I don’t know about you, but ever since I was a kid, people have told me, over and over again, that it doesn’t matter what other people think. Be yourself! Don’t worry about the haters! Of course, this is usually tempered with some limits - “as long as you make me happy” or “don’t mess with my world” or “don’t rock the boat too much…”
Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can achieve this fabled sense of freedom - we can eschew the roles and requirements of civil society (to a point) and be completely and totally ourselves, without fear and without shame. Sometimes, we can let go of our need to have a title to make us feel important and complete. Sometimes, we can make decisions based on trusting ourselves and our gut and not worrying so much about what our parents or friends or partners or kids or bosses will think. Sometimes, we think we really can handle life and all the challenges of running a nonprofit with a big mission, or a business with heart, or raising kids who will hopefully turn out to be pretty good people.
If we get really good at doing this self-empowered thinking and action because we practice and practice and practice it, we can make it a habit. We can find ourselves cruising along through life, easefully and with joy. We can see ourselves making a difference in the world, achieving the kind of impact we envisioned, and having fun while we do it.
Yet, sometimes - sometimes even when we have achieved a level of “not caring what other people think,” we might find ourselves in a little dip. A little moment of self-doubt. A few days of nagging, sinking dread that is hard to notice at first. Until, suddenly, we realize: “I think I might actually care what people think!” Oh, crap.
It’s not a pleasant thought, really. It’s not something most of us wake up to and relish. Most of the time, when it happens to me, I feel a bit let down. I feel kind of betrayed by my own psyche. “Come on, self! We were doing so well! We were totally cooking with gas! Don’t slow us down now!”
And psyche just gives a little shrug and stares back at me, like, “Well?”
This happened to me recently. I do consulting work for nonprofits, and one of my main contracts was up for renewal. The contract was for work I absolutely adore - and yet, the time it took to conduct the work had become onerous. My business is growing - on the verge of really taking off - and I was devoting more than half my work time to this one contract every week. It wasn’t really sustainable. So, I asked for what I needed. I’m hiring an assistant, and I’d like to delegate some of the work to this person - the work that is not confidential or otherwise regulated (it’s a sub-sub-contract on a Federal grant). They said no. Then, they added more work to the contract.
I was faced with a real choice, here.
Do I trust myself and my ability to grow my business faster and on my own terms? Do I believe that is possible? Answer to both: YES.
If I let this contract go, will I be able to continue building my business? Will I make enough money to cover expenses and more? Answer: I think so...
And then…”But what if I’m just irrational and blindly optimistic? What would [fill in the blank person] say? Maybe I’m not good enough, or I’m delusional, or everybody thinks I’m crazy or stupid or don’t have anything important to offer.” You know this kind of thinking, right? The spiral of asking a fairly reasonable question: “am I sure about this?” quickly giving way to “Nothing I have ever done was OK and I think maybe I’m the worst and everybody else thinks so too!” Right? Not helpful.
This layer of doubt lingered on top of my conviction that I can and will write my own ticket doing what I was born to do. I will. If it isn’t this, it will be something else. That doubt, though, made me susceptible to what other people think. My guard was down.
It didn’t help that while I was already reeling in my own self-doubt and second-guessing, someone confronted me about a book I wrote last year, where I wrote about real people in my real life in a very raw and honest way. It was someone whose story had been disguised, telling a story that happened 20 years ago - but that a third party had told my friend I had “stabbed her and her husband in the back.” I disagree. The chapter wasn’t about her, and it wasn’t mean-spirited...but she wouldn’t read it, choosing to instead believe the other person’s (I think unfair) assessment of what I wrote.
That little voice, “I must have done something wrong. I shouldn’t have written that book at all. What was I thinking to be so vulnerable? I should have just never said anything.”
That tangled up “need” to be understood - to get the benefit of the doubt - to be heard - it reared its head. And I had some more choices.
Do I just apologize? Do I explain myself? Was I really wrong to write that book? Didn’t I know this would happen (yes)...
So, what now?
Meanwhile, the rest of me battled to restore my sense of confidence and contentment with being a little…”different.”
