They say opinions are like noses -- everyone has one. Whether you like it or not, people have opinions about you. What you do with those opinions is entirely up to you.
Consider a coaching client of mine who had a really tough time dealing with her family's opinion of her over the holidays. On the surface everything looked fine, but she was living in her own personal hell, reliving the drama of her childhood. It seems that her brother's life has been filled with one notable mainstream success after another -- the stuff of which parents are very proud. As his younger sister, my client has lived in his shadow, feeling as though she could never measure up or elicit the level of enthusiastic approval her brother generated from their parents. Now as a grown young woman whose life path is ambiguous compared to her brother's, she is still thrown for a loop when asked "What's new?" or "What are you up to these days?" These seemingly harmless questions evoke a cold sweat and terror for her, and the otherwise confident and delightful person she is becomes flooded with self-rejection, unable to stand in support of herself. The truth is she has a great vision, passion and plans that will take years to develop. She is doing a wonderful job of finding her way off the beaten track of the mainstream to create a new kind of school that will provide a wonderful education, caring community and magnificent opportunities for a largely marginalized segment of our population. But, that is tough to talk about enthusiastically in an elevator speech to people who measure success in terms of concrete recognizable achievements -- or worse yet -- don't even care.
When a situation that is this emotionally juicy comes up in your life, it is a wonderful opportunity to gain some life wisdom. In this particular case, there is much to be learned about dealing with life in a social context where everybody is having opinions about themselves and each other all the time.
Here are the tips I gave my client. Perhaps they will help you or someone you know as well.
Tip #1: Form your own honest opinion about yourself.
If you fall apart for fear of what others will think of you, then your sense of self-worth is contingent on the opinions of others. While your truth may not be very popular, to abandon yourself is the worst possible response you could have. No matter what anyone else thinks of you, no one's opinion of you has more power than your own. If you abandon your own ship at the least suggestion of a negative response from others, you need to be doing some deep inner work to identify your point of vulnerability so you can heal your relationship with yourself. Your attitude toward yourself has the power to define the quality of your inner and outer experiences. So if you are not thinking highly of yourself, get to work on that.
Tip #2: Check out your expectations about other people's opinions of you.
The difference between expectations and reality is a good measurement of the amount of suffering we cause ourselves by holding unrealistic expectations. Do you expect everyone to like you and have a positive opinion of you? If so, you are going to have a lot of unpleasant experiences. It is important to develop tolerance for a variety of reactions to you and what you are doing in your life. If you are walking a mainstream path of success like my client's brother, you are likely to get lots of positive reactions and not have too much trouble in this area. If you know yourself to be a good person, value that knowledge more than the vicissitudes of the opinions of others.
Tip #3: Develop a great elevator speech.
The fact is, polite conversation is not typically all that deep. When someone asks you how or what you are doing, consider the source of the question. Is this someone who really wants to know the depths of your growing edges or are they simply being polite? A good place to start your response is with a terrific elevator speech. In 30 seconds to two minutes, you want to get your point across with confidence and enthusiasm. If your message is "I'm at Harvard Medical School and I love it," you are likely to get a wonderful response from just about anyone. However, if your path, like that of my client, is more of an exploration without having reached a notable destination yet, it might take a bit more effort to develop an effective elevator speech. Play with this and learn to by your own best public relations person.
Tip #4: Remember that most of communication is nonverbal.
If you are falling apart trying to answer the simple question of "How are you doing?" then most likely a major nonverbal communication has already taken place before you even open your mouth to respond. Consider your nonverbal communication in terms of your body posture and gestures, voice tone, eye contact or lack thereof, etc., as well as what feeling you are getting from this other person. Let these clues guide you in your verbal response. If necessary, find a way to make a quick exit and go to the bathroom or somewhere else where you can pull yourself together.
Tip #5: Pay more attention to your inner dialogue and what button in you the other person pushes.
Learn from your own behavior. Play detective within yourself to figure out what your point of vulnerability is and get to work on it. Remember these emotional buttons we have that other people push are simply pointing out to us where we need to do some inner work.
Tip #6: Smile and change the subject when you have said what you want to say.
A nice smile goes a very long way. Learn to be a clever conversationalist so you can steer the conversation away from areas that are difficult for you. Celebrate who you are and don't let others rain on your parade.
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