One reason why we don’t all live our “best lives” is that we care too much about what other people think of us. We wait for social validation before pursuing our dreams. We doubt ourselves when we don’t get the external validation we hope for. We fret about social situations where we might be judged negatively. We compromise our true identities in trying to project an image that would make other people tell us what we want to hear: you’re good, we approve of you, you’re one of us.

But when we try to stop caring about what other people think of us, we find that we can’t. We’re addicted to our own inner gossip, where we speculate about how other people perceive us, where we imagine what they might be saying about us, where we guess how they might respond to what we do. Breaking the addiction to this inner gossip is nearly impossible.

In a sense, that’s good. It means we can have a civilization, right? If it were effortless to ignore the way others perceived us – if it were effortless to not care whether other people liked us or disliked us – and if it were effortless to completely disregard social feedback whenever we wanted to, then we wouldn’t be social animals anymore. It’s hard to see how society would cohere. Being totally indifferent to others people’s opinions of us, having zero concern for our image and reputation, would make us more than free spirits or rugged individualists – it would make us very unpleasant to be around, very hard to get along with. Indeed, “caring what other people think of us” is a prosocial trait, it’s a trait that helps us cooperate, even if this trait comes with the cost of sometimes making us abandon our dreams, worry endlessly, and fail to honor our inner selves.

But what is the mechanism by which we are made to care what other people think? When we try to stop caring and we find it so difficult, what causes that difficulty?

An answer is available through simple introspection. We can find an answer in noticing what happens in our own minds when we simply imagine another person. What goes on inside us when we think about any fellow human being we happen to know?

Let’s say we’re going to make a phone call to a person named Ron. To prepare us for interacting with Ron, our mind will do a lot of groundwork that we won’t notice unless we look out for it. How does Ron look? We might see an image of Ron’s face in our mind’s eye. How does Ron sound? We might hear Ron’s voice in our mind’s ear. This inner “conjuring” of Ron happens effortlessly, almost automatically. Along with sensory impressions of Ron, certain facts about Ron will bubble up in our awareness: Ron’s gender. Ron’s age. Ron’s status.

Mixed in with all this material concerning Ron as an individual, there will be other ideas, assumptions, and memories about our relationship with him. We might remember the last time we saw Ron – when was it? Where was it? How do we know Ron? Is he a friend or a foe? Does he make us feel comfortable or does he pose a threat? Are we happy to be talking with him or would we rather not? What does he think of us? Is there unfinished business to resolve? Does he understand us? Does he respect us? Does he see us as we want to be seen? Or does he hold ideas about us that we would like to correct?

Without voicing these questions out loud, or even being aware that we’re asking them, we will intuitively recall the answers as we believe them to be. These facts and assumptions will be part of the constellation of mental activity that defines our idea of Ron, that comprises our understanding of who this person is that we’re going to be talking with in the next minute.

If we try to think about Ron without also modeling the way he thinks of us, we might find it difficult. All of these relational ideas are supplied, more or less automatically, by our mind when we simply think of Ron, simply remember who he is, simply say his name. So if we want to ignore all these ideas about our relationship with Ron, including ideas about how Ron perceives us – this means turning away from compelling content that our mind is offering to us. This means ignoring vivid material that our mind is putting right in front of us.

So an answer to why we “care” so much about what other people think of us can be found in the way our minds work, in the details of how we conceive of other people. We can’t think about other people without also thinking about our relationship with them. And part of our understanding of that relationship is our theory about how they perceive us. Our minds are constantly presenting us with these theories and we have to make a conscious effort to ignore them.

To discover this for yourself, try an experiment. Think of an important person in your life and imagine you were a stranger to them. Imagine that you know something about them but they don’t know anything about you. Imagine that you can see into their life but they have no idea who you are. Imagine your mother, your father, your siblings, your employer, your best friend, your lover – imagine that all these people have no knowledge or opinion of you whatsoever. They’ve never heard of you. They don’t know your name. They don’t know your face. They can’t have a stance or an attitude toward you, because you don’t exist for them. Now how does it feel to hold them in your mind and think about who they are? How does it feel to vividly imagine a good friend, hearing their voice, seeing their face, their eyes, their nose, their hair, their smile, while also imagining that they don’t know you at all?

It’s weird, right? It’s difficult. It’s almost impossible to find a way of thinking of a significant person in your life in vivid detail while also imagining that they don’t know you and don’t hold any opinion of you. The fact that they know you, the fact that they perceive you in a certain way – these are essential parts of your idea of who they are. These are essential parts of how you imagine them.

This thought experiment can be more than a once-and-done kind of thing. It can serve as a visualization exercise or meditation that we might practice from time to time. We might find that it makes us intensely sad to imagine that we were strangers to the people we love. But in other situations it might create a feeling of relief, to imagine that someone who’s angry at us or disappointed in us doesn’t actually know us at all. It might reveal to us that the anxiety and discomfort we feel around someone else is coming from the way we imagine that they perceive us, and if we take this element out of the picture, the possibility for a smoother relationship comes into view. All of this is something we can learn from.

Our minds make us care what other people think of us by bombarding us with ideas and assumptions about what other people think of us, any time we try to simply imagine those people. But we don’t have to take these ideas and assumptions at face value. Through meditation, we can practice releasing these ideas and assumptions in the same way we would release any other thought that passes through our awareness. And we can do this quite safely in meditation – without any risk that we’ll become antisocial or permanently indifferent to how others perceive us – because when we “let go” of an idea or assumption in meditation, that doesn’t mean we’ll never have the thought again. Quite the contrary, it might come back to us later, in a more helpful form. ■

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