Plato said “opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance.”
People talk. And we hear. People tend to have opinions about everything and anyone. It doesn’t matter if their opinion is an argument or “just saying”, they will feel entitled to express it and we will fall for it. In other words, many of us tend to see ourselves through other people's eyes. Every day, every moment of it, we feel judged about our looks, how we behave, how smart we are or if we are being good partners or good parents.
If this was a picture, it would be millions of thought bubbles over our heads and we would look terrified standing underneath. And here comes the question: Why do others’ opinions matter? Why do we need to define our self-image through others’ eyes?
“You should. You must.”
First of all, stereotypes.
Stereotypes are organised sets of generalizations -which are often unconscious- about people. Our societies are built up on the cognitive concept of stereotypes and we make sure every day to conform to them in order to belong in these societies. We have been taught from our parents (direct learning), who learned from their parents, the importance of these stereotypes: it’s a prerequisite for common grounds of communication with your peers, community, relationships, family. As a result, we keep following these rules even if they don’t make us happy or it is not what we want from our lives.
We are also affected by social media (passive learning) which pass their own stereotypical trends; we feel the need to follow and to do “what’s trendy”, in order to be accepted, appraised or even loved. Imagine uploading an instagram picture with your recent achievement which will end up having zero “likes” from your followers. The feeling of rejection, as researchers say, is mirroring actual physical pain. So we end up wondering “what is wrong with me, why nobody likes me? Am I going to be excluded?”.
This is one reason why others’ opinions matter that much; because they either confirm or reject our conformity with the stereotypical fulfillment: “I’m either in or out of the norm. I’m either their friend or their foe.” Specifically, people, by expressing their opinions about us, are sending us the message of success or failure, of respect or ostracism; consequently we either feel safe and proud or totally excluded.
To sum up, others’ opinion matters because it makes us feel we belong; that we are not alone.
The battle of a higher “value”.
Let's talk about self-worth. Self-worth is the sense of one’s own value or worth as a person. Many people use self-worth as a synonym for self-esteem. The difference between those two concepts lays on the reference point.
On the one hand, self-worth is something more internal. It is not about measuring yourself based on external actions or achievements, but mostly, about valuing your inherent worth as a person: how much value you think you add to the world. In other words, self-worth is about who you are, not about what you do.
On the other hand, self-esteem is the overall subjective evaluation which is mostly focused on your achievements and the satisfaction that you may or not receive through them. Nowadays, there is this trend of pushing people in developing high self-esteem. The “trap” in this behavior is that building higher self-esteem focuses on measuring oneself against others (Social Comparison Theory, Leon Festinger), rather than paying attention to one’s intrinsic value.
We are commanded by this competitive culture to be special and extraordinary in order to feel good about ourselves and at this point, “opinions” are used as a weapon in this infinite battle. In a way, by belittling someone who just happens to sit next to you, you succeed in enhancing a higher self value. But, if you are the one standing on the opposite side of the table, you are starving for a praise which is not yet to come; therefore your self-esteem is hitting rock bottom and your addiction to others’ feedback is making you lose your sleep. However, the moment you will receive some good comments, BANG! here’s your reward: happiness, a sudden explosion of dopamine in the brain. You are feeling more valuable, because someone confirmed so.
To sum up, others’ opinion matters because it boosts our self-esteem (not necessarily our self-worth).
“My brain mocks me.”
Last, but definitely not least, it is about thinking patterns. Psychologists use the term “cognitive distortions” to describe irrational thoughts or beliefs that distort a person’s perception about the world, others or ourselves. It is automatic and often turns a simple thought into a habit which makes it hard to recognize or change.
Particularly, our brains are predisposed to form connections between thoughts, ideas, actions, and consequences in order to help us predict the future or protect ourselves in imminent dangerous situations. However, over time, the brain may have developed some faulty or non-helpful connections where there is no true relation.
For example, a person can reject your phone call because he/she is angry with you. But also there is the possibility that he/she is rejecting your call because he/she is busy at the moment, or sick, or has no battery. If it happens once to connect the call-rejection (action) with your own interpretation, then the feeling (anger) will be there every time this happens. However, the truth is that we don’t know the actual reason why, unless we ask them.
So why do we jump into this mind-reading conclusion?
Need for control. It’s safer to “think you know” than to “don’t know at all”. In other words, the script in our head goes like this: “The other person’s reaction is too vague for me. So I will attempt to label it in my own way. In a way that I will feel I know them and I can predict them, and at the same time I can protect myself in case they would like to hurt me.”
To put it simply, other people’s thought perceived opinions are a plain mirroring of our own interpretations. When the interpretations are right, we celebrate our rightness and we feel we protected our self in the best possible way. When the interpretations are faulty (cognitive distorted), unfortunately we’d rather believe in our own mind (e.g. looking for more proof that we are right and they are wrong), than to change our interpretations.
To sum up, others’ opinion matters because it’s our way to feel we control our environment.
Others’ opinions have indeed tremendous value: we are social beings and we care about what other people think of us. This is why every single one of us will be affected by others’ views. However, there is a maximum amount of power that we are willing to concede. If you feel that being exposed to others’ judgments is something that you cannot handle or you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression or even difficulty in making your own decisions, the best that you can do is to consult a mental health professional who is able to find the roots of the issue and help you face the reality.
No matter what, life will be full of judging, criticizing as well as praising and you' ve better build mechanisms to cope with that and reverse them into a learning experience. Our advice comes down to one thing: embrace people’s opinions and give them the meaning that they do have. They are important, but the last word is yours. An opinion doesn’t impose knowledge about who you are and definitely doesn’t mean that you have to change in order to fit in everyone’s criteria. Choose wisely what you want to improve and which path in life you want to follow.
Remember: your self-worth is non-negotiable.
How much do you value other people's opinion? How easy or difficult is it to make your own decisions? How much aware are you of your own thinking pattersn and interpretations?
Take action now.
Written by Foteini Kanaloupiti
Clinical Psychologist, M. Sc. at AntiLoneliness
TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE.