Wouldn’t it be cool if you could just stop caring what people think?
Imagine how confident you would feel if criticism bounced off your psyche like pebbles off a suit of armor. Imagine all the mental and emotional energy you could free up if other people’s opinions stopped taking up space in your head. The fear of judgment or rejection would no longer be a concern for you. You’d be an unstoppable force, ready to conquer the world!
I think most of us carry around some version of this fantasy. Many of my counseling and coaching clients tell me that, if they could change just one thing about themselves, it would be their tendency to worry too much about what other people think.
Of course, not caring at all about other people’s thoughts isn’t a goal you’re likely to achieve. And you wouldn’t really want to — having some sensitivity to how other people think and feel is a prerequisite for having healthy relationships. But we all need to strike a balance between concerning ourselves with what other people think, and using our own internal wisdom to tell us who we are, what’s important to us, and how we want to spend our limited time on Earth.
To strike this balance, you need to learn how to rely less on external validation. You must know how to validate yourself, so you can feel good about yourself and confident living your life based on your own values and priorities, no matter what’s going on in other people’s minds. If you struggle to validate yourself, learning how to do so may be the most important step you ever take in your journey of personal growth.
Of course, this is deep internal work that can take months or even years in therapy. But this article will give you some ideas about where to begin. If you’d prefer to listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Why We Seek Approval
Human beings are social creatures. For our ancestors, being part of a group was a matter of life or death, and our brains developed complex systems to help us sustain the social bonds that we needed to survive.
These psychological systems are still a part of you today, even though you’re not literally in danger of starving to death if someone doesn’t like your outfit. These systems are why your brain can pick up on a ton of information about another person’s inner state, like whether they’re feeling confused, pleased, or irritated, based solely on a microexpression that flashes across their face for a fraction of a second. This tremendous sensitivity allows us to be empathetic and responsive to others, which is how we’re able to maintain our critical attachment bonds and succeed as a collective species.
When our social bonds feel threatened, we feel uncomfortable emotions. We may feel guilt or shame when we disappoint someone we care about. Or we might feel hurt when someone is critical, hostile, or rejecting toward us. These feelings can guide you to do healthy things, like repair a relationship after a fight, or set healthy boundaries with difficult people. But they can also lead to some unhelpful behaviors, for example, a tendency to stuff your feelings down and avoid conflict at all costs.
This social sensitivity is deeply wired — you can’t research it away or even therapy it away. But you can learn how to manage your feelings, rather than trying to change your feelings by managing how other people think or feel about you. This essential emotional intelligence skill allows you to remain open and responsive to others, while still having the inner security to live your life based on your own authentic values.
What Is External Validation?
When you think about external validation, you may think about praise, attention, or approval. But it’s about a lot more than that. We receive external validation when we’re around people who reflect back to us that we make sense, that we matter, that our feelings are understandable, and that we belong.
This is all positive — we all need a little validation to feel happy and connected to the people in our lives. But not every relationship is validating, and no relationship is validating one hundred percent of the time. You are going to meet people who disagree with your perspective, and some will even think you’re foolish for thinking the way you think. Even the most loving, loyal friend will occasionally invalidate your feelings, or fail to understand your point of view.
If you don’t know how to validate yourself, you’ll feel disappointed, hurt, or resentful when you can’t get the validation you need from the people around you. This not only puts you in a precarious spot, it also puts a lot of undue pressure on the people in your life. Some of the most unhealthy relationship dynamics come from trying to manage how you feel by managing other people. This is at the root of controlling behavior, codependent relationship dynamics, narcissistic relationships, and other toxic patterns.
Signs You Care Too Much What Other People Think
If you care too much about what other people think, you might have trouble with decision making. When you’re not skilled at validating yourself, it’s hard to feel sure enough about your own thoughts, feelings, judgments, and desires to use them in making important decisions.
You may also have a strong fear of judgment. Spending a lot of time thinking about how other people will evaluate your choices is a sign that you’re hungry for external validation.
It can also show up as trouble setting boundaries. It can feel too risky to set healthy boundaries with others when you need their validation in order to feel good about yourself.
Perfectionism is another common problem. If you need validation from others to feel okay, you’re going to feel pretty anxious about whether or not you can get it. Many people try to manage that anxiety through perfectionism — a habit that is not only self-defeating, but leaves you feeling even worse.
If you notice yourself saying “yes” when you really want to say “no,” you may be trying to people please in order to earn validation. Similarly, when you meet people who are rejecting or critical of you, you may work hard to earn their approval or to prove your worth if you’re a junkie for external validation.
Not taking criticism well can be another sign that you care too much about what other people think. If you find yourself getting super defensive or collapsing into a pile of toxic shame after gentle feedback, that’s something to think about. In the same vein, you may be addicted to praise. This can create big problems when you encounter manipulative people, who often use flattery to hook people who have low self-esteem into toxic relationships.
