From wanting a good review from your boss to checking the number of likes on your Facebook post, most of us care about what others think. In fact, it’s a trait we’re born with. Scientists found that babies’ emotions are often drawn from the emotions of those around them.
As we get older, we learn to separate our thoughts from those of others, but many of us continue to seek social cues—and this can present problems when it comes to self-esteem. In a survey by Babson College management professor Elizabeth Thornton, 62% of students said their self-worth is strongly tied to what others think.
"We respond to everything we experience through the lens of our mental models, which are deep-rooted ideas and beliefs about the way the world is and how things ought to be," says Thornton, author of The Objective Leader: How to Leverage the Power of Seeing Things as They Are. "One of the prevailing mental models is external validation."
In 1902, social psychologist Charles H. Cooley identified the phenomenon of the "looking-glass self," which he said was when we believe "I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am."
This kind of external validation has insecurity at its core, and Thornton says relying on it for information is very flawed: "We tend to forget that people judge others based on a myriad of influences in their own mind," she says. "Often we are being judged and responded to in ways that have nothing to do with us at all."
For example, someone might assume things about you based on a bad experience they had with someone else who went to the same school, lived in the same city or even had the same first name.
Basing your self-value on what others think also puts you in a perpetual state of vulnerability. "Your self-concept has no true foundation," she says. "If the other person is having a good day and responds to you in a friendly, affirming manner, then you feel good. If not, you wonder what you did wrong."
The challenge is that most of us have never been taught how to value ourselves outside the lens of other people, says Thornton. "Since we were kids, we were only good enough if someone else told us so," says Thornton. "The good news is that we have the capacity to understand our mental models and our self-concepts, identify which ones serve us and transform the mental models that do not."
Before you can move past external validation, April Masini, author of the advice column "Ask April" says you have to determine why it’s important to you.
"Ask yourself what you get when people praise and approve of your behavior, and what you get when they don’t like it and let you know," she says. "People who care too much about what others think are involved in enabling behavior dynamics, where the praise or the disapproval is more important than the actual behavior. When you’re doing things for other people, you’ve lost your moral center. "
In order to stop caring what others think, Thornton and Masini say you must take steps toward objectivity and develop a value system that doesn’t depend on others. Here are four things you can do:
To move past the old mental model, Thornton says you should clearly articulate how your thinking plays out in your life. Think of situations where it gets in their way, and identify the triggers and the regrettable responses it causes.
"Then identify a new behavior or response," she says. "Tell yourself, ‘Instead of responding the old way based on my old mental model, I will respond this new way based on my new way of seeing myself.’ Every time you interrupt your automatic response and respond differently, you are re-wiring your neural net."
Start with 10 things that are important to you when it comes to character, suggests Masini. For example, honesty, respect, hard work and a good attitude may be things that are important to you. Having a list will give you an opportunity to consciously invoke those behaviors in place of doing things simply for external praise, says Masini.
"While it sounds simple, most people don’t take the time to actually name what is important to them," she says.
When you feel the need to set things straight or make yourself heard, stop, says Masini.
"Many times we behave in ways that are reactive, rather than thoughtful and authentic," she says. "Reactive behavior is often not thoughtful, and many times it is behavior that has to do with getting a particular reaction from others instead of what you really intend, deep down.’
If reactive behavior becomes the norm, you’re in trouble, says Masini. "If you aren’t your behavior already, you will become it," she says. "Instead, slow down, don’t react, and make sure that your behavior is conscious and authentic."
To transform your need for external validation, learn to be objective in the moment and not take things personally.
"Tell yourself ‘It’s not about me; there is another way of looking at this,’" suggests Thornton. "If you find yourself getting defensive, tell yourself, ‘Everyone frames their world differently and everyone has their own opinion and perspective, some are valid and useful some are not. Take it as a data point only, not a personal judgment.’"