Odds Are, It’s Not About You

Odds Are, It’s Not About You

As a university instructor teaching entrepreneurship, I am always surprised at how even my smallest perceived action can affect a student.  For example, last month one of my student teams referenced me in their business plan as an advisor.  Since this particular team is quite serious about launching their business, I made a comment in the margins that one should always ask permission before listing a person as an advisor.  Then I returned the business plans to the student teams and thought no more of it.

During my next office hours, I was surprised to see one of my quieter students waiting for me outside my door.  Nervous and flustered, he asked me to shut the door once I ushered him inside.  When I asked what was on his mind, he started apologizing profusely without mentioning what he was apologizing for.  I had to ask him a few pointed questions before he revealed that he didn’t mean to upset me by listing my name as an advisor in his team’s plan.  Before I could allay his fears and tell him I was not angry, he went on to proclaim it was his mistake, not his teammates’, and to please not be mad at them too for his mistake.

When I finally got a word in edgewise, I told him it was an honest mistake and a good learning opportunity.  I eventually convinced him I was not angry, and we talked at length about the challenges of launching the business.  He left my office a completely different person: confident and relieved.

In our day-to-day lives, we interact with a wide variety of people.  It’s easier (in theory) to understand the motivations and actions of close family and friends because we have interacted with them for a long time.  Interactions with others – such as co-workers, acquaintances, and even strangers – aren’t nearly so clear cut.

Unwittingly, we often overlay our own fears and emotions on their actions to bridge the communication gap.  A casual comment by the new guy at the office might seem like a personal insult on our lifestyle choices.  A smile given by a friend-of-a-friend might appear forced.   The lady behind the counter at the grocery store might be glaring at us.  However, without knowing more about each individual, it’s impossible to tell what each of these actions might mean.  And oftentimes, a comment is just a way to make conversation.  A “forced” smile might be the genuine article.  And a glare might be a glare, but might be the result of a bad day, not our buying choices.

While it is always possible that the people we interact with on a day-to-day basis are judging us (and finding us wanting), odds are, they’re not.  The truth is, most people are living their own lives and worrying about their own problems and concerns.  As long as you have not done something completely egregious, the average person isn’t going to give your actions a second thought.

Why is this important?  As someone who in the past has been paranoid about how others think of me, I know how easy it is to spend the better part of an afternoon worrying about why the Starbucks barista frowned at me.  After having many encounters like the one with my student, I realized how easy it is to overblow another person’s intent out of proportion.  This knowledge helped me to let go of a lot of stress in my life.

But let’s say you had an interaction that makes you feel guilty, angry, or another intense emotion.  First, if it’s not an important relationship, it’s likely not worth the stress.  If the barista continues to be rude or mean, it’s time to change where to get coffee.  Problem solved.  But if you value the relationship, it’s worth talking to the person at the center of your worry.  By coming to visit me in my office hours, my student learned I wasn’t angry, just instructional.  If you find over time that most people are surprised by your intense reaction, you can learn to let go more easily.  If you’ve never tried this, you will be surprised at how often people will not even realize they upset you.

If, on the other hand, you find that many people are indeed directing their emotions at you, you have several choices.  You can look at the behavior that’s causing the reaction and decide if it’s worth altering.  For example, I let my toddler run across the seats at a local play area for several sessions before I realized this broke the rules and irritated other parents.  I altered our family’s behavior because it was appropriate to do so.

If your behavior is legitimate, then you have also gained knowledge about your current situation.  You can decide to “trail blaze” and help make the behavior more acceptable, which can help your whole community.  Think about what people like Rosa Parks did for their community by standing up for their actions.  Or you can decide whether it’s worth removing yourself from your current situation.  If being constantly judged is going to stress you out at work, for example, you may decide to reduce your stress by finding a job with a less judgmental work environment.  Either way, you have gained valuable knowledge that you can base your subsequent actions on.

Odds are in your favor that people aren’t judging you.  Giving others the benefit of the doubt not only frees you from stress, it frees you from self-doubt and worry.  So take heart that it’s not all about you.  And that’s a good thing.

Photo by jDevaun

Deborah Fike

Deborah Fike is the Director of Educational Outreach for Spotkin, an educational games company that marries fun with learning.  She’s also the founder of Avalon Labs, which provides marketing consultations and writing services for start-ups and online businesses.   She carves out a significant portion of her time to raising her two younger daughters.

