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You’re Not That Important

And that’s something to be happy about

Photo by Lena Bell on Unsplash

I’ve been prone to anxiety most of my life. What other people thought about me meant a lot. I would worry about the impressions I made. I felt that meeting expectations was never enough, and that I always had to surpass the performance everyone else assumed I was capable of.

Here’s the thing though, as I’ve come to realize in my ripe, wise old age of thirty years — most people don’t really care about me. And, reciprocally, I don’t really care about most other people. Nevertheless, my perception of others’ opinions of me still matters.

This cognitive dissonance, I think, is a quirk of human nature that arose from the shifting emphasis from community and teamwork in the past to individual identity that dominates our world today. I can’t imagine early humans worrying about whether their neighbor was judging their performance in life because, out of necessity, everyone had to help everyone else and the sense of identity any individual felt likely emerged from his or her fundamental role in the community, which everyone respected because it was essential.

Today’s individual autonomy likely contributes to many of the mental health problems that pervade societies around the world. The truth is, most of us don’t matter that much to other people. Population centers are now too large to be called communities, and every citizen is unlikely to be affected by the demise of any given individual. Thus, our lack of importance at the community level causes us to seek validation on the individual level in the opinions of others. We worry about whether we said something at an inopportune time last night at dinner, whether the VP we work under thinks we’re outstanding, whether our friends think we have our shit together.

But these are all pointless, trivial matters. Consider how much time you spend pondering the value of people you know — probably very little. And so isn’t it pretty selfish to expect that there’s all these other people out there judging you? Yes it is.

Those people whose opinions you’re worried about have much more important things to do than worry about how you stack up. Like worry about what you think of them. Yeah, ever consider that one? I’m sure that happens a lot — two people worried about what they each think of each other.

And therein lies an important step along the road to peace of mind: embrace your lack of importance. Once you realize that you’re actually pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme, it’s easier to shrug things off, to let bygones be bygones and not dwell on regrets.

Speaking of regrets, that’s one of the biggest sources of discontent for a lot of people. They worry endlessly about something they did in the past. Well, newsflash, nobody thinks more about your past than you do. Hardly anybody, in fact, likely even recalls that moment you consider an embarrassing faux pas and for which you still make yourself cringe. It’s not that big of a deal to anyone else.

The Stoics have had this this figured out for a long time. They knew that the past is immutable and unalterable, and therefor not worth worrying about. They know that whether anyone else judges you is beyond your control as well, and thus also not worth worrying about. Marcus Aurelius, considered one of the most beloved Emperors in Roman history, and literally the most important person in the world at the time, wrote to himself repeatedly reminding himself that he was, in reality, not that big of a deal. We all ought to take time to consider doing the same, it might do our mental health a great benefit.

Whenever I find myself worrying about something, I try to remember to ask myself, who else is worried about this issue? The truth is, usually, nobody. The harder part is accepting that it’s okay to be unimportant. It takes some getting used to at first, but then it’s freeing.

I know now that nobody really cares that much about me because they’ve got their own problems and anxieties to deal with. Sure, my family would be devastated if something happened to me, but they’d get over it. They’d have no choice. Friends would do the same, only they’d get over it a little quicker than family. Coworkers might feel bummed for a few days, then it’s back to business as usual. So why do we get stuck on our own importance and trying to create an identity for ourselves that we think we want others to see?

People who talk about creating a “personal brand” must have terribly anxious lives. They put others’ perceptions of them in the forefront and literally make an effort to control what other people think about them. This a ludicrous notion and an awful idea for mental health. Every action must be calculated — is this consistent with my personal brand? That sounds like a repulsive way to navigate life if you ask me.

None of us can possibly know all that we can until the moment we die because there’s still more for us to experience. As such, we are all always learning. Thus, we all make mistakes. It’s to be expected and embraced as part of the human experience. Now, however, we shelter ourselves against situations in which we might make a mistake for fear we’ll be portrayed discordantly with our personal brand on social media or some such. And the epidemic of reality television and social media influencers propagates the ridiculous notion that anyone else out there in the real world has their shit together more so than we do. They do not; if anything, we’re all better positioned to have good mental health than the folks whose self identity hinges on approval of others.

So, just remember that you are not that important, and when you’re worried about what someone else is thinking, you’re pretty safe betting that it’s not about you.