2,500 years ago Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, ‘Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.’ The trouble is, we do care about what other people think of us – we evolved to feel that way. The trick is to care about what other people think of us the right way.
If we see daffodils as yellow it’s because we evolved to see them yellow; they aren’t inherently yellow. Bees see the flower in different colours because they see ultra-violet light. Therefore, the colour a flower seems to have depends on the viewer.
When we see a movie we see a story unfold, but when pigeons see a movie they see twenty-four photographs, one after the other, every second. They perceive time differently to us.
We don’t like the smell of faeces, but . . .
Two flies sit on a poo.
The other says, ‘Do you mind? I’m eating my dinner.’
Every creature creates its own reality. With its senses it selects the data it needs, and interprets that data to suit the organism it happens to be. We humans might see a tree as a source of shade, or a source of income, while a wood-grub might see it as food, as its home, as its world.
Everything simply is. There is no inherent meaning. The meaning something has is the meaning it has been given.
‘To a worm in a horseradish the world is horseradish.’
So, humans have different realities to that of bees, pigeons and flies, but do humans have different realities from each other?
We sure do. When the happiness gurus say each person is unique, they are right. At a glance we humans appear to be similar to one another: ant-like we fill the streets, psychologists and advertisers find us predictable, we succumb to the same collective beliefs, we adopt the same cultural mores, laugh at the same sitcom jokes . . . But dig a little deeper and we find a different story: the complexity of our brain and the multiplicity of the interpretations we can make of the countless events each one of us experiences, means we really are unique. Each one of us is an enigma. We are so different from one another that we are like remote islands, barely explored even by ourselves, surrounded by a vast sea.
So yes, we have different realities, each one unimaginably different to that of everyone else. Seven billion people: seven billion worlds. Each remarkably different. And because we are so different we are also alone. 17th Century philosopher John Donne famously wrote:
‘No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less . . .
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.’
When he wrote the words, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’, he was saying every man (and woman) is an island, but each ‘island’ is still a part of the main. In other words, we are alone, but so is everyone else. We are all in this together.
Orson Welles once said, ‘We are born alone, we live alone, we die alone.’ He was right. You were born alone, even though your mother was there, the doctor was there and the nurses were there. You were just a blob in your mother’s arms. No one in that maternity ward could have known, or even imagined, what you were experiencing.
As you grew you had to come to terms with your new world, your new life. Your hopes, fears, joys and disappointments were felt by you and you alone.
And no matter how much you love someone, and they you, on a deep and fundamental level you are alone. Not lonely. Alone. Deep within you is an understanding that just two things exist: You, and everything else.
When it’s your turn to die you might be on your death bed surrounded by loved ones, but it will be just you dying – that’s an experience no one can share.
This all means: you are unique and alone on this Earth. That puts you in a powerful and exhilarating position!
If each and every one of us creates our own very different reality, our own world, it means that when someone trolls you, what they say isn’t reality. It’s their reality. It’s their perception. It’s their world. You can adopt their perceptions and place them in your world, if you want to, but why would you?
Some people plant a tree and make their world their garden. Some people throw a cigarette butt on the ground and make their world their ashtray. You have little or no control over how others create their world, but you don’t have to adopt their world. We are only mere bit players in their world, and they give us little thought; they’re too busy creating their world. Whatever they think about us is fleeting.
Sure, the ‘data’ we interpret is heavily affected by the natural world of physics and chemistry, and by other people creating their realities – the gardeners and the cigarette butt droppers, the good and the bad – but we still get to make our world, and we get to make the decisions. We are the boss, provided we choose to be.
‘Only I get to decide if I’m humiliated or not.’
Josephine Georgio, after the media pestered her to feel humiliated after her left breast was accidentally exposed by the singer, Madonna.
Josephine resisted advice to sue Madonna. She dealt with the incident honestly and without avarice. I feel so proud of her! If Josephine deals with the rest of her life in the same way – by not letting others create her reality – she will be taking charge of her life.
We can be like Josephine: we don’t have to let others create our world.
The trouble occurs when we desire people’s approval so badly that we pretend to be someone we are not. It’s the person we are who needs to feel valued, not the person we pretend to be. If we create a facade for ourselves, and people like the facade, it means we are trying to fit into their world, and our true self gets left behind and remains unseen. And gets ignored. That true self doesn’t get to feel valued. Instead, it gets to feel shame and self loathing, and like the weird relative hidden in the attic, becomes weirder.
The facade we present might feel valued, but it has no substance. It’s a ghost.
Yes, in day-to-day life we do need to modify our behaviour, we do need to abide by the basic rules of social interaction. Otherwise, yes, we will become weird and isolated. We include those basic rules when we create our world. However, it’s still our world. If we go for a job interview, or approach someone we like, or speak with a neighbour, we can abide by the basic rules of social interaction, but we must also deal with those people on our terms. If we are to be taken seriously we have to present ourselves as we are, and on our terms. Let’s not pretend to be someone we are not, to get their approval. Let’s not modify ourselves to fit in. We have created for ourselves our own world and we embody it, so let’s present that world to people when we meet them.
