Do you want to start a new career, a new hobby, or a new relationship and are being held back by the Fear of What Everyone Else Thinks? This fear is a powerful force that impacts our lives in many ways.
If you’re grappling with The Fear of What Everyone Else Thinks, it has probably manifested in one or both of the below ways:
- “Afraid to Start” – You hesitate to share your plan, dream, or decision with someone because you think they will think you are crazy. You might fear criticism or ridicule. You might feel that they don’t think you are good enough to reach what you want to accomplish.
- “Afraid of ‘I Told You So'” – You are afraid hearing “I Told You So” from Everyone Else if you should fail.
Unfortunately, we can fail to take a chance or to pursue what we are good at because of this influence. We can even turn away from pursuing something that we really feel will make us happy. We can fall into making “safe” choices for the sake of Everyone Else.
Most criticism that comes from Everyone Else will be rooted in 2 psychological principles – Tall Poppy Syndrome and Social Proof – so, let’s look at those first, before looking at 7 strategies for overcoming the Fear of What Everyone Else Thinks.
Tall Poppy Syndrome
This principle states that when you begin to grow, to pull out of the pack, your peers will pull you back. Picture one lone poppy beginning to grow above all the others in field, then the surrounding poppies pulling or cutting it down.
There are a number of reasons this effect can happen – the other person has been scared to pursue their dreams so they don’t want you to pursue yours, the other person genuinely fears for your financial well being or embarrassment, the other person is afraid you will “leave them behind”, or an assortment of other feelings.
It is worth noting that very often the motivations of your friend and family afflicted with Tall Poppy Syndrome are not so much malicious. They are often simply afraid of losing your time or attention, or they are afraid to see you take a risk, or similar. Understanding that this principle is at work on them may help you to calm down and engage with them more rationally.
The Social Proof effect
This principle states that we all look at those around us to determine what action we should take next. This has broad implications – from the mundane, looking at what everyone else is doing in a new restaurant to determine our behavior, to the incredible, real world cases where crowds of people witness a murder or a rape and do nothing because the rest of the crowd is doing nothing.
Social Proof is one of the most powerful principles built into our DNA – and for good reason. In most cases, doing what everyone else is doing is the “right” or “safe” thing to do. This little shortcut can save us embarrassment of doing the wrong thing in the line at the restaurant, it can protect us from danger when we don’t go down that empty dark alley, and everything in-between.
“Those who follow the crowd often become lost in it” – Anonymous
“If you don’t risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary” – Jim Rohn
The problem lies in that while this shortcut can protect us in many cases, it can lead to us simply follow the herd. We may never seek the extraordinary, because, by definition, we mostly see the average.
This is often why the tallest poppy gets cut down – our peers look and see that no one else is doing the new thing that you want to do, so in their minds, you shouldn’t be either! In their mind, you are stepping out of line and putting yourself in some kind of danger! This makes your Tall Poppy friends a good deal more sympathetic.
This principle of Social Proof becomes orders of magnitude more powerful as the uncertainty goes up. The less certain we are , the more we look to what others around us are doing.
This makes Social Proof and Tall Poppy especially powerful in areas that have an impact on finances or career, because many people are uncertain what to do about earning a living in a complex modern economy. So, they look at what the people around them do to earn a living. If you are stepping out on a limb doing something different while everyone else isn’t, it may seem to them you are in danger.
Fear of What Everyone Else Thinks Tries to Freeze Us All
If we all stay stuck in this paralysis of worrying about What Everyone Else Thinks, then innovation and forward progress dies. But, a select group of people overcome this challenge. These people become our business leaders, our political leaders, our innovators, our difference makers, our best salespeople, our top artists.
Not everyone that overcomes What Everyone Else Thinks will do great things, but, everyone that does great things will overcome What Everyone Else Thinks.
Now, that we understand Social Proof and Tall Poppy Syndrome, lets look at some specific strategies to deal with the Fear of What Everyone Else Thinks.
7 Strategies for Dealing with Fear of What Everyone Else Thinks:
“If your dreams don’t seem crazy to everyone else, then you aren’t dreaming big enough” – Anonymous
Strategy #1 – Write down your biggest dreams and goals that you aren’t already moving toward. Now, think about what is holding you back from the next step toward those goals and write it down. Be as honest with yourself as possible, this is purely for your own use. If you’re like most of us, Fear of What Everyone Else Thinks is probably on that list somewhere tied to at least one of the items. You may not have even known. Knowing it is there is the first key to beating it.
Strategy #2 – Realize that other people think less often about you and care a lot less about what you are doing than you probably think. Ironically, most people are too worried about what everyone else thinks about them to really put a great deal of time into worrying about you. As soon as you realize this, you hold one of the biggest keys in overcoming fear of What Everyone Else Thinks. Much of our fear doesn’t actually come from what people say to us, much of fear comes from what we think everyone else might think.
“First, they asked why I’m doing this. Now, they ask how I did it.” – Anonymous
Strategy #3 – Read books from stoics like Marcus Aurelius or Seneca to build up “thicker skin” against the criticism. Realize that your life is shorter than you think today, you don’t want to waste it living for others. This is easier said than done. Some of us naturally seek the approval of others, others need less approval and are more inclined to go against the feelings of others. Despite our natural tendencies, caring less about What Everyone Else Thinks is a skill that can be built.
