How To Cure The 'What Will People Think' Blues

As the saying goes, "In your twenties, you worry about what people think about you. In your thirties you hope people are thinking well of you. In your forties you don't care what people think about you, and in your fifties you realize people aren't thinking about you."

To prove this, I conducted a little unscientific survey. I selected forty names from my address book. My list included friends who I see on a regular basis, friends who live in distant states who are "birthday card" friends, and acquaintances I know because I frequent their establishments or they know my kids. I called each of them and implored each to give no consideration to my personal feelings while answering my survey questions, which were:

1. Have you thought about me today?
2. When was the last time you thought about me?
3. If you thought about me recently, in what context did you think about me?

As expected, hardly anyone had wasted any cerebral energy on me that day. My hairdresser saw my name on her client list for the next afternoon and therefore thought of me for a second and a half. A friend who was unpacking groceries when I called had thought of me because I had given her the recipe that had sent her to the supermarket. I was conspicuously absent from the minds of the other thirty-eight people. They were spending a perfectly enjoyable or a perfectly miserable or a perfectly mundane Karin-free day.

Come to think of it, in the course of any given day I rarely think about anyone but the person or people with whom I reside or with whom I am engaged in conversation. When I am alone I think about what to make for dinner or how to rewrite a particularly awkward sentence or whether or not I am ever going to shed the extra ten pounds I've been toting around for five years.

I have always admired Barbra Streisand. Huge chunks of my adolescence were spent wishing I could be her. It occurs to me now that months go by without my giving her a second thought. I don't think I thought about her once in 2010. I was too busy with my own life to worry about what she was doing with hers. Does she care that I hardly ever think about her? I highly doubt it.

It took me longer than most to stop engaging in the futile "what will people think if I..." exercise. What was I thinking in my twenties and thirties? That people actually cared what I did for a living? That people's perceptions of me were based upon my success in the marketplace? That people would like me better if I were famous? And who were these people?

If you Google "What will people think," you can read through 716,000 results. Fellow Googlers' concerns include: what will people think of a white woman marrying a Vietnamese man, what will people think of me if I'm a Jesus freak, if I had a baby at fifty years old, if I participated in a threesome, if I drive a 1959 Impala, if I got a blue engagement ring, if I bought an older dog instead of a puppy, if I dine alone, if I go to the movies alone, if I stuff my bra, if I use a white cane, if I am bipolar, if my child has a tantrum in the supermarket. There seems to be no end to the list of worries.

Given the ubiquity of the self-help industry, you would think people would have learned by now that worrying what others think stymies creativity, leads to low self-esteem and despondency, and thwarts dreams. There are 334 books on self-esteem listed on amazon.com with titles as intriguing as How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less and What Southern Women Know that Every Woman Should: Timeless Secrets to Get Everything You Want in Love, Life, and Work.

A glimpse at a few online excerpts revealed a single common thread. Don't Worry About What Other People Think! Well, thank you. If only I had known.

One of the people whose opinion I worried about most was Gloria Steinem. Gloria, who managed to be both brilliant and gorgeous, was in her heyday during the second half of my high school and all of my college years. I read everything she wrote. I marched with her (well, I could see her with my binoculars) in Washington DC in support of the equal rights amendment. I cheated on Barbra by putting Gloria on a higher pedestal. Had it not been for Ms. Steinem, I might have pursued a career in teaching or social work. Either would have suited me.

I probably should have been a high school drama teacher. But teaching was traditionally a woman's vocation. I saw the role as a glorified mother. How could I be a groupie for Gloria and remain in a traditional women's job? Gloria would want me to break a barrier. She'd want me to direct a movie or sit in one of those cool leather chairs on wheels in a corporate boardroom. She'd want me to be an astronaut or earn a salary that at least approaches a man's. She wouldn't want me to be tap dancing with a bunch of 14-year-olds in top hats. What would Gloria say about my choosing that for a career?

I know now that Gloria would have said nothing because she doesn't know me or care about me. Even if she did know me and care about me she would have said, "Good for you for doing what you love." Gloria would have said, "The Woman's Movement is about choice. It is not about being a woman in a man's world. It is about making this a people's world."

I was choosing my life's work based on imagined ideas of what a feminist icon would have to say about my decisions. Crazy, right? But I happen to know I have company. A large percentage of our consumer-driven society is dependent on the notion that most people worry about what others think of them. The diet industry, the plastic surgery craze, the fashion and cosmetic multi-billion dollar industries all thrive by making us feel bad about ourselves, by making us worry about what others think of us.

We all care about what people think, but when we squelch our natural inclinations or aptitudes in favor of pursuits we perceive to be widely regarded by the outside world, we do ourselves a disservice, and, ironically, deprive the outside world of our natural gifts... gifts that world may desperately need.

The above is an excerpt from my new book I Thought I'd Be Someone by Now, published by Curtis Brown Digital and available on kindle or in print on amazon.com and available in bookstores in January. Anyone who is beginning a career, or reflecting on one will enjoy it. If you like my blog, please buy my book. Here is the link. Also it would be great if you would like it, review it, and recommend it. Thank you.

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