Finally, being overly concerned with status or appearance is a big sign you need a lot of external validation. We all like to feel successful, have nice things, and to surround ourselves with people we find cool and interesting. But if you’re seeking markers of status or managing your appearance to change how other people see you, that’s a sign that you’re relying too much on external validation.
How to Stop Caring what Other People Think
So what can you actually do about it? There are a few steps you can take to begin shifting from external to internal validation, which will help you feel more confident in yourself and secure in your relationships.
- Remember, no one cares
Every single person you will meet in your life is primarily self-focused. Yourself included! If you weren’t, what other people think about you wouldn’t be a concern. Remember this when you’re falling down the rabbit hole, ruminating about the thoughts that other people are having about you. They’re probably not having that many. How freeing!
- Get clear about your own value standards
If you spend a lot of time thinking about what other people think of you, that can be a sign that you don’t aren’t clear about what your own values are or how you would like to live your life. When you do have a clear internal belief system that you’re measuring yourself by (with heaps of self-compassion, of course), it’s easier not to judge yourself by other people’s standards.
- Have clear goals
What do you want in life? What is your ten-year plan? What are your most ambitious goals and how are you going to achieve them? The clearer you are about where you want to be and how you plan to get there, the less you’ll need other people to tell you you’re okay.
- Stop judging others
From a psychological perspective, judgment is an interesting tool. Like seeking validation, judging other people is another way of regulating how you feel about yourself, but instead of trying to make other people think that you’re great, you’re trying to make yourself feel superior to them by knocking them down a peg in your mind. But this backfires. When you judge others, it ultimately reinforces the message that other people’s judgments of you might be valid. It also damages relationships — absolutely no one likes feeling judged!
- Validate yourself
Practice intentionally validating your own thoughts and feelings and treating them like they matter. It might help you to use a journal to articulate your point of view, or practice naming your feelings out loud. Then, decide what you want to do with these insights. Is there something you want to change? Or some emotional self-care you can offer yourself? As you do this, remember that there is no one right way to think or feel. I assure you, you are doing this right!
- Healthy boundaries
Not caring too much about what other people think is connected with having healthy boundaries. When you have healthy boundaries, you release other people to think what they think, and you release yourself from any attempts to change or control them.
- Face the fear of abandonment
For many people, especially those with an anxious attachment style, the possibility of abandonment is terrifying. It can be the core fear behind being overly concerned with what other people think, and it can cause you to abandon yourself to maintain relationships that aren’t good for you. When you face your fear of abandonment (possibly with the help of a good therapist), you can make peace with the reality that other people will come and go from your life as they choose.
- Limit who you turn to for validation
Become more aware of 1) when you may be seeking validation, and 2) who from. When you’re genuinely feeling uncertain or you need some reassurance, it’s good to have a small circle of emotionally safe, trustworthy people in your life who can offer their perspective. But allowing selfish people or those who don’t have your best interests at heart into that circle would be a mistake.
- Notice the impact of social media
Posting snapshots of your life online for strangers to like and comment on is a recipe for getting a little obsessed with how other people see you. If you think social media may be making you feel bad (which is not at all uncommon), try taking a break for several weeks and then noticing how you feel before and after. Then you can decide if you want to continue engaging with it, and how much.
- Work on your self-love / self-esteem
When you have a negative inner voice, criticism from others feels like confirmation of something painful you already believe about yourself. When you have a supportive inner voice, it feels like a random data point among a billion others. Not totally irrelevant, but also not all-important. Improving your self-esteem can be the key to becoming less fixated on what other people think.
- Remember, you’re going to die someday
I know this one feels morbid, but it’s also the truth. In fact, research shows that worrying too much about what other people think is one of the top-five regrets of the dying. At the end of your life, do you want to look back on a life lived according to your own values? Or a life that was constrained by fear?
When you find yourself worrying about what other people think of you, I hope that remembering your time is limited and precious will help you gain perspective about what truly matters.
Support for Self-Esteem and Confidence
It’s one thing to read an article or listen to a podcast on how to stop being so reliant on external validation, but it’s another thing to do the deep internal work that will allow you to validate yourself, improve your self-esteem, and build authentic self-confidence. This work touches so many areas of your life and leads to so much personal growth. Whether you do it alone, with a counselor, or a coach, I hope you’ll invest in it. You deserve it.
And if you’d like to start this journey with support from a talented clinician on our team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
P.S. — We have a library of related content, all about how you can become the best version of you. For more articles and podcast episodes, check out our “personal growth” collection.
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Music in this episode is by LA Witch with their song “Starred.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: lawitches.bandcamp.com. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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