Consider the source
Now this is a rather dry phrase, lacking in inspiration, you might feel, but these three words offer sound guidance about how to manage our responses to people whose behaviour and words threaten to undermine our autonomy, confidence and self-respect.
It’s natural to care about what other people think, and in so many ways it can be an effective and powerful brake on behaviour. Reputation matters. Our good name matters. Court cases are fought over such concerns. Great dramas hinge on issues of public estimation.
In Shakespeare’s Othello, the character who dismisses the very idea of reputation, saying it is often ‘got without merit and lost without deserving’, is the manipulative villain Iago. Iago may have a point here, but he operates outside the accepted norms of society, and exploits his own false reputation as a good man to commit crimes such as incitement to murder.
But there is such a thing as caring too much about what other people think. We care too much when our self-worth depends on the opinions of those whose impact and influence on our lives is given more value than it deserves.
We let the wrong people influence our feelings and behaviour. We commit our meanest acts, or alter our behaviour, or let our judgement become distorted for the sake of people who actually mean nothing to us, sometimes whose names we don’t even know.
We all do this to some extent, don’t we? You don’t answer the door because you don’t want the postie/delivery person/cold-caller to know that you’re in your dressing gown at 11am.You clean your house or your oven before the professional cleaners arrive. You do our hair before going to the hair salon. The desire to save face is quite deep-rooted, and in everyday, insignificant contexts, we can laugh at ourselves. And of course, in these situations no-one intends to make us feel put down.
In more consequential circumstances, it’s helpful to put into perspective the people whose behaviour threatens to diminish our personal power. They do this in many ways, including making critical comments and demeaning remarks, and unacceptable demands and suggestions. Start by considering the person in question. Think about why this person’s opinion matter to you, and what is the nature of their influence over you.
If you feel warmly towards a person, it’s natural to care what they think about you. You want to be liked in return. If you find that this changes your behaviour in ways that don’t feel comfortable, try setting some boundaries for yourself. If you find that you constantly think,
- ‘If I don’t agree to this, or turn up for that, they won’t like me any more’, try rephrasing your thoughts:
- ‘I don’t have to agree to everything in order to be liked.’
Admiration and respect
The people we admire can have a good influence on us. Wanting the approval of a positive role model can lead to productive behaviour.
But guard against being unduly influenced by people whose values or way of life you don’t admire. If you can’t respect their behaviour or who they are, remind yourself of this if you find yourself being influenced by them.
Those with specific authority over us, with its associated influence, tend to be our superiors or bosses at work. Their good opinion matters in all kinds of ways, and it’s natural to want them to see you in the best possible light.
There are a number of strategies and approaches you can use to avoid becoming a victim of authority. These include:
- Setting your own boundaries
- Being clear about your own values
- Developing assertive communication
When someone makes a critical comment, or a remark which you feel undermines you, try to distinguish between communication which is honest, open and well-meant, and that which is designed to make you feel bad about yourself.
If you find that someone is trying to put a particular negative spin on certain of your behaviours, ask yourself what they have to gain from this. It might be their way of maintaining an upper hand in a relationship, or of making you doubt yourself. Look out for phrases such as:
- ‘You’re crazy’
- ‘You’re so…’
- ‘You’re over-reacting’
- ‘You can’t take a joke’
- ‘You’re irrational’
Don’t let them get into your head. Maintain your personal power by calmly rebutting the remark and questioning what lies behind it: ‘I don’t agree with what you say. I’m wondering why you are saying it.’
Assess the credentials of the speaker
Feedback from a professional expert or experienced person can be easier to accept than criticism from someone who you feel is in no position to give it. You might wonder if they are just having a dig at you.
However, the speaker may be rubbish themselves at something, but pretty good at assessing other people’s efforts. So if your pal whose own style of dress references the 1980s (non-ironically) is critical about your current look, you might pause before firing up with a spoken or unspoken ‘You can talk!’ They might actually have a good eye for other people’s style, even though they don’t apply it to themselves.
Someone who makes a critical remark about a presentation you gave at work may not be known for their own winning ways with an audience, but may be spot-on at identifying how your performance could be improved. Acknowledge their contribution without referring to their own abilities or doubting their motives.
- ‘Thanks, I see what you mean.’
- ‘That’s helpful/interesting. Thanks for the feedback/for sharing your thoughts.’
Identify the people whose opinion of you matters
Jane Eyre, the eponymous heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, is falsely accused of being a liar, and is distressed that ‘everyone’ believes it to be true. Not everyone, says her friend. There are millions of people in the world, and only eighty people heard this accusation. What do I care about millions, says Jane, when the eighty I know despise me.
The unhappy little girl may be exaggerating the extent of her loss of reputation, but she has the right idea. Care only about the opinion of those in your life who you respect and who you trust not to deliberately put you down, and whose interest is in maintaining and celebrating your personal strengths.
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