“You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt
I spent way too much of my life worrying about what other people were thinking of me.
I couldn’t walk down the street without sucking in my gut for fear a stranger might have thought I looked fat (mind you, I did this even when I weighed 120 pounds!!)
Going to any social gathering—a Halloween party, networking event, craft fair, even a holiday family meal—was so stressful it felt like I had a bees’ nest in my chest.
I had a successful thirteen-year marketing career, was one of the founding employees of a startup company turned publicly traded international corporation, but I still worried someone was going to figure out that I didn’t know what I was doing—because there was no way I was smart enough to be there, regardless of any accolades I received.
It trickled into even the seemingly smallest tasks in my life—calling someone on the phone, going to the grocery store, going to the gym. If there were other people involved, I could find a way to believe they were going to judge me, and harshly.
At a certain point I said, “Enough is enough. I need to stop this because I’m miserable.”
I was sick of living in other people’s heads, imagining the horrible things they could be thinking of me, and never feeling like I could be my authentic self because I didn’t feel good enough for anyone.
I’ve come a long way since then. I’ve done the work (and keep on doing it!) to recognize when I’m sinking into my negative thinking habit, to accept instead of resisting what I’m experiencing, challenge my inner bully, change my perspective, and best of all, let it go.
The change in me was so drastic that I look at my life as the old me and the new me.
The old me would never be able to strike up a conversation with a stranger, eat at a restaurant alone, never mind be on a podcast or do live videos on Facebook.
The old me most definitely couldn’t handle making a mistake, failing at something, or putting my foot in my mouth without relentlessly beating myself up for hours, days, or months.
So why do we worry so much about what other people think?
For one thing, there’s a bit of a survival instinct going on. We’re a communal species and understand that there is strength in numbers and security being part of a group. And if anything (real or perceived) threatens our place in the community, it triggers our fear response—our fight-or-flight instinct.
But remember when I wrote “perceived threats?” That’s really what we’re talking about here.
Because what is really happening when we’re worried about what other people think, we’re taking judgments we hold against ourselves, and we’re projecting them onto others, assuming they believe the same things that we believe about ourselves.
We hold these limiting beliefs about ourselves, so we are constantly on the lookout to “prove” them to be true.
So let me walk you through, step by step, how to break this habit of worrying about what other people think.
Step 1: Mindfully recognize when it happens.
You can’t change unless you know where you are starting from and when you are there. Mindfulness is the ultimate empowerment tool and crucial first step to taking back control over your thoughts, emotions, and actions.
Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, without judgment. It’s recognizing what is really going on right now in your mind and in your body.
So let’s say whenever you go to the gym or yoga you spend the whole time worrying about what people think about how you look.
You can’t break this habit until you catch yourself doing it. What usually ends up happening is we just run with these worries, get caught up in the stories, and before we know it, we’ve spent the whole hour stuck in worry. Then we carry it into the locker room and on the drive home like we’re stuck on a broken record and dancing to the beat.
Mindfulness is noticing the feeling. Usually we feel it in our bodies first. Where does this feeling of worry show up physically? Knots in the stomach or tightness in the chest?
It’s noticing what thoughts we’re having, without judgment. Ask yourself, what story I’m I telling myself about this?
Mindfulness is noticing “Ohh, look, I’m doing that thing again where I’m worrying that other people think I look fat.”
From there, label what you are feeling. “I’m feeling anxiety and self-judgment.”
Do you see how taking a step back to be objective and curious about what is happening inside our own heads is like taking the needle off that broken record? It stops us from mindlessly running with this worry, and gives us pause to examine it, and the space to choose how we want to respond. But before that, let’s go to step 2 because it’s important not to skip.
Step 2: Practice radical acceptance and self-compassion.
Normally when we feel these uncomfortable feelings, we want to run from them, ignore them, numb them (with wine, pot a Netflix binge, whatever your vice is). We don’t like how it feels, so we hide from it, which means we don’t fully process it.
Emotions are energy in motion. Ignoring them does not make them go away. Allowing them to exist, accepting that this is an emotion I’m experiencing right now, is a step toward letting it run its course.
In step 1 we recognized and labeled this feeling. From here, you can look it square in the eye and say, “Oh, hello self-judgment. Welcome to the party.”