36 Comments

  1. Deborah, I can’t tell you how much an article like yours helps. So many times over the years, I have thought that someone else is judging me or thinking this, that or the other. In reality, as you said, most people are concerned about what is going on in their own life and are not projecting some evil thought our way.
    WE are the ones who judge when we think that others are intentionally meaning a word, an evil look or a thought. Who cares? Really? Other people are far more wrapped up in their own thoughts than they are thinking about us.
    Occasionally, when circumstances warrant an evil look or a less than stellar comment, we can apologize and leave it at that. We have a tendency to relive and relive and relive the past. The past is the past and reliving it on a daily basis makes for very sick individuals. Too many of us are worried constantly about not offending or not saying the wrong word or not giving off bad vibes.
    I have also learned that if we hold something in that we perceive someone else has said or done, it festers and cankers our own soul. If we cannot forgive another, they have no clue that we are angry with them. It isn’t hurting them, it is hurting us.
    Realizing this (although rather late in life) has helped me mend bridges when needed and has helped me in day-to-day dealing with other folks. So easy to think that something we have said or done is in the wrong when in reality, it isn’t.

    Reply
    • Just a great article. Thank you :)

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    • It’s been my observation that it takes most people many, many years to realize that this is going on. Throughout my 20s, I had a very ego-centric view of the world. Perhaps it’s naivety, but I felt like I was being judged at every turn. Letting those feelings go have made my life so much more productive. I’m glad you feel the same way too.

      Reply
  2. Deborah:

    You have summarized a number of useful lessons here. Some took me years to learn. Others crumbled quickly after I had discarded previous assumptions about other peoples’ behavior. For those that that are ready, listen to Deborah Fike.

    Reply
    • Some of these lessons are likely best learned by experience. It’s easy to understand the concepts, but still feel upset by others’ (perceived) actions in the heat of the moment. I’m glad to hear you have also learned to feel less stress over time.

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  3. This reminds me about making assumptions without first checking them out. Regardless, Te situation can turn into a teaching moment.

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    • Yes, always check your assumptions! You can learn a lot about the world from doing this.

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  4. Deborah, great piece. Not taking things personally is such a freeing opportunity we have! I believe, in the moments when we are feeling triggered or worried about what others think, it’s often more telling about our own process. Most often these triggered feelings will be linked to a self-limiting belief or a fear. When we recognize this, we can then take a moment, breathe and move forward with self-love and care.

    Reply
    • That’s a great addition to the article. We can learn a lot about ourselves when we feel we are being judged by others. Perhaps we can pinpoint a point of stress in our lives, or we can understand how certain relationships are affecting us more than they should. Being self-aware in this arena can be quite powerful.

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  5. It’s motivating………..!!! Thanks!

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  6. I like the title “It’s Not About You” because in most cases it is not about you. Too often people make assumptions only to find out later they were false. When this happens the only person who really gets hurts is the person who thinks they were wronged. Honesty and openness are always the best policy, but that does not mean rudeness. Sometimes, we just have to give the person the benefit of a doubt and let it go. I agree with Jackie, that often it is more telling about ourself than about the other. I like how it all turned out to be a chance for instruction.

    Reply
    • In my own experience, I certainly found that the only person being hurt was myself. Others around me had no idea how much I stressed about insignificant gestures and conversations. Had I been more upfront earlier, I could have saved myself a lot of stress.

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  7. Deborah, your article reminds me of toxic caring. Caring what the world thinks even when you shouldn’t.

    And it is true what you say that people are too busy worrying about their own problems to actually pay attention to your quirks. Keeping this in mind has allowed me to be amazingly ridiculous and to actually get away with things that others won’t get caught doing. :-)

    Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • I have never heard of the phrase “toxic caring,” but it makes a lot of sense. People spend a lot of energy caring about things they shouldn’t. There are so many good things to spend your energy on, so why bother wasting it on things that only upset you?

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  8. The freedom your piece brings is a blast of heaven. Thank you so much! It took me years to figure this out but I still need a tune up. I am going to save your post to refer to again and again – it is a ticket to serenity and learning. Thank you so much.

