Why Other People’s Opinions Matter
…and what to do when they make you feel bad
By now, everyone knows that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” is a lie.
Words DO hurt — or at least they can. On the flip side, words can also help a lot. Even save lives, literally.
Mark Twain once said:
I can live for two months on a good compliment.
He was probably exaggerrating. Minutely.
But when other peoples’ opinions are hurtful and harmful, some of us pretend not to care. There are a few good pretenders, but very few people truly don’t care what others think of them (those people are usually psychopaths/sociopaths*).
Sometimes we really don’t want to care what others think of us. Sometimes, we succeed. Most times, we fail. Even a completely ridiculous and untrue opinion by a total stranger, which should not hurt us…does hurt us. At least for a while.
Though we’d like to deny it, people’s opinions do matter to us.
Because people matter.
Caring about others’ opinions is pain
Literally, it’s pain. Social pain — caused by bullying, rejection, breakups, etc — have been shown to light up the same regions as physical pain. When someone says something mean to or about us, it hurts. When someone ignores us, it hurts.
Some people, to avoid this pain, become people pleasers. Kow-towing, personality-less yes-men and -women who give other human beings too much power, treating them like gods.
Others go to the opposite extreme, locking up their hearts, pulling out their masks of meanness and cynicism, looking down on all human beings as stupid, small-minded, worthless creatures whose thoughts are worth no more than those of a cockroach.
Many of us alternate between the two.
People are not gods, but neither are they cockroaches. They matter. Every single one of them. And so do their opinions and words.
Attribution is the key
The problem is, you’re going to face people who look down on you, dislike you, hurt you, mock you, at some point or another. That’s life. Some of their statements will be true, others will be false.
The most dangerous statements are the faleshoods mixed with truth.
But one of the most important things to keep in mind, a way to keep yourself protected from these attacks without turning into a hermit/tortoise/misanthrope/recluse, is to remember that what a person says or thinks about you is not necessarily always about you.
Some people lump you into a category and slap a label over the whole social group. Maybe they were once cheated by a purple-haired fellow, and now they think all purple-haired people are cheats. Maybe a bocce player once attacked them, and they now think all bocce players are violent.
In that case, if they accuse you of being a violent cheat because you are a purple-haired bocce player, that has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with that person and his unfortunate history with purple haired bocce players.
Sometimes, also, people are feeling bad, or sick, or angry, and they lash out without thinking. Again, that horrible thing your migraine-fighting colleague says to you, then, is not about you, but about her own discomfort at that particular point in time.
The key is not to dismiss their opinion as unimportant, but to interpret it in the correct way. Instead of being insulted by the bocce-hater or sniping back at the ill-tempered colleague with the migraine, try to see and address the real problem (whether that is by using your actions to demonstrate that not all bocce players are violent, or by kindly offering your colleague an Advil), or simply give them space to cool down.
Whatever else, try not to take their meanness personally. Most of the time, the real problem is not you anyway.
The one whose opinion matters the most
The reason why other people’s opinions affect us is because the people that these opinions come from are valuable.
They are valuable because they were created by God in the image of God.
So it only makes sense that the person whose opinion should matter most of all is not other people’s opinion, or your opinion, but God’s opinion, right?
So…what DOES God say about you?
Best place to check is the Bible.
Best way to understand is to read it. The whole thing, not just smatterings. Get a big, comprehensive, balanced view, and remind yourself (because we forget easily) of who you are to God.
According to Maxwell Maltz, author of the seminal PsychoCybernetics, reprogramming your mind about your identity requires a message from an authoritative source, repeated with intensity.
If you feel bad about yourself and find yourself too easily swayed by others’ opinions, repeating God’s (the ultimate authority) thoughts about you to yourself can help you hold on to the proper, truthful perspective and see your identity and others’ opinions in the right light as well.
Here are some things I’ve gathered. There’s more, of course:
- You are a sinner (Romans 3:23)
- But you are loved (Isaiah 43:4)
- You are weak (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
- But you have a source of strength greater than anything the world knows (Phil 4:13)
…and much, much more.
The key to dealing with other people’s opinions
…is not to pretend they don’t matter, because they do.
But the trick is not to give them too much weight either.
As with many things in life, considering others’ feelings and opinions requires balance — acknowledging the worth of the person and their right to have opinions about stuff (including you), but realizing that their opinions about you are not always about you/are not always totally true.
And no matter what others think, don’t allow that to overwhelm your sense of self. Base your identity in the truth, and you’ll be able to face others’ opinions —both negative and positive — with the proper perspective.
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