I had an ex who once told me, “The only thing that’s wrong with you is that you think there’s something wrong with you. You shouldn’t care what people think.”
Looking back, I can kind of see what he meant. In those days, I spent most of my time consumed by doubt. Drowning in shame.
Every decision, no matter how minor, burdened me. Every choice I made seemed like another opportunity to demonstrate to the world how much of a failure I was. How broken.
And how little I deserved to live.
Children Internalize Blame to Preserve Attachment
I took a counseling CEU course a while back where we spent most of the class talking about early childhood attachment. And specifically why experiencing abuse warps a child’s identity as it’s forming.
The explanation my instructor gave was this: Children come into this world with a strong attachment to their parental figures. When harm is perpetuated against a child by their parents, oftentimes a child won’t recognize it as parental wrongdoing. Instead, the child will interpret the event as evidence that they’ve done something bad — and if the mistreatment continues, they will come to believe that they are globally a bad child. That there’s something fundamentally wrong with them that causes their parent to treat them this way.
Many of them grow up never recognizing that they’re being abused. And feeling as though they deserve what is happening to them.
This internalization of blame allows them to maintain emotional attachment to their parental figure. But at the same time, it sets them up with unhealthy precedents of how to behave with other people as they reach adulthood. Not just in regards to abusive behavior, but even when in simple conflict.
Blaming Myself for Every Misunderstanding and Conflict as an Adult
That was certainly the case for me. I found that whenever someone and I disagreed about something, I would default to thinking that I wrong and they knew better than me. That I was stupid or crazy. That there was an invisible set of rules and logic governing everything that other people could see but I couldn’t. Because I was defective somehow, lacked the basic intuition everyone else around me seemed to possess.
It didn’t matter how much experience or knowledge I had in the realm that we conflicted on, if someone else disagreed with my conclusions, I’d assume I was wrong and become profoundly disappointed in myself.
It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that I was repeating those same patterns from my childhood. I couldn’t entertain the idea that I might be correct in any given conflict and the other person wrong. Rather than risking becoming disappointed by them (and particularly their groundless insistence that they were correct), I instead owned every misunderstanding. Internalized the blame. And reserved that disappointment for myself. I walked around basically thinking everyone else was perfect and that I was deeply flawed.
The “Remedy” I Came Up With Made It Worse
I felt like a colossal fuck-up. And wanted to do better. But because I had no insight into what I was doing to myself by inappropriately internalizing blame, my “remedy” actually made it worse.
I looked to other people to be the judge of whether any given thing I was doing was right or wrong. On the surface, this idea makes a bit of sense. Understandable, really. Social referencing is a normal part of how humans learn how to behave. What people largely define as ethical behavior often stems from social consideration and mutual agreement. And ideally, we think about how our actions affect other people before embarking on a course of action.
But the devil’s in the details, and I hadn’t mastered any of the finer points. I had an all-or-nothing view on most things in those days — but definitely when it came to interpersonal interactions. If what I did was pretty good but I could have done something a little better, then I would feel like I’d made a terrible mistake through my actions. And that I was worthless. There was no “pretty good,” there was no “okay.” There was only “perfect” and “horrible.” And of course perfection is elusive. Like anyone else, I was rarely, if ever, perfect.
I also didn’t properly qualify the people I used as reference points. Or stop to think if these people had qualities I wanted to emulate. If I agreed with their values and the way they seemed to conduct themselves.
They could be the world’s biggest creep, their life in tatters, and if they told me that I was annoying or had messed up by doing X, Y, or Z, then I believed them as though they had a case so strong that they had presented me with DNA evidence of my unworthiness.
It’s Okay to Care What Other People Think of You — But Be Specific
“The only thing that’s wrong with you is you think there’s something wrong with you. You shouldn’t care what people think,” my ex used to say. And now I can kind of see what he meant.
I’ve come a long way from then. These days I have a strong internal sense of self. I have a complex personal values system that I can articulate when it’s relevant to the matter at hand.
Sure, I’m a recovering people pleaser. But these days, I’m one who can set boundaries. Who doesn’t live or die by validation (or lack thereof) from acquaintances or strangers. And who is okay with pissing the occasional person off. As I wrote in another piece about people pleasing and broken promises: If a person’s expectations are unreasonable, disappointing them is not only okay, it’s the APPROPRIATE response.
That said, my ex wasn’t right about everything. Not caring what other people think was never the right remedy either. While it wasn’t healthy to base the entirety of my self-worth on whatever the last rando I’d encountered thought of me, it’s possible to take things too far in other direction. The hands-down most despicable people I know don’t care what anyone thinks of them.
The key is being selective. Just like you wouldn’t judge your beauty in a cracked mirror, you shouldn’t let just any old jackass determine whether what you’re doing is right or wrong.
It used to drive me insane when someone didn’t like me or expressed harsh judgement of the decisions I made. Now I take stock of the situation when it happens. I look at the source and how they are living their life:
- Are they happy where they are?
- Are they making good decisions?
- Do they generally bring value to other people?
If the answer to these three questions is “no,” then I’m not only okay with their disapproval, but I can even view it as a positive sign.
And I keep a few people extremely close to me that serve as my go-to mirrors. Folks who I can run things by when I’m in doubt.
It’s okay to care what other people think of you — but be specific.