Which reminds me of one of my favorite movies, What’s Up Doc, featuring the most adorable version of Barbara Streisand ever known to mankind. Her character, Judy, is a bit off-beat. She says:
Judy: I know I’m different, but from now on I’m going to try and be the same.
Howard: The same as what?
Judy: The same as people who aren’t different.
This is a perfect quote. Because it means nothing.
If you’re not different, I guess you’re just the same. And what does that even mean?
Here’s What I Did When I Accidentally Cared What People Think
When we find ourselves under layers and layers of emotions and self-doubt, and confusion, and in-our-heads-conversations about what we should do, where we should go, how we should be...it’s time to stop for a moment (or a lot of moments) to clear our heads and hearts.
When this was happening to me, I stopped what I was doing and spent some time taking deeper breaths. It was a mini-meditation. I just sat with myself and felt what I felt. I felt the gnawing anxiety of making a choice I didn’t want to have to make. I felt the disappointment at being a disappointment to someone else. I felt the sadness of loss and letting go of something I love. I felt the excitement of getting to devote myself more completely to what I truly want to do. I felt the elation of forgiveness - for myself and others - for misunderstandings and rifts. I felt the freedom of letting go of my need to control. I felt the joy of remembering all the times in my life when I’ve been OK - no matter what was happening around me - no matter who loved me or hated me, no matter what my job was or wasn’t - no matter how much money I had or didn’t have…
I just stopped.
And allowed the emotions to exist.
It’s really easy to pile on emotions, avoid them, judge them, and end up with an even bigger, twisted up pile if we don’t tend to them. It’s easy to pretend we’re OK and just barrel on. Or to give in to the doubts and do the easiest thing, or what feels safest.
But those things? Strong-arming our way through life, or playing small? Those things are not usually the best choices. The best choices are something altogether different.
Being determined is good. Making wise decisions when it comes to risk is good.
Being true to what you really want and know you need, even if you have to stop and think about it for a while - that’s even better.
Once I stopped and felt all the feelings, I asked myself these questions:
On the contract: Will this allow me to live out my purpose in the world in a big enough way that I am willing to sacrifice my other plans to do it? (Answer: no); If I let this contract go and need to replace all this money, can I think of ways to do it? (Answer: yes); Can I trust myself to actually do those things to see if they work? (Answer: YES). That last one is the key. “Can I trust myself to do this?”
On the book: Did I actively and knowingly harm anybody when I wrote this book? (Answer: no); Do I need other peoples’ permission and approval to tell my own story? (Answer: no); Has this book served a purpose other than making me “feel better” or gossip or complain? (Answer: yes). Do I need to apologize for putting it into the world? (Answer: NO). That last one, again, is key. This is a question of regret. Sometimes, other people will not receive what you do. If you’re saying something true and huge and challenging, a certain number of people will reject it and you with it. That’s true. It hurts, but it is true. Do I believe in my message enough to allow this truth to be what it is? Yes.
After these questions, I set intentions, made plans, and started executing.
My intention for my friend on the book debacle: to offer love, compassion, understanding, and set things right as best I can - and then, let it go. I can’t force a relationship, and I can’t force someone else to understand me or what I say. This is true, and it is OK. I sent a thoughtful message back, hoping to offer love. I let it go. I love her, and can love her from afar. That’s what I’ll choose.
My intention for the contract: to offer what I hope might be a mutually workable solution, and accept it if they say no. Either way, to reinvest in my business, train my sales team, get my content development up and on schedule, and write my next book. They did say no, and I have started the book. I’ve started training my awesome people.
What now? The sky’s the limit.
Caring what other people think in a way that bogs us down, or keeps us small, or makes us hesitant to speak the truth or move our lives forward is a trap. It’s a trap that keeps us from making the difference we can and must make in the world. It keeps us from being truly happy. It keeps us from loving ourselves and others as deeply and surely as we know we have the capacity to love. It keeps us stuck and stagnant.
Letting it go - through stopping, feeling, sensing, thinking, intending, planning and executing the plan - can provide us with a consistent (albeit, occasionally challenged) foundation of strength, power and energy to do what we are here on earth to do. Go do it!