This essay was originally featured in my free Suday newsletter.
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
There was once a research survey done of nursing home residents around the country. A question on that survey was, “What is your greatest regret?”
One answer that kept coming up went something like this:
I wish I wouldn’t have spent so much time trying to win the approval of others. I wish I would have lived for myself.
Growing up, we are taught to follow the rules, mind our manners, and not be loud around other people. We are conditioned to keep other people in mind when we act so we don’t “disturb” other people. The thing about this conditioning is, it has seeped into every part of our lives, from our relationships and careers to the kind of music we listen to, the food we eat and the dress we wear.
I don’t know about you, but one of my life goals is to completely detach myself from the shackles of other people’s opinions. I want to put myself first before I do. I don’t want to make decisions by having fear of what others will think. I don’t want other people to be able to influence my life without my consent. The thing is, the opinions of others have a toxic effect that insidiously affects our entire lives.
This is not OK for me.
One way I am conditioning myself to not worry about what other people think is to constantly put myself out there and take risks in social, business and personal situations. By striving to be as much myself as possible, I’m hoping to become so enveloped in my own reality that I don’t have the wherewithal to take notice of other’s realities.
Of course, this habit is a hard one to break.
Because we have been conditioned our entire lives to be conscious of other people’s thoughts, feelings and opinions—and because it’s programmed into our genes because those who worked well with others were more likely to survive in a nomadic tribe scenario—the majority of us wear a mask when we deal with other people. We are “nice” and “pleasant” and “courteous” when we wear this mask.
Sure, a mask can be useful for interacting with people, even necessary at times. The thing is, this nice mask isn’t really who we are because it is refined, restrained, and ultimately, fake. And since we are so used to putting this mask, we often forget that it’s even there, which can make it hard to take off and be our “true” selves. This mask is one of the reasons we filter everything we say. It’s why we have trouble letting down our guard and letting people in.
In our social media and email age, where we can hide behind a text message or an email, it’s becoming easier and easier to wear a mask that is filtered, edited and, again, not really who we are. It’s becoming easier to hide behind a screen and curate our masks, which ends up contributing to the continuing disconnect between who we really are and who we portray to the outside world.
Basically, our society is full of people that are great at acting the way everyone else does: pleasant, nice, and that don’t cause much of a ruckus. And because of this, it’s hard to tell who is being real and who is just acting real.
One of the most not-so-obvious ways this mask hurts us is the fact that we won’t be remembered because we haven’t given anyone a reason to remember us. There is a reason that the masses are so drawn to controversial and outspoken people and that’s because they break this social norm of reserved niceness. Deep down, we all yearn to express ourselves and remove our masks so we can be real. This is why we are drawn to people that aren’t afraid to be their true selves. It’s refreshing and we live vicariously through these individuals.
I think this “nice,” and “lying” culture we live in is worse off due to our unwillingness to be vulnerable and real. Ultimately, we have traded pleasantness for realness, and to me, that’s a bloody shame.
I don’t know about you, but…
I want to be free of other’s opinions because I have learned that the only thing that other people’s opinions have ever done for me is cause me pain and hold me back.
Never have I been better off because someone held a “desirable” opinion of me, while plenty of times I’ve hurt and stifled because I was too worried about what someone(s) thought. And if there was ever a thing to hate, this is it.
I don’t like it when I find myself hesitating on something because my mind has started working out the possible responses I might get from someone else. This is really stupid when I think about it, but it’s prevalent and powerful and affects us all to one degree or another.
In fact, I just had a profound realization. It’s this: the vast majority of fear we face in our society is a fear of the opinions of others.
Think about that for a moment. You and I don’t have much to be afraid of as far as physical danger goes and illnesses aside, there is very little that we actually have to be afraid of on a regular basis that isn’t based on other people. So really, the question becomes:
What are you so afraid of?
And still, so many of us live in fear—fear of the unknown; fear of our financial situation; fear of what this person will do or say or think. The thing about most of these fears is they are almost always rooted in not eliciting the shame, or seeking out the approval, of other people.
You and I are not going to starve or die because we are stranded in a harsh wilderness. Even if we lost everything we had, we would still be ok. We live in a land of opportunity and safety, and as a result, we fear the things that are relative to us. We fear other people.
When you spend some time thinking about it, you see just how crazy it really is.
- Afraid of not getting into that college because you don’t want to let your parents down…
- Going into a career you hate just so you can win the approval of your peers and family…
- Afraid to “come out of the closet” for fear of shame and ridicule…
- Too scared to approach that guy or girl for fear of rejection…
- And on and on and on the fears based on others go…
Throughout my twenties (which are over in less than three weeks), I spent a fair amount of time reading up on men’s personal development topics like dating, psychology, relationships, fitness, health, happiness, etc. A common them of advice for men that kept coming up was the importance of being an authentic, true, real man. They say that women are attracted to men that are opinionated, strong, confident, and in-tune with their sexuality and individuality. Basically, a man that polarizes. (This is why “bad boys” so strongly attract certain women while “nice guys” are often boring and not worth remembering. They don’t polarize!!!)
