There are two kinds of enlightenment you can achieve.
Buddha called one nirvana, which was a state of complete surrender to the now with no thoughts and thus no suffering.
It took Buddha 49 days of straight meditation under a tree to achieve that state. So good luck with that if you go down that path.
Another form of nirvana is the one I'm talking about today. This form of nirvana is more practical for you and I, and while you will never reach perfection, you can get pretty damn close.
This form of nirvana comes when you stop caring what other people think.
When you can wake up each day and do whatever you want without spending one ounce of energy considering what other people want you to do.
That is nirvana.
Today I'm going to help you do just that.
I'll start off explaining why we care what other people due to our ancestral past. Then I'm going to cover some of the research and psychology around the topic. Finally, I'll give you some practical strategies you can implement in your life to start edging closer to nirvana.
Before we get to that, why should you want to not care what other people think?
Sheesh, where to even start with this one.
I'm writing this article after having a long conversation with a friend about her childhood trauma. Something that kept coming up during our discussion were the ideas of shame and guilt.
This got me thinking more about the idea of shame and guilt and how our childhood traumas come out as these demons in our adult years.
What are guilt and shame?
What do you feel when you feel either?
Think about it?
What is your psyche trying to accomplish with those feelings?
Most people have never thought about guilt or shame as your subconscious trying to control your behavior, but that's EXACTLY WHAT IT IS DOING.
Guilt and shame are feelings based on your perception that you failed to live up to someone else's standards.
Much of the time, this comes from society's standards, and your parent's that were drilled into you growing up.
We use empty, meaningless phrases like, "that's wrong," You can't do that," "it's not right." "Good people don't act this way, "or other such nonsense.
Sometimes we feel guilt and shame because we do something contrary to what our parents taught us. So we feel bad that we aren't living up to the ideal our parents have for us.
These universal human emotions are designed to do one thing: help you play nice with others.
Why is that the case? Why are humans SO concerned with what other people think?
Humans have evolved to work together and survive together in the wild. The only way this worked or our ancestors is if everyone was on the same page—if the entire tribe worked together.
This is why we have tribalism, groupthink, and a myriad of psychological hurdles living in a modern world with billions of humans all around us.
Our ancestors never had to contend with any of that. It was just you and a small group you grew up with.
Hunter-gatherers were what anthropologists call "fiercely egalitarian." This meant everyone was equal, and that was enforced as a top priority. In this context, showing off could get you killed. Berating someone or acting superior in any way could get you killed. Any behavior that threatens the group was met with hostility. The techniques hunter-gatherers devised to "keep people in check" involved ridicule and shame. This is why they are such strong motivators to us humans.
Mother Nature designed us to feel these emotions, and other humans are designed to keep us accountable to them.
Bullying is a byproduct of our ancestral past. Gossip is. Shaming is. And so on.
Simply put, if you lost your fellow tribesmen's approval, you could lose access to food and mates, both significant threats to your survival. And in some cases, you might be killed or exiled from the group—the latter also a death sentence.
This all brings us to a first principle of human psychology: we are designed to worry about what other people think.
I cannot put it simpler than that.
Hopefully, by understanding your evolutionary wiring, you have your primary weapon in detaching from it so you can control these emotions.
There's always going to be a part of you that is concerned with what people think about you. Maybe you only care what your family thinks, or your coworkers, or your best friends, etc.
There are very few humans that can detach completely from the opinions of other people.
But we can still strive for doing so and level up our life in the process.
Guilt and shame are manipulations—sometimes from others, most of the time from yourself.
So we have now established that feelings of guilt or shame are designed to keep you safe in a tribal setting, the question we have to ask ourselves is whether these biological mechanisms serve us in a world with 7 billion humans?
The answer is they do not.
Guilt, shame, and expectations are the greatest sources of misery and pain in the world today.
I know that sounds like a lot. How could caring what other people think do all that? I'll do my best to show you how. Then you'll hopefully see why you must stop caring what others think.
My goal is to give you a fighting chance of becoming the best you can become.
Before I forget, there's another practical reason why you should stop caring what others think.
People don't care about what you do. The perception that others care about your life is the real trap, and it's been foisted on your whole life. Often those that foist the burden on others have not taken the time to get their own life in order. You don't want to let these people control you, and they will if you don't resist.
I'm writing this in 2020. We can see the fragile world you get with fragile worldview based on appeasing other people while detaching from the realities of life. These fragile people lie their lives in bubbles of comfort without ever facing adversity, and so they go on to invest ghosts to fight.
This is another reason showing how dangerous it is to build a life for others—what if the others are wrong? You could spend years following the wrong path. And many do.
This stuff is life or death, literally.
My story, super quick
I've been going through this process my entire life.
I remember struggling with authority as a slave in the public school system. I didn't like my teachers. I didn't like their rules. I didn't like what they were teaching. I didn't care. And so I became a problem student, eventually relegated to sleeping in class and my teachers not caring since I was easier to deal with if I was asleep.
