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A new year's goal: Letting go of what others think
Why should we care if other people disapprove or disagree with us? Let's take a page from the ancient Cynics and ignore their judgments.
What stressors are bothering you? What could you let go of in 2023?
One of my stressors is what other people think of me. I spend more time than I’d like to admit wondering about how others are judging me. All the people I encounter are potential judges, whether at home, work, with other parents, in my neighborhood, or in my online community—which is the entire world!
My Stoic practice is excellent for considering ways to defeat this way of thinking. Worldly “achievements” racked up to impress others have never meant much to Stoics, and what other people think is not at the top of the list of what we should care about.
This goes against decades of just the opposite way of thinking—cultivated by the society we live in. In particular, many women I know recognize that we have been trained by social pressures to think that we need to be universally liked and constantly seek approval for our behavior.
I would like to let go of this. If some people don’t like me, or don’t approve of me, why should I care?
I realize that as social creatures who evolved to live in groups with social hierarchies, humans may have an inherent fear of others’ judgments. But we can find inspiration for a different way of living by studying the ancient Greeks.
Above all, we should consider the Cynics, philosophers that Zeno learned from before he founded Stoicism, as a student of the Cynic Crates.
The Cynics deliberately exposed themselves to public embarrassment to rid themselves of the need to please others. They worked to inoculate themselves from others’ opinions regularly. The goal was not to focus energy on anything except the virtues and a return to what they saw as nature’s simple gifts.
The famous Greek Cynic Diogenes, who saw his society as corrupt and vicious, took to sleeping in the streets in a large ceramic jar. He had no use for reputation, and he urinated and masturbated publicly. When Alexander the Great—the world’s most celebrated military leader at the time—came to visit him, he told him to move out of his rays of sun.
Later, when Zeno was studying philosophy with Crates (who had himself studied with Diogenes), the older man gave him a potful of lentil soup to carry around. To top off the embarrassment, Crates then cracked the pot, causing Zeno’s legs to be covered with the soup—sparking shame, of which Crates tried to “cure” him through this kind of “exposure therapy.” Zeno ran away, but he must have learned from the experience nevertheless.
Can you imagine anyone you know acting this way? Granted, Plato called Diogenes “a Socrates gone mad.” Most of us could agree that there seems to be something extreme in his behavior, and certainly, no parent who needs to take responsibility for their child should attempt even half of this.
But the point remains. What if we didn’t put energy into how others judge or see us, but instead, into how we cultivate our character and live by the virtues that we put stock in?
Could we try our own sort of exposure therapy, to get ourselves more comfortable with others judging or disagreeing with us, or even disliking our ideas or behaviors? And with being more true to actions and intentions that reflect our core values?
It could mean setting more boundaries. Let’s say someone asks you to volunteer for organizing an event at your kids’ school. Here is a chance to practice saying no and seeing how you feel about it— can you tolerate that feeling of being less likable, less helpful?
Now let’s say your boss asks you to finish a big project by Monday—which would mean you’d have to work all weekend and miss time with your kids. Here’s a chance to ask for a reasonable extension rather than fear for your reputation. Could you request to get it done by Wednesday instead? You’re risking being seen as less than perfect, but you’ve given yourself the time you need.
And what if your child is asking you for a last-minute ride to go to a friend’s place, when you’ve already signed up to go to an exercise class at that time? How about asking them to try to arrange a carpool, if they are old enough, or to consider taking a bus or transport? Suggesting these ideas, if your child is old enough/responsible enough, does not make you a bad mom or dad.
And how about other people—people who maybe look at your appearance or your home or your job or your ideas with suspicion or even outright dislike. Do you know people like this? Does it bother you what they think? It could help to recall the Stoic phrase, “It seemed right to him/her.” People tend to believe their own pre-conceived notions. We can’t control what others think, and for the most part, we can’t change it.
As long as those folks aren’t causing me or others harm, can I tolerate their opprobrium without letting it bother me? Could I keep my head high while I imagine others whispering about me behind my back?
When I think of Diogenes’ outrageous behavior, Crates’ effort to teach with soup, and the (self) respect they cultivated by sticking to their principles, I start to believe that maybe, just maybe, I could.
What about you?
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