Worrying about what other people think of us must be one of the most troubling of life’s daily issues and the source of much social anxiety. We are liable to spend hours ruminating about why someone said something in that tone of voice and what it really means in terms of their view of us.
This is a normal human tendency. Still, it can be distressing, so there are various therapeutic strategies: tackling your evidence for concluding that so-and-so doesn’t like you; realising you don’t have to have that person’s approval to feel OK about yourself; or taking a step back from the whole thing.
Each of these is fine. But there are a few more things to reflect on. There is a point of view according to which our propensity for self-deception is so strong that we should look outside ourselves to find out what we’re really like.
We may have somehow come to believe that we are particularly empathic, for instance, while it turns out that others perceive us as self-centred. We shouldn’t assume we’re right and they’re wrong. We should take that opinion into consideration, especially if it seems to be held by several people.
But we should entertain it with a pinch of salt. Other people are just as biased as we are, only in different ways. So it would be equally wrong to take their views as the final word on what we are like. If it’s a mirror, it’s not always a truthful one.
The best way to approach a disturbing view of ourselves is to see it as information. If you’re widely perceived as aloof, let’s say, that may be an incorrect interpretation of you but it’s still telling you something about how you’re coming across.
So instead of getting distressed or defensive when a crack appears between our own and other people’s view of us, we could make it a starting point for self-development. It would be foolish to try to please everyone but just as misguided to ignore the opinion of others, especially those we respect.
“Think for yourself” is the bracing injunction invoked by advocates of philosophy, the Enlightenment and liberal education. Intellectual independence is the hallmark of the mature mind; slavishly following the direction of others is the preserve of dullards.
Of course, it is easy to overstate just how self-sufficient our reasoning can be. The person who ignores the opinions of experts is not laudably independent-minded but recklessly arrogant. No one who is serious about philosophy, for example, can do without reading the great works of the past. And although each of these is almost invariably the writing of a single author, almost all are deeply informed by the close reading of many others.
The balancing act we’re trying to pull off is to pay appropriate attention to what others think without allowing them to do all our thinking for us. As with any other aspect of wisdom, there is no algorithm for getting this right but there are some rules of thumb to help us stay upright.
One of the most important is to be aware of what experts don’t know and what is likely to bias their thinking. Doctors in general practice, for example, know much more about human health than I do but they are not specialists and so may be ill-equipped to diagnose correctly less straightforward complaints. Sociologists may know a lot about crime but they also tend to dismiss too hastily any psychological or genetic explanations of deviance. And before you see a psychotherapist, I would advise a little research into which theories underpin their practice. For example, it’s worth knowing that Carl Jung believed the “dream shows the inner truth and reality of the patient as it really is” before deciding to see a Jungian analyst.
As Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, deference to experts does not get us off the hook of responsibility. We choose whom to consult and how much weight to put on their opinions. Thinking for ourselves is largely a matter of working out how we use and interpret the opinions of others. Our ability to think for ourselves rests largely on how well we think about what others think.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org