Updated: Aug 11, 2019
When I first took my husband home to meet my parents, I was nervous. Sure, I liked this guy--loved him even--but I still wanted that almighty stamp of approval from the people who raised me.
After eating lunch together at my parents' house, we all sat in the living room and talked over coffee for hours. Before we left to go home, my mom pulled me aside and said, "Oh Meg, he's wonderful!" Back in the car on the drive home I gushed: "Jim, they loved you!" With a half smile and a gentle shrug he said, "Of course. What's not to like?"
Most of the women I talk to, teach, or coach will admit to worrying what other people think of them. This has been true of everyone from young professionals in their early-20s to executives in their mid-50s. They are concerned about how they are perceived. Their concerns fall into four main categories:
1) People Pleasing: feeling responsible for other people's happiness and satisfaction, and working hard to try to ensure both.
2) Overnight Overthinking: which is what I call those conversations you replay over and over in your head as you're trying to get to sleep, wondering if you offended/hurt/angered someone. Or, perhaps, came across as stupid.
3) Seeking Approval: which sometimes looks like wanting your parents to like the guy you want to marry, but other times it looks like wanting validation for life choices--whether by likes on a photo or verbal confirmation from peers.
4) Wanting to be Liked: an inherently human--though often specifically female--concern in which we hope we are generally likable. And while we may intellectually understand that not everyone can like us, we emotionally believe it's worth a shot.
Not all people wrestle with all four concerns all the time. But I can guarantee everyone wrestles with some of these some of the time. In fact, when I look at my own life, I know these are obstacles I'm forever trying to overcome.
When it comes to worrying what other people think, it's not a terrible thing. In fact, it's a great thing. It's empathy. It's self-awareness. It's being human. But the worry needs to be dealt with if it:
Keeps you up at night
Holds you back in life (or work)
And there have been plenty of times in my life that I've been kept up and held back by the worry about what other people think of me. And here are the dangers when this happens:
You Lose Your Identity
The women who say to me that they have no idea what they want to do with their lives are often the same women who are people pleasers or worried about how they are being perceived. The more you try to be all things to all people, the less you can put a stake in the ground and say, "Hey, this is what I stand for, take it or leave it." I have personally wrestled with this so hard I've developed impressive muscle tone. The times when I felt the least sure of what I should be doing, or what career step I should take next, or what my plans for my life actually were, where the times I was so worried what my colleagues would say about me, what my students might think, or what my readers might question.
You Become Resentful
A common phrase I hear myself say exasperatedly to Jim at night is, "I wish people worried about my feelings as much as I worry about theirs." This is bonkers of course because 1) I have no idea what people actually worry about, and 2) I'm in control of what and how much I worry about. The point is, that when you are constantly concerned with the thoughts and feelings of others, it's easy to become really resentful, really quickly. And then a vicious cycle begins. I steer into this sometimes with students. I work hard and hope that I can make and keep them happy. Then I get resentful because I can't tell if they are happy. Then I'm unhappy that I'm having to work to keep them happy. In the end, students never demanded to be made happy, nor did they expect it from me. I put that on myself and then get cranky it's on me at all.
Women have been conditioned to "be less." Maybe not always overtly, of course, but we've been given plenty of signals to weigh less, talk less, achieve less, etc. Meanwhile, men can take up more space. They can weigh more, talk more, achieve more. Any woman who's been talked over by a man in a meeting gets this dynamic. These are broad generalities, of course, but when faced with concern over how we might be perceived, most women tend to shrink. A Harvard study a few years ago found that women in the C-Suite struggled to speak up in meetings for fear of being seen as aggressive, rude or incompetent. So instead of speaking up, they shrunk down. When I've been faced with criticism--especially at work--I shrink right on down. Once, during a rough patch at work years ago, I just stopped talking in meetings, stopped making suggestions, even stopped posting on social media. It's taken me a while to learn that I could never shrink down enough to make anyone feel larger. I can, should and will take up space.
I don't believe this is a confidence issue. Many of the boldest, strongest, smartest women I know have admitted to me that they worry about what other people think of them. Instead, I think it's an identity issue. Women have been seen as people who are in service to others (men, kids, company birthday party planning committees) and so it's hard not to internalize that to a point where we are worried about coming across as anything but accommodating, polite, and helpful. Female professors, for example, are consistently rated lower than their male counterparts on student evaluations and are more likely to be dinged on things like "likability" or "niceness." Women not only have to work harder than men to achieve the same status and pay, but we have to do so while being likable and wearing heels. Please.
I sometimes wish it were as easy to harness the unbridled self-assurance of my husband, who didn't really need my parents' approval despite how much he's been given it. Maybe it's easier for him because he's a man. Or maybe it's just his personality. Although I felt validated once during a trip to the grocery store during our first year of marriage. We were carrying our groceries out to the car, and I was carrying more bags than he was. He made me stop and hand most of them over to him. "I'm strong enough to carry them," I protested.
With a half smile and a gentle shrug he said, "I know, I just didn't want anyone in this parking lot to think I'm a jerk."
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