‘We are only vulnerable and ridiculous through our pretensions.’
Delphine de Girardin.
And, we can remind ourselves that unless a person is close to us, we are given little thought. A second, at most. (Even those close to us give us far less thought than we realise.) While watching eight youths play basketball I noticed that when a player missed scoring, his teammates did not huff with dismay at his incompetence. They didn’t stop and put their hands on their hips. Instead, they focused on the ball bouncing off the hoop and moved on with the game. In the same way, people don’t stop to dwell on how stupid or bad they think you might be. If they do think that way it’s for a second, and then they move on.
Yet some of us can be so caught up in shame it feels like we are a black hole sucking everyone’s thoughts towards us. Nuh. It’s not like that. If someone holds you in contempt, it’s for a second or two at most. Then they get bored with the thought and move on.
‘You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realised how seldom they do.’
Our big mistake is to assume other people take our world as seriously as we take it. They don’t. They take their world seriously. They focus on their world.
Why does this put us in a powerful and exhilarating position? Because if people barely think about us it means we are free. We are not shackled by their thoughts. Thoughts can’t shackle us when they last a mere second! That means we might as well be the person we are meant to be. There is no point in trying to be someone we are not, just to please people, if all we are is a bit part in their world. Let’s take charge and be the boss, and create for ourselves the person we want to be and the world we want to live in.
‘Trust yourself. Think for yourself. Act for yourself. Speak for yourself. Be yourself. Imitation is suicide.’
Marva Collins, an extraordinary teacher in the U.S.A.
At the beginning of this chapter are Lao Tzu’s words, ‘Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.’ That’s true, only when we try to please people. Yes, we evolved to care about what people think about us, but we can care on our terms. Let’s be ourselves, and let them care. We might not get the approval we want, but in the long run we will feel valued – because we will like and respect ourselves; we will value ourselves.
‘When we try to get people to like us they like us more than we do.’
I have said all this to say: yes, we are compelled to satisfy our need to feel valued, but let’s not satisfy it by trying to please people. If someone wants us to be a part of their world they have to accept us on our terms, not theirs.
Let’s focus on creating our world. If we want to feel valued, let’s be true to ourselves, to our interests, to our values. If we are to be a bit player in another person’s world then that person will have to deal with who we are, not the person they want us to be.
When we enter the world of other people let’s bring our real self. That way, we stand a chance of creating a real connection with them. But if we present a facade, we can’t truly connect with them – who can connect with a ghost? Worse, we have to spend time and energy maintaining that facade, until one day we don’t know who we truly are. Nor do they. Result: more disconnection.
If we enter the world of people who treat us harshly, let’s ask questions! In his book, ‘Status Anxiety’, Alain De Botton writes: ‘Rather than wondering in disgrace, “What is wrong with me (for being a woman/having dark skin/no money)?”, we are encouraged to ask, “What might be wrong, unjust or illogical about others for reproving me?”’
Further, if each and every one of us creates our own world, it means comparisons are pointless. The choices other people make reflect the world they are creating for themselves. If they choose to travel, or study, or swap partners . . . that’s for them. What they do might not suit your world, so why compare? Be pleased for them if you like, but focus on your world. If they treat you harshly or with disdain because your world isn’t like their world, it just means they haven’t yet figured out that each of us is different and we have our own journey.
The key: every time you notice yourself doing or saying something that isn’t ‘you’, just to please people, remind yourself that you’re in charge of your world, and you’re creating it, and if you are going to grow as a person and create for yourself the best possible world, other people will have to meet you on your terms, not their terms.
It’s downright simple: you’re the boss. Act like it.
Q. ‘My friends say I treat them poorly, and now refuse to see me. But I am just being myself. My friends should accept me for who I am, shouldn’t they? The can be with me on my terms.’
Your friends have the right to avoid you, too. You have many facets in your personality. When you are being polite you present one authentic aspect of yourself; when you are playing the fool you present another. The trick is to know which facet is appropriate for the circumstances.
Q. ‘What if I am weird and eccentric? How will being authentic help? Shouldn’t I try to be normal?’
We only become weird when we lose our interpersonal skills. Work on them. (There are chapters in this book about them.) Just don’t betray yourself to fit in with others – they will see through you anyway.
Q. ‘You say we evolved to care about what other people think of us. But I know someone who doesn’t care. He does what he wants. And I heard of a young man who boasted to his 400,000 Instagram followers about his acquisition of the latest phone and received many negative comments. He posted: ‘Look at all these haters, damn I feel good.’
We all care, unless we are deeply wounded. Some people have been so unloved and neglected that the idea of anyone liking them is incomprehensible to them. They might grow up unable to care about what other people thought of them.
As for that young man, he might not care about what his followers thought of him, but it’s likely he cares about what some people think of him.
‘If the goal is authenticity and they don’t like me, I’m okay. If my goal is being liked and they don’t like me, I’m in trouble. I get going by making authenticity the priority.’
Brené Brown, who also wrote: ‘We can only belong when we offer our most authentic selves and when we’re embraced for who we are.’
Brené is right; we only satisfy our deep need to belong when the real self is valued, not the mask we might present.