I think this is good advice, and I strive to be as solid in my individually as I can, but I also think it is good policy for both sexes. In general, people are attracted to authentic, genuine people that are full of energy and passion. That are real and vulnerable. And to be full of energy and passion in an attractive way, you have to be authentic, bold, even controversial at times.
You have to polarize!
The problem with this advice is, it’s a bit vague and esoteric. What action steps does a person take to become authentic, raw and real, and to polarize as a person? It’s not the easiest thing to quantify, and it seems like some people have it and some don’t.
The big question then becomes: How can you become confident and assured in the person you are while living a life that puts your dreams and desires before the approval and opinions of others?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer for you. I’m still figuring much of this out myself. There are some things I’ve done that have helped me get better, but I can’t give you a silver bullet for making this happen because I’m pretty sure one doesn’t exist. Maybe you can learn a bit from my journey. I’ll start with that.
You see, I have strong beliefs and opinions about most things in life. These form the “code” that I live by. I’m resolute enough in this code to know that I will never change it for someone else. It’s definitely “me first” when it comes to my belief system and how I live my life. In this regard, I have the individuality and authenticity part covered.
The problem is, I tend to be my truest and most open and real self when I’m around friends and family. I struggle with opening up when I’m interacting with people I don’t know very well. I have a “guarded” and “filtered” way when I interact with new people. As a result, I avoid doing the things recommend above, like polarize, and as a result I often feel like I’m being a deplorable “nice.”
For some people, this would’t be such a bad thing, but for me, it is just that. It’s bland, boring, unoriginal and uninspiring. It’s also a form of easy, which you probably know I try to avoid like the plague.
To me, when I’m being “nice,” I’m not being the best I can be. I’m not being true, raw, real and vulnerable.
This may have something to do with the fact that when I was younger I would often get criticism from peers when they would tell me about someone had said they “didn’t like me” or thought I was “too sarcastic” or “too cocky.” This used to really bother me because I didn’t feel like I was that way at all. I was always just having fun in my good-natured, real way.
In an effort to curb this pervading misinterpretation of my personality, I started (subconsciously, I think) conditioning myself to throttle my personality when I was around new people. This has resulted in me opening-up less with people I didn’t know until I feel like I have “calibrated” my personality to mesh well with theirs. After I calibrate, I rarely have trouble getting along with people although I sometimes have trouble opening up as much as I’d like. I also struggle with being interested in people I’m not close with, which is obviously not a good thing from a business point of view (I’ve gotten much better at this in recent months).
I want to be able to be raw and real, and to be able to open-up faster with people because I feel like that’s a better thing to do in life and business. I also want to do it because I like living life on my own terms, and I feel that my unwillingness to open up with other people is me putting the opinions of others before my own.
A Goal for Life
So, what am I doing to get better with being real, raw, honest and my true self?
One way is, I am forcing myself to engage in more social situations than I normally would as I go about my day-to-day. By forcing myself to engage with new people more often, I’m aiming to get better at opening up and being vulnerable with people I don’t know. I think this will have a great effect in other areas of my life.
If I had to provide an answer to “How do I free myself from the approval or opinion of others?” it would be this:
The more you can be your true, raw, real self, the better you’ll get. Then, hopefully in time, you’ll realize just how pointless it was to worry about what other people thought in the first place.
The goal here is to condition yourself to put you first. Some of us are better at this than others, but I’d guess that we all need work and so we all should be making a point to distance ourselves from the opinions of others.
There’s so much social conditioning built into our brains. This thing can take years to get under control. All the more reason that you and I need to force ourselves to get out there and cause a ruckus. We need to show the world our art; to take risks and say things that aren’t popular or politically correct; to call someone out when they need to be called out; and so on.
My advice: Don’t arrive at your deathbed and regret your life… the way most people do. Live for yourself. Be who you are regardless of who doesn’t like it. Be controversial. Cause a ruckus. Say FUCK YOU to norms, mores and rules. Take risks and fail. Remove your fear of failure because you understand that it’s just the fear of other’s opinions that is holding you back and that that is pretty stupid.
Realize this: Most people avoid risks not because they are worried about losing time or money but because they are worried what their friends, family and peers will think. Think about how stupid that is considering we all only get one chance at this fleeting thing called life?
How many times have you taken the “safe route” for this reason? Better yet: How many times have you told yourself that the path you took was “better” when it was really just “safer”?
The fear of eliciting a negative response from other people is how you end up living a lie. It’s how you end up in some shitty job you can’t stand, in crappy relationships, in the wrong business, or partnership, or program, or whatever. It’s why you keep your art hidden from the world. It’s why you don’t tell that someone how you really feel. And on and on and on.
Detach yourself from the thoughts, opinions, and judgements of others and you will be better in every single possible way because of it. Then, ironically, you’ll be able to take their opinions into account in a healthy and productive way that can actually help you and not hinder you.