Most people care very much about what other people think about them. In her research, Elizabeth R Thornton found that about 55% of us often or always tie our own sense of self-esteem to what others think.
While it would be senseless trying to deny that we do in fact constantly judge each other, we’re far too oblivious to the role played by a myriad of influences in other people’s minds. We’re often being judged in ways that only have a weak link with who we are, if any. The ways we judge, categorize, and respond to each other are based upon our memories, our experiences, the teachings and values that were given to us. Identity-driven thinking has a tenacious effect on our judgment.
Ask yourself: Can you afford to spend time worrying about someone else’s judgment when it could have little to do with you? Are you really willing to let someone else’s background shape the way you feel about yourself?
Tonio Kröger is a novella by Thomas Mann. In it, in a largely autobiographic fashion, Tonio/Thomas deals with his conflict-ridden identity. A successful writer in his thirties, Tonio laments to his friend Lisaveta that his desire for a normal life combines only uncomfortably with his creative activity, art requiring a certain distance from human experiences. Lisaveta conveniently summarizes his struggle by labeling him as a lost burgher. Seemingly as a result of the conversation, Tonio takes a trip north to Denmark and through his hometown. The journey leads to a reconciliation between his conflicting identities. While Tonio is not at home neither in art nor in bourgeois society, he says that thanks to his condition, he can be more than just a man of letters. What’s most striking is that he reappropriates his friend’s somewhat scornful label and calls it by his own terms a very chaste bliss.
Developing your identity in your own terms is not an easy task. But the key to a better life is pretty straightforward here. We should all recognize that we’ve been socialized to value ourselves through the eyes of others. And we can and should strive to love ourselves without relying too much on external validation.
There’s another point that I want to make here. If you value yourself on what others think of you, your self-concept lacks any foundation. Maybe you’re trying to project the best possible image of yourself based on what you believe others want. But you don’t really know what they want, do you? A clearer picture of what you’re doing would be along these lines: you’re somewhat arbitrarily deciding what you think other people want and then trying to project that image. Is this game really worth it?
Unfortunately, this game leads many people to build traps for themselves that they can’t really get out of. The only way out is a process of self-discovery. Maybe you can’t name many passions since you’ve been so busy trying to seek external validation. But you can try out new things. Explore new activities, even if they feel overwhelming. Cultivate your skills by laying the ground for various interests and sides of ourselves. All that is needed is an open heart and the willingness to make room for whatever brings joy into your life. By doing so, your self-love will grow far stronger than your need for external validation.