How to (Almost) Stop Caring What Others Think

For the eight years from age fifteen to twenty-two, my face was marked with a “red smile” — spots of acne vulgaris spread across my face from cheek to cheek, making me look like some dark-haired reincarnation of Batman’s the Joker.

One day, I came home after a particularly bad flare-up of acne. My father took one look at me and angrily exclaimed, “What, acne on your face again? Have you been washing your face?”

My father, of course, meant no harm. He was worried. But I was miserable all the same. I felt I had committed a terrible crime; it was my fault that I was ugly.

Another time, during a family reunion dinner in China, my grandmother — with the brutal honesty of the elderly — said to me: “Boy, you were so ugly when you were baby. I’d walk you around in a stroller and look at your face and man oh man, you were so ugly.”

Grandma laughed loudly. I looked at my shoes. Then, the rest of my family started laughing too.

A decade passed before I went to China again.

I Am Your Opinion of Me

Psychological pain is real.

The part of the brain that “flares up” when your grandmother prods you with a pair of red-hot tongs is the same as the part that reacts when she stabs at you with a fiery remark.

Why is it, though, that we care so much about what others think of us?

Alain de Botton gives an answer in his excellent book Status Anxiety:

“The attentions of others matter to us because we are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value, as a result of which affliction we tend to allow others’ appraisals to play a determining role in how we see ourselves. Our sense of identity is held captive by the judgements of those we live among. If they are amused by our jokes, we grow confident in our power to amuse. If they praise us, we develop an impression of high merit. And if they avoid our gaze when we enter a room or look impatient after we have revealed our occupation, we may fall into feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness.”

Indeed, the teenage me was completely unsure of how to see himself. My only source of self-worth came from the opinions of others.

That’s good to know.

But the more important question to ask is: what can we do about it?

Enter: Philosophy as a Shield

Source: Wikimedia Commons

For guidance, de Botton suggests we turn to the ancient philosophers, who used philosophy to “bullet-proof” themselves against the opinions of others:

“In the Greek peninsula early in the fifth century BC, there emerged a group of individuals, many of them with beards, who were singularly free of the anxieties about status that tormented their contemporaries. These philosophers were untroubled by either the psychological or the material consequences of a humble position in society, they remained calm in the face of insult, disapproval and penury.”

He follows with a few examples of how these philosophers carried themselves through life:

When Alexander the Great passed through Corinth, he visited the philosopher Diogenes and found him sitting under a tree, dressed in rags, with no money to his name. Alexander, the most powerful man in the world, asked if he could do anything to help him. ‘Yes,’ replied the philosopher, ‘if you could step out of the way. You are blocking the sun.’ Alexander’s soldiers were horrified, expecting an outburst of their commander’s famous anger. But Alexander only laughed and remarked that if he were not Alexander, he would certainly like to be Diogenes.
Antisthenes was told that a great many people in Athens had started to praise him. ‘Why,’ he answered, ‘what have I done wrong?’
Empedocles had a similar regard for the intelligence of others. He once lit a lamp in broad daylight and said, as he went around, ‘I am looking for someone with a mind.’”

What is it about philosophy (remember, ancient philosophy was nothing like what is studied in schools today) that gave these persons a special power?

Let us take a look at the faces of some of these philosophers:

Yes, here we have it. The secret to not caring what people think is to grow a beard.

Sorry ladies.

Ahem. What the philosophers (who were, of course, human) learned to do was “filter” the opinions of others:

“…rather than letting every case of opposition or neglect wound us, we are invited first to examine the justice of others’ behaviour. Only that which is both damning and true should be allowed to shatter our esteem. We should halt the masochistic process whereby we seek the approval of people before we have asked ourselves whether their views deserve to be listened to…”

Once you realize that the rest of humanity is just as flawed as you are, it is a lot easier to discard their remarks.

In his Parerga and Paralipomena (Greek for “Appendices and Omissions”), German philosopher Schopenhauer writes of just how clueless most of us are:

“…when we come to see how superficial and futile are most people’s thoughts, how narrow their ideas, how mean their sentiments, how perverse their opinions, and how much of error there is in most of them; when we learn by experience with what depreciation a man will speak of his fellow, when he is not obliged to fear him, or thinks that what he says will not come to his ears. And if ever we have had an opportunity of seeing how the greatest of men will meet with nothing but slight from half-a-dozen blockheads, we shall understand that to lay great value upon what other people say is to pay them too much honor.”

Still, if just knowing this was enough, we would all be invincible.

There is something missing here.

Not Quite Bulletproof

I don’t talk to my mother about my work.

Whenever the subject turns to the topic of employment (I write for a living), she blinks and turns away, suddenly silent. I get the feeling she is trying not to cry.

In those moments, a terrible guilt rolls over me.

I am a failure.

Stability, Status, Safety and Salary — these are the idols that Asian parents worship. Many of my peers who chose not to be lawyers, doctors or engineers — instead choosing to teach, write or make art — spend a lifetime with a voice that whispers, You are a failure.

This year, I met with an old friend (he’s an artist) for lunch. His father happened to be nearby, and we asked him to recommend a restaurant. “Well,” he replied, “since neither of you have real jobs, how about you go somewhere cheap?”

Ouch.

Philosophy helps, but it is never perfect.

I’ve examined assumptions. I’ve tested many ways of living. I chose my way of life. But, at the end of it all, opinions still sting.

Philosophy can help us rebuild our self-esteem on a platform that stands apart from the opinions of others. However, the human is a social animal, and I don’t think we can ever be truly bulletproof.

Even the great Stoic philosopher Seneca admitted that he was affected by the crowd:

“Never do I return home with the character I had when I left; always there is something I had settled before that is now stirred up again, something I had gotten rid of that has returned. …our minds are recovering from a long illness; contact with the many is harmful to us. Every single person urges some fault upon us, or imparts one to us, or contaminates us without our even realizing it.”

Still, although you may never be fully bullet-proof, there is no reason not to put on a vest.

It still hurts when others mock my looks or my way of life. But now, instead of looking down at my shoes, I can look them in the eyes and smile.

Some parting words from Seneca:

“Spend your time with those who will improve you; extend a welcome to those you can improve. The effect is reciprocal, for people learn while teaching.”

Thanks for reading.

And yes, I care what you think.