I personally find it really helpful to minimize the feeling by almost belittling it. I know that sounds harsh, but bear with me.
I’ll say, “Oh, hello self-judgment, don’t you look adorable this evening.” And I picture myself opening the door, allowing her in, and letting her find her way to the bar. And I picture myself not joining her.
That’s how I allow her to be, to exist, to show up in my life, but I don’t need to go swap stories with her over a glass of wine.
This is a much more self-compassionate approach than denying the real emotion that arose in that moment because I’m not judging or beating myself up for having had this thought, nor am I indulging in the negative emotion.
Step 3: Challenge your core beliefs.
But let’s dig into that thought with Step 3—challenging core beliefs.
Going back to the gym example, the thought that was causing the feeling of anxiety and self-judgment was “other people are looking at me and they think I look fat, unattractive, that I don’t belong here.”
To get to the core belief driving this thought, think, “If that were true, what would it mean about me?”
Does it mean you think you are not likable, not worthy, not good enough?
This is how you identify the limiting core belief that is driving you to judge yourself and imagine other people are judging you.
When it comes to beliefs, our minds are always on the lookout for anything to prove that belief to be true, with the exclusion of all the evidence to the contrary. We have blinders on to anything that proves that belief to be false.
So let’s stop that. Once you identify your limiting core belief, I want you to list out all of the reasons this belief is not true, or at least not completely true.
You may be thinking, “But I am actually overweight, how do I come up with a list?”
Don’t forget, the limiting belief is found by asking, “What do I think this means about me?” Which might be that you think you are not lovable. So list off all the evidence to the contrary.
Use this list when you’re feeling down about yourself. Remember, when we have these limiting beliefs, we have blinders on blocking us from the truth, from the positive qualities about ourselves and our accomplishments.
Step 4: Reframe the situation.
Ok, now we’re really getting into the good stuff.
Here is where we are going to reframe the situation and give ourselves a new perspective. The situation in our example is that you are at the gym or yoga, there are other people there, and they can see you and you find yourself thinking, “People think I look fat.”
Those emotions then influence our behavior: We ruminate, obsess over this thought, maybe we leave the gym early, maybe we don’t go use the machines on the other side of the room because there are more people there.
Without changing the situation, what is another way we can think about what is going on?
Here some ways to reframe this:
People are not thinking about me, they are thinking about themselves.
This one is really quite true. People are not thinking about you as much as you think they are. They are thinking about themselves. See, you aren’t thinking about them really—you are thinking about yourself and how you look in their eyes and worrying about what they think of you.
If they are thinking about you, maybe they think they are proud of you.
They may have been just as out of shape as you just a few months ago and are rooting you on in their heads. I do this all the time! I’ve gone through some great physical journeys myself, and I love feeling proud watching others on theirs.
Maybe the guy across the room actually thinks you are cute.
Maybe the lady in downward dog thinks you kind of look like her sister.
Maybe someone else is wondering where you got your top.
The goal is to come up with a new thought. One to replace the automatic thought that came to mind due to your limiting belief.
With that new thought comes a new emotion. With that new emotion comes a new behavior. And that is now changing your relationship with your thoughts literally changes your life.
Step 5: Let go.
You’ve recognized what’s going on, allowed yourself to feel, gave yourself a moment of self-compassion, challenged your core beliefs, looked at the situation from another perspective, and now it’s time to let it go.
I want you to ask yourself, “Is holding onto this thought serving me in any positive way?” If the answer is no, give yourself permission to let it go.
You do that by bringing your focus back to the present. You can take some mindful breaths and focus on that.
If you’re at the gym, bring your full attention to your feet hitting the treadmill. The feel of your sweat on your skin. The sound of the music playing. When you notice your mind has gone back to those negative thoughts, just notice it, say, “Oh yeah, I decided to let that go,” and come back to the present task at hand.
It will happen again, your mind will go back to the thought—just gently guide your attention back to the present.
This is meditation in action. This is how a meditation practice translates into real world change.
Notice, acknowledge, and come back. Rinse and repeat.
You are working on cultivating a new habit. One that allows you to let go of all that is no longer serving you.