When we, as humans, hit adolescence we develop a habit of thought psychologists call the “imaginary audience.” We think people are always watching and judging us. Usually this fades away as we mature, though it may come back at times of stressful transition, like when you have your first kid or go through a divorce.
For some of us, it never leaves. Anxiety puts your brain on high alert for danger, and as social creatures we can end up on high alert for negative social cues to the point where we see them when they aren’t really there. I spent a long time feeling like I was under constant observation. It’s not much of a stretch to say I was paranoid about what people thought of me.
The first step to overcoming caring excessively about what other people think is to separate what you know from what you are imagining. For instance, a friend is uncharacteristically short on the phone. What I used to do was rack my brain for how I offended them. What did I do wrong? And you know what? I’d always find something that I could have done differently.
But they never said I offended them. There could have been a million and two different reasons they were abrupt that had exactly zero to do with me, but that didn’t occur to me. Frankly, anxiety makes you pretty damn self-centered.
The point is—don’t guess. Just stop pretending you can read people’s minds. (Unless you really can; then let’s have lunch!) Let the people in your life be responsible for saying what they mean. The vast majority of the time people are not judging you. And for those few who do spend their time criticizing others, well, they have their own steep path ahead of them.
When I let go of imagining what other people were thinking about me (which took a long time and a lot of reminders that I’m not telepathic), I realized I had been a social golem. I’d been encased in clay that I tried to make look like what I thought people wanted to see. When that clay finally cracked and fell off, piece by piece, then I could finally just be me.
Yoga is about stripping away the layers, the façades our egos build around us. Our egos think they are protecting us. But when they fall away and we are able to just be, then we learn how to care for people instead of caring about what people think of us.
So try it—try not giving a fuck. Let go of all the fucks you give about what people think of you. Try it for a minute, then for half an hour. Discover how much of what you do is influenced by your ideas of what you think people expect of you. Then try it for a day. See how it feels. You might find a little freedom.