Don’t worry about what other people think. Really.Posted: June 11, 2012
First published by Young Minds UK
When I was a small boy, my granddad asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.
“I want to be Paul Brook,” I answered firmly and decisively. It sounds a pretty easy ambition for someone called Paul Brook to achieve, doesn’t it? But only now that I am nearly 36 and have my own children, who are the same age as I was when I made that statement, do I realise how hard – and how important – it is just to be myself.
I’m slowly emerging from two-and-a-half years of depression, during which time I lost myself in a downward spiral of stress, worry, anger, self-loathing and negative thinking. This is the dark underside of my character ruled by Paul Brookes, my evil misspelt alter-ego. I’m blessed and cursed with a vivid imagination. The blessing is that I have a creative mind, which can generate great ideas and paint colourful mental images. The curse is when Brookes gets hold of my imagination and twists it to imagine things that are threatening, frightening or infuriating.
I’ve always been my own worst critic and have thought harsh things about myself that I would never think about anyone else.As I gradually get better, I’m learning not to criticise myself so much, but it has taken all these years and two rounds of counselling to persuade myself that it’s actually OK not to strive for perfection the whole time, and not to be the best at everything. In fact, neither of those things is really possible, no matter how many guts you bust trying to prove they are.
It was during a particularly stressful time in late 2009, and another last autumn, that Brookes capitalised on my self-critical nature and insecurities, and milked them for all they were worth.
Not only did he turn it into an assault on my confidence and self-esteem, he worked out that he could make me feel even worse by conjuring up excessive anxiety about what other people might think of me. I say ‘might’ think, because we rarely actually know what people think of us, because most people simply don’t tell us. But I didn’t know of this distinction between knowledge and assumption during my dark times, and so I went through a miserable time, creating imaginary arguments and stressful scenarios that would play out in my brain when I was trying to get to sleep, or was driving to work.
I think it’s because I’ve always been self-critical that I’ve always resented criticism – whether real or implied – from other people. My logic has been “I’m hard enough on myself so I don’t need criticism from you too”. As a result, criticism has always made me angry, but because I don’t like upsetting people or creating awkward situations (because I worry about what people think of me) I usually stay quiet, and turn that anger inwards. Well, that hasn’t worked, has it?
During my depression and treatment for it, I’ve had to stop and think about a few fears and assumptions that I have, and I’ve learned a few things:
- There’s no point guessing or assuming what other people think, because you just end up worrying about it. If you really want to know, ask.
- If someone criticises you, is it actually that bad? I realised I was fearing something that I’d hardly ever experienced, because I’d strived so hard to please everyone and to excel at everything. Someone gave me some constructive criticism a few weeks ago and, although it hurt at first and my natural instinct was to be defensive, I realised they were right, and it gave me a useful wake-up call. I changed what I was doing as a result, and have felt better about it ever since. It felt strangely liberating. And if you get criticism that isn’t fair, then try to shrug it off, or respond as calmly as you can.
- Try writing down some good points about yourself. If you find it too hard to do that, ask someone you trust to do it for you. I asked a few friends to write down my good points for me, and they pretty much said the same things, so I couldn’t ignore them, and learned to accept that I did indeed have these good points, and other people recognised them.
- If you’re a perfectionist, experiment with not doing something perfectly. This has been a tough nut for me to crack, but it’s possible. I don’t mean something important, but something where you can convince yourself that ‘good enough’ is fine and perfect isn’t necessary. Relaxing your standards isn’t the same as failing. It’s being realistic. Of course there are times when you really do have to do your best – an exam, or job interview for example. Save your very best for those things.
- Don’t worry too much about how you look. Don’t beat yourself up if you put on a couple of pounds or if you don’t look your best every day. These things don’t change who you are or what other people (the ones who matter) think of you.
Not dealing with these things contributed to making me ill, and each is something I’m getting to grips with now to prevent depression darkening my world again in the future. They’re not easy things to change if they’ve been part of your thinking and behaviour for years, but they can be changed. Accept who you are, recognise your good points, accept the things you can’t change and just be you. It’s what you were made to be.