Why do we care what others think of us?
I sometimes see people declaring that they don’t care what anyone thinks of them. I envy them this, at times, because I do care what other people think of me. I know that can’t change anything, and I ought not to be a people pleaser (and I’m not) but nonetheless, it bothers me what others think of me.
It upsets me when people have a poor or negative opinion of me. I know it shouldn’t but it does. It means that I hate the idea of anyone visiting when the house has slid from being amiably Bohemian to being an out-and-out mess. I have a sliding scale of how far into the house people are allowed to penetrate, depending on how much I trust them not to judge me and find me wanting. There are few people I would allow near the scullery (it’s a utility room but I like the old fashioned word more) because it’s inevitably a chaotic mess of recycling, cleaning equipment and it’s also where the cat litter tray is stationed. Very few people are ever allowed upstairs; not because it’s a mess (though sometimes it is) but because it’s the most private and personal area of our home.
But why do I worry about the state of my home? Surely no one has any right to judge how I run my own house? You’d be surprised how many would consider they have every right to denigrate someone for their lack of pride in housekeeping. That aside, it comes down to shame. I am ashamed of being such a poor home-maker. The script in my head runs like this: It’s not as if you actually work, you’re home all day after all, how can you live with all this mess, doesn’t it bother you that you haven’t washed up yet, what have you been doing with the time, you lazy, feckless waster….
On a good day I can counter this with evidence that actually housework isn’t important to me, that I do what’s really needed, and far from not working, I work very hard. But the script does keep on running and running, and I’m far from conquering it with the realisation that I’m not a housewife and never will be, that I have another calling. Because writing is a vocation and like any vocation it takes more time and energy than those who don’t write can imagine. The end results of writing (like this blog post) are the one tenth of the iceberg that’s visible.
Another area I get upset by is my appearance. I’m never going to be a size ten, let alone a size zero. My illness has meant weight gain, and there are days when leaving the house feels like I am a lone mammoth heading out into the vast empty steppes for hunters to throw spears at me. Of course, the spears are unkind words, and thankfully they are rarely voiced directly at me. Yet the disparaging comments that are directed daily in torrents at the overweight and obese fill up a space that we all hear. The assumption is that fat people are lazy feckless greedy pigs, stuffing their faces and never shifting their lardy arses to get any exercise. It permeates social media and it permeates society. I’ve heard people dismissively condemn the overweight as stupid too, claiming that since the equation is calories in, calories out and adjusting to make sure you eat less than you expend is hardly rocket science, ergo fatties like me are also thick as pig shit. Needless to say, it’s far from that simple but I’m not discussing this right now.
Surely it is easy to say, ignore it all, that people who don’t like me/you do not have opinions worth valuing?
Well, that may be true but it’s been noted that it only takes one negative opinion to outweigh dozens of good ones. Most writers forget about their swathe of five star reviews when the one single starred one pops up. We remember pain and censure more readily than we do approval and kindness.
So. Why do we care what others think of us? Why does it matter so much?
We’re social animals, tribal beings. To lose approval means to risk losing your place in society. At one stage, to be ostracised (here is the definition of it under Athenian rule http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostracism) meant certain death. If everyone turned against you, you were doomed. No one would help you, no one would sell you food. You ceased to exist to all intents and purposes.
Most of the research on the psychology of ostracism has been conducted by the social psychologist Kip Williams. He and his colleagues have devised a model of ostracism which provides a framework to show the complexity in the varieties of ostracism and the processes of its effects. There he theorises that ostracism can potentially be so harmful that we have evolved an efficient warning system to immediately detect and respond to it.
In the animal kingdom as well as in primitive human societies, ostracism can lead to death due to the lack of protection benefits and access to sufficient food resources from the group. Living apart from the whole of society also means not having a mate, so being able to detect ostracism would be a highly adaptive response to ensure survival and continuation of the genetic line.
It is proposed that ostracism uniquely poses a threat to four fundamental human needs; the need to belong, the need for control in social situations, the need to maintain high levels of self-esteem, and the need to have a sense of a meaningful existence. A threat to these needs produces psychological distress and pain. Thus, people are motivated to remove this pain with behaviours aimed at reducing the likelihood of others ostracising them any further and increasing their inclusionary status.
The anxiety that the first signs of rejection bring to us, are, I believe part of our collective unconscious. These days, it’s unlikely that we could be rejected to the extent to which we would die from lack of social acceptance, but I do feel that a part of us dies or becomes deeply dormant, the further we are rejected and reviled.
It becomes a question of caring, not too much but not too little either. People whose opinion we value will seldom actually reject us, but it’s deeply painful when they do, for a reason that goes beyond the fear of social isolation. It’s because it taps into our fears that those pejorative terms our inner critic hurls at us may actually be accurate representations of who and what we truly are.
I fear that I am lazy, feckless, untalented, a show-off, ungrateful, chaotic, greedy, etc so when this is played back to me by suggestions made either directly or indirectly, it magnifies that horrible inner critic to shouting volume. And that feeds in powerfully to the fear that once one person has rejected me, everyone else will follow.
In the wild, it has been observed among chimps that an individual who is cast from the group will often wander away to lie down and die, even though there is food and shelter around them. Like chimps, humans can and do die of loneliness.