    Reply
    • All of the articles I write are reminders for me as well. I am by no means a perfect expert at not worrying about being judged. I’m happy if I can help others as I help myself writing these pieces for the Change Blog.

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  9. Thank you so much for this article. This describes my entire career when I was younger. Every time my boss closed his office door to talk with someone or take a phone call, I was sure he was talking about me. I felt paranoid. I didn’t realize at the time but I was riddled with fear and insecurity. It was a fearful way to live.

    One day someone told me that I wasn’t that important. Most people are so involved with their own goals, challenges and difficulties, they don’t even have time to think about me. I found out I wasn’t that important. It was a huge relief!

    Reply
    • Isn’t it funny how “not being important” can give you release from a lot of anxiety? But it’s true. It makes you feel like you can go out and live your life without fear or insecurity. I’m glad you’ve made that journey and hope you’re pursuing a happy career.

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  10. I agree that you can be assuming that people in a group are judging you harshly when in fact they are not. But if you key into your instincts and watch peoples body language, you pretty much know who is for you and who is against you. In my experience people are always judging each other on a number of levels and some people are extraordinary gossips who are interested in what people are doing because they haven’t got a very interesting life.
    The key is to have such good self esteem that you don’t really care if they judge you harshly. If they are in a position of power over you then you probably have a problem.

    I would be curious to know where you fit bullying into the equation. In particular school children who are deliberately snubbed or picked on to the extent that some people commit suicide or get so sick of it they become gun wielding mass murderers.
    There is a lot of cruelty in the world and a lot of kindness.

    I think it’s naive to assume that everyone is too busy with their own concerns to waste time judging you. Just try being a celebrity like Taylor Swift , people judde her all the time and they don’t even know her.. Projected image is everything to a celebrity. People are very political animals and in a working situation ot is better to err on the side of caution and check situations out.

    It is a matter of trusting your instincts and moving away from people who cause you unease and move towards others who make you feel at peace.
    If you can’t avoid negative, judgmental people don’t trust them with your dreams.

    Reply
    • Bullying is a completely different type of interaction, and, especially for children and young adults, needs a different approach. I did not write this article with bullying in mind at all, mostly because bullying is usually more overt (although depending on the situation, it can be subversive and thus, hard to tell initially if it is occurring). Since bullying can happen on many levels, in many different environments and for many reasons, I wouldn’t advocate a “one-size-fits-all” approach for a given situation. I would highly suggest a person being bullied talk to a trusted advisor or counselor to determine how to move forward. I say this having been a person who was bullied off and on during my childhood. What worked for me when I was in the 4th grade wouldn’t have worked for me as a high school student.

      I did not mean to imply in the article that you will never be judged, just that oftentimes, we feel we are being judged when we are not. I have been on both the receiving and giving end of these perceived judgments. The last half of the article discusses different approaches you can take if you determine you are being judged harshly by someone who is making your life uncomfortable or even miserable. I think it’s a good idea to have good self esteem, but I know how easy that is to say and how hard that is to develop, especially if you don’t already have high self esteem. As you mentioned, you may just need to trust your instincts and get yourself into a better situation. However, if you get trapped in a situation you feel you can’t get out of, I would again advocate talking to a counselor or advisor to discuss specific options for your situation. He/she can help you with ways to cope with internal emotions and external relationships that you had not considered before.

      Ultimately, I would say do whatever you need to do in order to find peace. Life is too short to constantly worry how others may perceive you.

      Reply
  11. I guess we can be paranoid or try our best to engage with others constructively. As people often filter what we say or do then the chances are that we’ll encounter many situations where the wrong understanding occurs. We can do our best to correct this but sometimes it won’t always succeed.

    Reply
    • It’s true that you won’t always succeed in avoiding miscommunications or misunderstandings. Like any skill, if you practice recognizing when it happens and then correcting it, you’ll get better with time. But as long as we remain human, there will always be some room for error. That’s okay, as long as you don’t beat yourself up too much when it happens.

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  12. Hi, great article . Always be yourself, be confident and do not mind what others will say for as long as you know that what you are doing is right. Thanks for a very enlightening post.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the read, Sherrill. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

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  13. We do tend to be over sensitive about the way others behave or react towards us, yet we do not know anything about them or what kind of day they are having. I find a smile always gets the best reaction, or a few nice words. I think a lot of the time what we see in others reaction are connected to how we feel about ourselves, we see what we want to see. Thanks for a great post Deborah.

