I have been on an interesting healing and mental health journey for the last two years. It’s taken me down some bizarre paths that, thankfully, finally led me to a place of balance and healthy self-actualization. And, dear reader, that journey has had to do, primarily, with other people’s opinions.
People-pleasing is deeply woven into my nature. I’m not sure when it began, or how, but my life has been defined by the constant pursuit of other people’s approval. My need for the praise and acceptance of others has led me to some truly unsafe situations that put my mental, emotional, and even physical health at risk.
When you are willing to do anything to be accepted by other people, you will die to yourself a hundred times to bathe briefly in the pool of their praise.
The thing is, I spent most of my life thinking that every opinion carried equal value. If someone took the time to share their negative or critical opinion of me, it had to be valid, right? It needed to be something I internalized, reflected upon, and used as a catalyst to change who I am and what I’m about. It led to a life of constantly blowing wherever the breeze of opinion took me, and often those places were pretty seedy.
What I was missing, the thing I had profoundly misunderstood, was that not all opinions are rooted in truth. In fact, many opinions aren’t even rooted in reality. In the worst-case scenario, opinions are rooted in hatred, ignorance, arrogance, and bigotry. Sometimes, opinions are rooted in another person’s need for superiority, and their negative opinion of you only exists in service of that need.
So, what was I doing giving all my time, energy, and sacred self-reflection to every unsolicited opinion that was so casually lobbed my way?
What I needed to do was to get grounded — to define who I was and what I stood for. If I ever hoped to be able to tell the difference between the opinions that were meant for my good and growth, and the opinions that were really none of my business, I had to know exactly who my authentic self was. Because, you see, in a world where opinions are more plentiful than blades of grass, the only way to know which opinions are worth listening to and investing in is to know where your core values lie.
To give an example: I posted a lighthearted video a few days ago about taking my kids to Chick-Fil-A for a little outing. I showed us playing Roblox together on our iPads, laughing and having a joyful time together. I am a bisexual woman — a member of LGBTQIA, and a fierce ally of all the other letters in the alphabet mafia. I spent years boycotting Chick-Fil-A. Until, one day, I noticed that the restaurant chain was hiring LGBTQIA youth. They were doing diversity and outreach to communities they had historically shunned. I didn’t agree with them on numerous things, but they were at least trying to right their wrongs, and I could appreciate that. Plus, I’ve been to Chick-Fil-A with more queer people than straight people at this point, so it seems like most of our community has kind of moved on from the outrage we felt over the Jesus chicken (as some of us lovingly call it). But, to my enormous confusion, I had many straight people very angry at me for spending my money at Chick-Fil-A. I lost a lot of straight followers who chose to virtue signal their allyship of the LGBTQIA community by being shitty to a member of that community who was just eating some really yummy chicken with her kids.
I’ll be honest, it hurt. It didn’t feel good to have “allies” tell me that I had poor values, especially when they really know nothing of what those of us in the community have been through or experienced.
It made me wonder if perhaps I have lost sight of my morals. But because I have devoted the last several years to learning what I stand for, embracing my authentic self, and understanding that I am a person who lives my life with honesty and integrity, the disapproval of these “allies” didn’t knock me down too far. I was able to take it in stride, to realize that their opinions don’t say all that much about me. They’re expressing their own world view, their own belief system, their own understanding. And while that is certainly their business, it doesn’t have to be mine.
To my dismay, a few days after my Chick-Fil-A video, I posted a video showing some cute T-shirts I’d just bought at Target. Any guesses what happened? If you guessed you lost a bunch of followers and received a ton hate from “Christians” for supporting Target, then DING DING DING.
To bring the point home here, I am a bisexual Christian woman who, in just a matter of one week’s time, was able to piss off both the LGBTQIA and Christian communities based solely on where I chose to spend my own money. I offended the Right and the Left, the straights and the gays, the Christians and the Atheists.
All that outrage I sparked, and I am just one person.
I can guarantee that the majority of those people spend their money at far more insidious companies than Chick-Fil-A and Target. And they do so with impunity because they don’t live their lives as transparently online as I do.
If I didn’t know who I am and what I stand for, it would have been so easy to feel completely demoralized and defeated. In fact, my old self probably would have been. The former me would have absorbed every unkind word, every admonition, every unfollow, and taken it to mean that I am a bad person. I would have spent hours, maybe even days, reflecting on the censure of strangers on the internet who didn’t even really care about where I shop and how I spend my money. All they really cared about was showing me and the world that they occupy the moral high ground.
I would have given my finite time, energy, and emotional labor to people whose outrage was absolutely about them, and not at all about me.
But this time, I didn’t.
Want to know how?
- I have learned what my true, essential, and core beliefs are. When someone tries to use disapproval or shame to make me feel inferior, I hold up their criticism to my core beliefs. Does their criticism reflect a misalignment between my core beliefs and my behaviors? If so, it is worth spending some time reflecting on the feedback they’ve brought me. If not, then it’s not something I need to focus on.
- I have accepted that the world is too full of opinions for me to try to appease them all. And, perhaps more importantly, multiple opinions can be valid at the same time. It doesn’t mean I am an objectively bad person because someone (or even a lot of someones) disapproves of me. It just means that my core values don’t align with other people’s core values, and that’s actually okay.
- I have embraced the sad reality that social media has incentivized a kind of performative activism and a thirst for “exposing” others that is harmful and unnecessary. Social media provides an easy platform for people who need to pat themselves on the back at other people’s expense, and that is also none of my business.
- I have surrounded myself with friends whose opinions I trust, whose core values are diverse, and who I know will be honest with me. When negative opinions of me are brought to my attention, and I am unsure if I need to reflect on them or not, I bring those opinions to my friends. I ask them, is this a valid criticism? Or is it something else? If the friends I trust tell me that perhaps this is a valid criticism, I can then spend time with those opinions, evaluating and internalizing them. If those friends tell me that those criticisms have no truth, that they aren’t rooted in fact or reality, I know I can let them roll off my back.
- I have read The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz multiple times over, and I revisit it whenever I find myself slipping back into my people-pleasing, approval-seeking ways. That book is a necessary and profound reminder that other people’s opinions are not about me, and that those opinions are none of my business, no matter how hard those people try to make them so.
In parting, let me offer some words of wisdom for those who are seeking to break free from the cycle of people-pleasing and approval-seeking. Embrace the journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. It’s within that process that you will find true freedom. Take the time to understand your core beliefs, values, and aspirations, and let them guide your actions and decisions.
Recognize that not all opinions hold equal weight and that you have the power to choose which voices to listen to and which to let go of. Surround yourself with a supportive and diverse community of friends who will offer honest feedback that supports your growth and development. Remember that social media is but a fleeting and highly curated world, and the validation of strangers should never outweigh your own sense of worth. Above all, be kind and patient with yourself as you unlearn old patterns and forge a new path toward authentic living. Your journey to freedom from the shackles of others’ opinions is worth it, and you have the strength within you to navigate it with grace and resilience.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who writes about women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the FREE newsletter to receive exclusive content delivered directly to your inbox and to never miss an upload!