My favorite place to start is Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Marcus Aurelius, the last “good” Roman Emperor, faced pressures that many of us cannot imagine. Aurelius lays out a convincing case for the reasons why we should not allow the opinions of others – be they criticism or applause – go to our heads.
The full text cannot be given justice in this lone article, but, a few choice quotations will get you started.
“Everyone gets one life. Yours is almost used up, and instead of treating yourself with respect, you have entrusted your own happiness to the souls of others.”
“We love ourselves more than others, yet we value other’s opinions above our own.”
”You want praise from people who kick themselves every fifteen minutes, the approval of people who despise themselves.”
“Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. Then where is harm to be found? In your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine.”
Pick up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations on Kindle for free by clicking here.
Steve Jobs offered a similar train of thought during his Stanford Commencement speech. My favorite lines:
“For the past 33 years I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ Whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I have ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure, these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
“Remembering that you are going to die is surest way that I know to avoid the trap of thinking that you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
“Your time is limited; don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
“A person’s success in life can be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations that he/she is willing to have” – Tim Ferriss
Strategy #4 – If you are holding back because you are worried about a specific person who does very much care about what you are doing – spouse, parent, child, close friend – then sit down and talk to them. Don’t just worry about what they will think and stay paralyzed, start taking action.
Have that hard conversation. Don’t waste another day of precious life kicking the can down the road while you get no steps closer to your goal. Be honest with the person about how you feel, what you want, and how important it is to you. Tell them that if you don’t pursue this, you will regret it. Open your heart to them and you will often find that these people in your life will listen.
“Most people will be fast to talk you out of something before you start, but, will hesitate to get in the way once you’re moving.” – Tim Ferriss, The Four Hour Work-Week
Strategy #5 – Other people are just as flawed and just as unsure about everything as you are. While Everyone Else may bluster and criticize, many of them don’t really know much of anything about you and what you want from life. In many cases, these people can’t even make themselves happy let alone know what you need to do to be happy. Many people’s opinions change as often as the weather. Allowing comments or your perception of what they “might” be thinking to run your life is choosing to be a leaf on the wind.
“After 30 years of hard work, I’ve finally become an overnight success” – Anonymous
Strategy #6 – If you are concerned about early criticism of your new venture, remember that almost all the greats in business, art, science, and elsewhere took many years of hard work to reach “breakthrough”. Some weren’t recognized until they performed at a high level for a very long time. Some of the greats were never recognized at all until after their death. Many businesses take years, even decades to begin reaching real success.
These are the things you should remind yourself about your own work and your own dreams that you want to build. You may not be recognized immediately, in fact, you almost certainly won’t. You may be doubted initially or even ridiculed. It will likely take a long time to reach your goal But, give yourself time, do the work, and you will gain momentum and recognition will come one day. But, most importantly, take that first step today so that, tomorrow, you can take the second.
“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room” – Anonymous
Strategy #7 – Find a taller poppy field. This is the most powerful strategy of all, so we saved it for last.
The legendary Jim Rohn stated that “you are the average of the five people that you spend the most time with”. So, find new people to spend time with. Find people who help you grow instead of people who cut you down. Find a field where you are the shortest poppy, instead of the tallest. Field a field where your peers encourage you to grow to their level.
Finding a taller poppy field is so effective for self improvement precisely because of Social Proof. When you find a group of people who are pushing, who are driving for a better self and a better world, the dangers of Social Proof begin working for you instead of against you.
If you surround yourself with the right people, you will find daily motivation in the actions and words of those around you. This takes the pitfalls of Social Proof, flips them, and turns them into strengths. It is very difficult to fight human nature entirely, so, if you can instead turn human nature into your ally in this way, it is very powerful.
We will all look those around us to figure out what we should be doing because it’s built into our DNA. Fighting this tendency is like fighting the tide. If you want to be your absolute best, make sure that what you see when you look around you is inspirational. Make sure that the people around you are pulling you in the direction that you wish to go and not the opposite. Improve your circle, improve yourself.
Don’t know people in your life today that can help you do this? Start with some “virtual relationships” from books and podcast. Start with some great books such as those in 8 Books with Great ROI. These will elevate your thinking and prepare you to achieve anything you want. Also, podcasts can serve as excellent virtual mentors, you can listen while driving or at work. The podcast hosts can begin to feel like old friends over time. There are tons of great ones out there, but, the Tim Ferriss Show is an excellent place to start.
Seek to base your decisions, your dreams, and your view of yourself on something solid, something anchored within you. Don’t allow What Everyone Else Thinks to paralyze you into failing to pursue your dreams.
Start noticing all the times that What Everyone Else Thinks creeps into your consciousness and impacts either your decision or your state of mind or both. Recognize this influence for what it is, for the most dangerous influence is the one that we do not know is at work.
Develop a sense of who you are and what you want. Develop your own sense of what you are good at and what you are not so good at. You should not completely ignore other people’s input, some input can be highly valuable. But, you shouldn’t let other people’s views dictate your life or your outcomes, particularly if you spot Tall Poppy or Social Proof effects at play. Top causes of unfounded criticism are these two effects.
Pursue where your interests, skills, and passions take you, do not allow What Everyone Else Thinks to dictate your course in life. Allowing What Everyone Else Thinks to dictate your path through life is a surefire recipe for regret.
Instead of worrying about others’ opinions, do your work. Become better. Pursue what you are meant to do. The rest will take care of itself.