Is your life dictated by what others think of you? How many of your daily thoughts are devoted to worrying about the opinion of others? “OMG, I can’t do that! What will they think of me?”, “Everyone is judging me. Nobody likes me!” It’s the constant worry and fear of rejection that can have you needing other people’s approval to reinforce that you are a good person. However, one opinion, assumption or judgement can send you into a downward spiral of stress, self doubt and self-loathing.
Take social media as an example. When someone likes your post, then all is well in the world. Your heart skips a beat and you get that rush of dopamine, the pleasure chemical in your brain. Then, you get less likes, less notifications, less interactions, and you suddenly wonder what the hell is wrong with you. You fall into the spiral of self-criticism and self-doubt. You constantly question yourself as you move from feeling inflated to feeling deflated. Why? Because you’re relying so much on the approval and validation of others to make you feel good about yourself.
So, why do we put so much emphasis on what others think? In social psychology, the need to belong and feel socially accepted is part of what motivates human behaviour. However, when our whole self worth is dependant on the how we’re perceived in the eyes of others, it can have a negative impact on our health, happiness and overall quality of life.
More specifically, when you experience FOPO, your thoughts and feelings trigger the body’s fight, flight stress response. This is the same response cavemen would activate when confronted with a perceived threat to survival. Your breathing becomes short, shallow and rapid as adrenalin and cortisol are released, giving your body a sudden burst of energy as we prepare to fight or flee. While this response was appropriate in caveman days, nowadays what you perceive to be a dangerous or stressful situation, may not be at all.
The body’s stress response has a knock on effect which negatively impacts our behaviours. For example, thinking that “nobody likes me” can mean that you start to feel anxious and self-conscious around others (feelings), which in turn causes sweating and heart palpitations (fight flight response). This then results in you choosing to withdraw from others (behaviour), resulting in you feeling left out and alienated which then produces another negative thought, such as “there must be something wrong with me” or “I’m not good enough”, which starts the cycle all over again. This can cause anxiety, depression and other serious mental, emotional and physical health issues.
1. Get back into the driver’s seat
Constantly looking for external validation puts your self worth in the hands of others and takes your power and responsibility away from you, effectively rendering you powerless. “If only my partner would show me that he/she loves me, then everything would be great between us.” ” If only he/she would change, then I’ll be happy.” This perception of powerlessness prevents you from taking responsibility for your own happiness because you believe your happiness and worth depends solely on the actions of others.
You cannot blame or hold others responsible for your un/happiness, nor can they “make” you feel a certain way – it is 100% your responsibility.
Stop being a passenger and get back into the drivers seat of life. You cannot control how others think, feel, act and behave, so reframe your blame and refocus your energy towards the things you can change for yourself, your health and happiness. Ask yourself: “What do I want/need to help me feel better about me?” It may be something as simple as “do more exercise”, “get more sleep’ or”spend more time with friends” – all of which are scientifically proven to reduce stress, anxiety and depression and increase resilience. Then, ask yourself, “How would it make me feel if you did more exercise, got more sleep or hung out more with friends?”, “How would it enhance my wellbeing, relationships, life?” And, “What is the cost to my health and wellbeing, should I choose NOT to do these behaviours?” Write it all down, set goals that are realistic and achievable and take daily action.
2. Set healthy boundaries
A boundary is a clear limit or space where you begin and the other person ends. The purpose of setting boundaries is to protect your own physical and mental health. Poor boundaries often lead to us feeling unappreciated and frustrated leading to resentment, anger and burnout. Over responsibility is a good example of not setting healthy boundaries. Those of us who are over responsible have an innate focus on the need of others. We are the kind of super women (and men) who run from task to task, people pleasing and telling others what they want to hear (which may not necessarily be the truth) because “we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings”. Unfortunately, the consequences of over responsibility can often lead to chronic stress, relationship issues, financial pressure and a lot of wasted time.
The key to setting boundaries is to understand what you want and what you are/aren’t willing to accept from your various relationships eg. social groups, relationships, family, work etc. Set boundaries based on your wants and needs, then have an honest, open and respectful conversation about your boundaries with others.
For example, your social group is like a mirror, reflecting your value back to you. You can choose to surround yourself with energy vampires or you can choose to surround yourself with emotionally intelligent people who are comfortable within themselves and don’t feel the need to criticise, dismiss or invalidate another person’s feelings – the choice is yours. Remember, these people are sucking your energy because you allow them to do so based on your own unhealthy boundaries.
Setting healthy boundaries in a relationship are crucial for its success. For example, a person asking his/her partner for one night each week alone, as opposed to seeing each other everyday is healthy for the longevity of the relationship. Or a new mum asking her partner to take on more responsibility with their baby so that she can have some downtime is practicing vital self care. You may feel guilty, uncomfortable or selfish at first, but remember, setting healthy boundaries is necessary for your own mental health and wellbeing.
