Why we fuss about other people’s opinions

Find your people. If you’re worried about fitting in, it can be mentally healthy to find others who share your values, interests and style. Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

We wish we were more immune to others’ opinions of us.  But most humans are acutely sensitive to what others think of them.  Here are some of the reasons, and what we can do to protect ourselves from the suffering this sensitivity can cause.

#1 – EVOLVED SYNCHRONISATION – Humans have evolved to be sensitive to each others’ views.  Social awareness has helped us to survive.  This includes watchfulness as to whether we are fitting in, and explains synchronisation and affiliation as to fashion, use of language, politics, religion, and many other aspects of behaviour.  Sameness helps us to act as a team.  We experience worry or pain if we feel too different from others.  It’s an alarm system designed to keep us all in sync.

#2 – ATTACHMENT – Humans have also evolved to watch our carers, so that we can learn from each other and share resources.  Copying and similarity help children to engage with their parents, and to learn to be adults more quickly.  A sensitivity to the parent’s opinion helps this process of gelling together and growing.

#3 – GENERAL ANXIETY – General anxiety is also probably a facet of our evolution – probably, more watchful and anxious beings survive better through being more reactive to potential danger.  Other people’s current opinions of us directly affect how they are likely to treat us.  If we detect an adverse opinion, we are rightly alerted to danger.

#4 – DESIRE FOR HARMONY – Many empathic humans also have a wider desire for harmony with the world around them.  Just as an artist chooses colour schemes, so an empath tries to choose behaviours in sympathy with those around them.  Not least, it makes it easier to help others if they do not hate us.

So we fuss about other people’s opinions for a variety of very good reasons.  Much of this is hardwired into us as animals dependent on cooperative action, long development cycles, and avoidance of danger.  And as creative, empathic beings, we like to coordinate and harmonise.

Sometimes, though, this sensitivity to others’ opinions becomes painful and obtrusive in a person’s life.  We can become agonised when we fall out with others, and we can spend inordinate amounts of time over-adapting to others, in order to avoid them thinking ill of us.

Part of my job is to help people manage their mental health, and this is one area where help is often needed.  Here are a few suggestions for anyone who finds themselves agonising about other people’s opinions of them.

TIP #1 – FIND YOUR PEOPLE – Instead of working too hard to fit in with wider society, we can find small communities closer to our comfort zone. 

TIP #2 – FIND YOUR MENTORS – Instead of working too hard to be agreeable to all those with power over us, we can focus on relationships with individual mentors more attuned to our aspirations, motivations and learning style.

TIP #3 – EXERCISE SELF CARE – We worry more about others’ opinions when we don’t feel safe ourselves.  Instead of worrying about danger, we can build a network of food, exercise, sleep and sympathetic friendships.

TIP #4 – ACCEPT PERSONAL DIFFERENCES – Instead of always adapting to others, we can celebrate the differences between us all.  We can be courageous about our own difference, and curious about others’ difference, without constantly needing to harmonise everything.

In summary, if we find ourselves agonising too much about others’ opinions of us, we can seek out peers less likely to think ill of us, and mentors more attuned to our style.  We can also build a safe environment, to reduce the danger of paranoia.  Finally, we can resign as General Harmoniser of the Universe, and celebrate differences.

It is generally good that we have a sensitivity to fitting in.  But, if the need to be accepted is adversely affecting our mental health, then we  need to find our own people, build our own nest, and celebrate our differences.  It’s all part of authentic living, and reduces the burden of anxious adaptation.