    Reply
    • I think we do often overlay our hopes and fears over others to bridge that communication gap. It’s not a bad thing, but as you said, being nice and polite can go a long way into having positive relationships with those around us.

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  14. This strikes me as when I have the tendency to make assumptions without actually assessing teh situation or individual first.

    Sad, i know.

    – Haya

    Reply
    • I think it’s a common error, Haya, and certainly, I’m guilty of it as well. As with any life skill, you can get better about not letting assumptions cloud how you see others. It just takes some practice.

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  15. Unfortunately, I tend to disagree with elements of the article. People can be very judgemental and often more than not, it can often be about you and your colleagues and your friends and your family and your life.

    From meeting someone for the very first time, every action and every word is often interpreted and judged.

    Even in your example about the advisor, I personally would be flattered that someone thought highly of me and marked me down as an advisor. What you personally found to be a mistake and decided to highlight, other people would likely not make comment and accept the title.

    I’ll make a point here. I like people. We’re all wonderfully odd in our own way but there are vast elements of unconcious bias in the world and there are people who judge others based on the most trivial of things. It happens. We should accept it. Its part of life.

    What you should not do though is go through life worrying about it. We’re all unique and very much equal in every way barring the stack of cards that have been handed to us at birth. We can only do what we feel right in life. I appreciate that others may judge us but ultimately, does it truly matter? Not to me. I’ve far more important things in life to focus on.

    Still, a nice article with a feel good factor. I judge you to be a lovely person by the way.

    Reply
    • It’s okay to disagree, of course, and I thank you for being respectful about it. I learn a lot from talking with others with dissenting viewpoints.

      I would like to clarify the advisor example: I was indeed flattered, but I still think it’s common courtesy to ask someone before you use their name, especially as part of a business plan pitch. I have many students who go onto pitch their idea to investors for funding, and I would not want to be listed as an advisor for a plan that I didn’t intimately know the details about. For starters, if an investor contacted me to ask questions about the student’s idea and I had no idea what stage of development the business was in, I might have to admit my ignorance and thus greatly decrease the chance of that idea getting funded. So while I’m happy to be an advisor to students in almost all circumstances, I would simply want them to let me know that they were listing me before putting my name on a document that could greatly affect their business.

      And I do think we agree on one thing: that you should not go through life worrying about every little thing others think of you. It’s easy to get paralyzed in this mode of thinking. Ultimately, you are the one living your own life, so the most important person you need to please with your life choices is you, not the many others who may or may not judge you.

      Reply
  16. Another angle would be “Why does it matter it it’s about you?”

    Yeah, most of the time it might not be about us but sometimes it might. The problem if how we react if we found out that it’s about us. Would we feel sad, rejected, or maybe feel unneeded? Do we feel that our worth decrease just because of what some person thinks about us?

    In the end, it’s about our perception of what people think about us and also our belief in ourself. Usually these kind of need to not care about what others think is because we can’t accept them in the first place. What people think might be right or wrong and it’s up to us to decide but if it’s right then accept that. We are not flawless – we make mistakes all the time.

    Reply
    • I think that’s a really great perspective, Wan. It goes back to what others in the comments have mentioned about having good self-esteem. Having the courage to think “their opinion doesn’t matter” and live our lives is worth pursuing.

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  17. Deborah, a nice read indeed. Being paranoid about the fact that you are being judged is real bad feeling to have. Some times I feel this is because of low self-esteem of the person. If you yourself are not sure about who you are and what your worth is, you try to evaluate yourself wearing the lens of people around you. And as someone rightly said above, by actually analyzing which areas you feel you are being judged for, you may be able to find the weak spots in your personality.

    Reply
    • Sometimes you feel more vulnerable because you’re trying something new as well. As you mentioned, trying to get at the root of why you feel more unsure of yourself will help you overcome feeling judged all the time (whether you truly are or not).

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  18. Wonderful article. Explains so much. Its true that sometimes we do misjudge what others do towards us. We may feel that we had irritated them or made them angry when we might have just caught them at a wrong time. Communication is key.

    Reply
    • Good communication is a skill you build over a lifetime. Recognizing your own emotions and how they might affect communication is all part of the learning process. Thanks for reading, Lynne.

      Reply

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