I had a few girlfriends in high school. Then, as an adult, I had a couple of long term relationships, both of which ended because of other people and their judgmental uninformed opinions that put pressure on the relationship.
I've never been one to pander. I don't like being nice for the sake of being nice. I am who I am. And I sometimes make crude jokes and I sometimes say things that aren't super nice. Most of the time, I'm just joking. But this makes it harder to fit into a group or be accepted by others. I wouldn't trade my path for anything because it made me who I am, but that doesn't mean it was easy.
Society has unwritten laws of how you're supposed to behave, what you're supposed to say and not say, and how you're supposed to live. If you follow these rules, you will become a replica of the average person.
And since the average person lives a life of quaint desperation, as Thoreau said, you don't want that for your life.
In high school, I struggled with the idea of parties and drinking alcohol. I thought to myself, "How can you do that when you are so obviously trying to fit in?"
It just seemed so fake.
So I didn't participate because I couldn't see that myself because I was so hung up on the fakeness of it. As it turned out, I was caring what others thought, only in a different way. I was trying to maintain a self-image of someone that wasn't trying hard to fit in. In college, I got over this and enjoyed a few parties.
You see this concept in the counterculture. Those that rebel against the broader culture end up conforming to the counter culture group. So they become a different kind of conformity, but conformity nonetheless.
This is why there are so few truly independent people out there.
In my adult years, I took the entrepreneur path. This set me on a life trajectory, unlike most of my peers. This has only strengthened my identity as an independent person that challenges the status quo. Becoming an entrepreneur while everyone else works a job puts you in a class by yourself.
This doesn't mean I have detached from what other people think. I still struggle with the ideas around relationships, even though I don't agree with them. I still buy certain things and upgrade my iPhone more than I should (I want the speed). And on and on the examples go of certain kinds of conformity.
I don't think this is bad if you are aware of why you are doing it. The problem is, most people aren't aware; they do things because other people do them without ever analyzing the logic, or lack thereof, behind their decisions.
So ya, I'm working on it.
And you will have to as well.
How to stop caring about what others think
Now that you have an idea of why you should stop caring what people think, I'll leave you with some things to keep in mind that will help you do just that.
1. It's always about them
Someone's opinion is always a reflection of themselves.
What you see most of the time is someone's opinion comes out as a projection, which tends to criticize someone of the very thing the attacker struggles with.
Other times you'll get criticism because your behavior—or something about you—triggered insecurity in someone. In this case, they typically lash out at you as a defense mechanism to handle the cognitive dissonance in their mind.
2. You get one life
After you read this article, you'll never be the same age you were ten minutes ago, or ten days ago, or ten years ago.
If you spend your life living for others, you'll be wasting the most precious gift of all.
My favorite strategy for reminding myself of my own mortality is that most things aren't important is to study Stoicism and practice gratitude.
Here's one of my favorite books: The Art of Living
3. The worst-case scenario is usually not that bad and usually doesn't happen
We are more afraid of things when we don't visualize them.
The less defined your fears, the more power they will have over you.
The more you think about the worst-case scenario, the more you'll remove the irrational fear in your mind and move to a practical way of thinking about what might happen.
The more you do this, the easier it will get.
Over time, you'll realize that things you were afraid of never come to fruition most of the time.
4. Change your environment
If you want to start conditioning yourself to not care what other people think, you must remove negativity fro your life.
You might have to cut out friends or reduce the time you spend with loved ones, at least until you can figure out how to reframe the relationship so that their negativity doesn't show up when you're around.
You'd be surprised what you can get done with simple questions like:
"Can we please talk about something else?"
"I don't want to gossip anymore."
"I'm not going to stick around negativity."
If you show people you aren't putting up with it, they will change their tune. They may not like it at first, but as long as you are nice about it, most people will respect your decision not to engage in negativity. The key is to be firm and consistent.
5. Accept that some people don't mix
You do not have to like everyone, and everyone does not have to like you.
When you become an adult, you realize this the hard way.
Growing up, we have this irrational desire to be liked by everyone.
This is a totally absurd notion that most people have to break the hard way.
I'm here to tell you right now, not everyone is going to like you, and that's perfectly fine.
When you accept not needing others approval, you are a HUGE step in the right direction to not caring what others think.
Remind yourself that someone's opinion of you is none of your business. Over time, you'll realize how fleeting and pointless it is to care about what people think.
Be the change you wish to see: Don't Judge + Don't Have Opinions
Humans are judgment machines: it is a byproduct of our evolutionary past. We are always seeking to fit people into a friend or foe box, so we know where they stand on the safety spectrum. This is an evolutionary adaptation. Animals do it as well.
The most important thing you can do to detach your emotions from other's opinions is to not form opinions yourself of other people.
Most small-minded people are constantly judging, with many always looking for something to dislike others for.
You can opt-out of this game completely. You don't need to have opinions of other people. They don't need to live up to your standards.
Unless someone blatantly wrongs you, avoid forming opinions of other people as a general rule for life, and you'll save yourself a ton of pain, misery, and mental energy.
You don't need to have opinions about other people.