Here’s how to set healthy boundaries:
- Be clear, open and honest about the boundary to both yourself and others. Be sure you to define for yourself and for others, what is acceptable and what is not.
- If a boundary is crossed, remind the person of your boundary and why it is important to you. Ask them for his/her help in maintaining that boundary.
- If the person continues to cross your boundary, ask them politely but firmly to stop the behaviour. If it continues, consider what further action is needed to alleviate the behaviour from happening.
- To minimise the possibility of your boundaries being crossed, work out strategies around how you can limit your time, space and energy with the individual.
- As well as the boundaries you have set for yourself, appreciate, accept and respect the boundaries others have set for themselves also.
3. Say “no” and be ok with the outcome
Saying “no” and being ok with it, can be quite an empowering experience. I used to say yes to everything and everyone, even at the expense of my own health. My worth was centred around how others perceived me. “Am I doing the right thing? Am I a good person? Trust me, I wasn’t walking around consciously saying this to myself, however this is what was going on for me unconsciously. As it turns out, this was an old coping mechanism that had been with me from a very young age. I saw my mum put others first while neglecting her own self care, so inevitably that’s what I learned to do also. This led to me becoming exhausted, overwhelmed and burnt out.
Saying “no” doesn’t mean you’re mean or nasty, it simply means you’re looking after your health and wellbeing and practicing healthy boundaries. When saying “no”, be direct, firm but gracious, don’t debate, defend or over-explain – accept and own your decision, and move forward. I know, but you feel guilty? And you probably will feel that way at first because you’re worried you’ll hurt the other persons feelings “She’s going to hate me,” “He’ll get mad,” or “I’ll get fired.” So, let’s take a step back for a moment and look at it from another perspective. What happens when someone says no to you? Do you fly off the handle, burst a blood vessel or fly into a rage? I’m assuming not. So, expect that others (rational thinking people, that is!) will respond the same way you do. Also, when you stop trying to be everything to everyone, you’ll regain precious time and energy and most of all, respect.
4. Find your people
Repeat after me “I am not for everyone” – the sooner you can accept this, the happier you will become. No matter who you are and what you do, you will always (yes, always) have people who will decide they don’t like you (which has nothing to do with you, by the way!). They may not like the way you talk, walk, dress, how you look etc – and that is totally ok. The truth is, everyone you meet will have their own judgements, assumptions and opinions on how you should be based on how they see the world. And the more you try to fit into their box, the further away you will be from who you really are. Consider, that they are not for you either.
Find your people – the ones who won’t tell you what you want to hear or what to do, but the ones who will be honest (sometimes brutally, but with love) in their views based on their own experience in the world. Find your people, and at the same time be ok with the people who are not for you. Because just like you, they are being who they are … and looking for their people too.
5. Fill your cup first
On a plane, flight attendants instruct us to put on our own oxygen masks first, before helping others to do so. It may seem a little crazy to you, but consider that you’re not much help to anyone if you’ve passed out due to lack of oxygen because you tried to help everyone else first. Now, apply this to your everyday life – empty cups lead to burnout and breakdown, so fill your cup first. Take care of yourself first and foremost and you’ll be much better able to take care of others.
- Create a morning routine: Get up 30 minutes early to have some alone time before the day begins. Meditate, do yoga, journal or simply sit quietly and set your intentions for an amazing day
- Do what makes you happy: Pursue something that you’re passionate about and do a little bit every day. Whether it’s reading, gardening or walking your dog? Whatever brings you joy, find a way to bring it into your life more often. The happiness and contentment it brings will be worth it!
- Move your body – There is a perception that exercise feels like “a chore or work” and is motivated by guilt “argh, I ate that cake, I need to burn it off!” So, what if you moved your body in a way that you enjoy? I’m not talking about running a marathon (unless you enjoy it of course!), consider skipping, dancing, running, yoga, rollerblading or paddleboarding – whatever makes you happy, schedule it in and move your body.
- Spend time with friends – I recently read an article that said according to an Oxford University study, women who go out with their friends often have better health and happiness than those who don’t. And, mums need to go out twice per week for better overall health! Twice per week may seem a bit unrealistic for some, however the point is that social connection and the happiness associated with it, releases the endorphins that makes us feel good! So, lets laugh more often!
- Spend time outdoors– When was the last time you sat quietly and watched the leaves swaying in the trees, or listened to the birds in the morning? Sometimes embracing the stillness is all you need to fill your cup. Breathe in the fresh air, feel the vitamin D from the sun soak into your skin, feel the sand under your toes, give yourself some time to literally stop and smell the roses.