 2018 at 4:27 am

Excellent post, as always!
Reading the coffee machine example at the beginning, I couldn’t help but think “Maybe David wrote this blog post, so that people from the retreat can read it to realise he’d actually paid and not judge him anymore!”

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KG June 15, 2018 at 6:03 pm

Everything we see is a reflection. We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.

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Bec June 16, 2018 at 2:32 pm

I’ve often pondered this topic and maybe one angle you have missed in this excellent article is the useful side of ‘fear of others judgements’. I mean we are really talking about complying with social norms here (some good and useful, others not so much) – and it wouldn’t be great if everyone just went round doing whatever they please without fear of others judgement as that could lead to some pretty atrocious and selfish behaviour. So as with so many things, the Goldilocks principle applies… Don’t care too much or too little what others think.

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Hugo June 19, 2018 at 2:01 pm

ood article. Along with thinking and theorizing about this subject, it’s very useful to do so called ‘comfort zone challenges’, like standing still in a busy street with your arm in the air. Or even making noises while doing so. Everybody will look at you, and at first it’s nerve wrecking but after a while you get used to it. It really helps me to care less about other people’s impression! Very therapeutic. I do it once or twice a week. I live in a city not a town, so it’s doable for me without meeting people I know (which IS improbable but not impossible).
Other challenges are asking strangers for a high five, lying down on the pavement , stuff like that.
And no I’m not crazy, I’m just fed up with what others think about me. I’ve also realized that I have to DO stuff to get over it, not just think about it

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