This statement's plain common sense brooks no denial. Since you can't control other people's thoughts, and since neither people nor their thoughts are perfect, there's no point in living life based on your fantasies of other people's fantasies about you. Got it? Excellent. I'd stop right now, except for one thing: Emotionally, we nonpsychopaths are built to care what others think of us. It's part of our social-primate biology. Our brains are like those surgical theaters with glassed-in observatories. We operate under the constant scrutiny of an imaginary audience. Sociologists call this audience our "generalized other." Some generalized others give us a daily dose of support and inspiration; some can be witheringly cruel. Sadly, even if yours is flat-out evil, you can't just will yourself to be indifferent to it. Happily, I've found a way to get it out of your mental business.
Your Everybody Committee
Your generalized other is actually based on a mental magnification of just a few people, often the most judgmental people you know. To see what I mean, complete each of the following sentences with the first thing that pops into your mind:
"Everyone wants me to ___________________________."
"Everyone thinks I'm ___________________________."
"Everyone expects me to ___________________________."
"Everyone's always telling me ___________________________."
Now, for each sentence, think of real people who have told you—not indirectly or by implication, but in so many words—that they hold the thoughts and opinions you just listed. These people are part of your generalized other, or as I like to call them, your Everybody Committee. After coaching hundreds of folks through this exercise, I believe most of us have very small committees—often just one individual, almost never more than six. Yet we subconsciously project their opinions onto the entire global population.
Your vague, unconscious guesstimate of your Everybody Committee's opinions affects your every move. When you hate on your hair or dread speaking in public, you're anticipating your committee's judgment. If you wouldn't be caught dead without your Rolex and false eyelashes, it's because that's what your committee approves. If you consider yourself a rebellious nonconformist, you continually refer to your committee so you can be sure to shock them. (Can you say "irony"?)
Most of us assemble our Everybody Committees haphazardly, especially during childhood. We tend to give the best seats to the cruelest people—people who hurt our feelings and undermine our dreams. To avoid attacks from these pernicious trolls, we obsess about living up to their standards. This is a terrible way to live.
What Stinks About Having the Wrong Everybody Committee
I speak from experience. Much of my life has been dominated by Everybody Committees that were totally misaligned with my true self. As a result, I did things that held no joy for me, never felt I was good enough, and believed that if people knew who I really was, they'd hate me. Sound familiar? You, too, may live in fear of being rejected by your Everybody Committee if you set out to live your best life. And you know what? Your fear is well-founded.
Each time I've chosen to live more authentically, I've been roundly rejected by my Everybody Committees. There's my old Religious Committee, who will gladly tell you I'm going straight to hell; the Intellectual Committee, who believe I'm a delusional moron; and the Classy Materialist Committee, who cannot believe I wear a plastic watch from Target in publicity photos. All these folks are still alive and kicking (kicking people who don't share their values), yet every cell of me knows that what they think of me is none of my business.
How can I be so blithe about being judged by people whose judgments I once bowed before? Because I have a new Everybody Committee. Today my mental operating theater is filled with people so kind and caring they make Pollyanna look like a total shrew, but so sharp and funny, they won't let me get away with a minute's whining. Am I the luckiest person on Earth to have such a committee? No. I'm insanely blessed, but luck had nothing to do with it. I installed my awesome Everybody Committee through deliberate, concerted effort. And you can do the same.
Next: How to appoint the right everybody committee
How to Appoint the Right Everybody Committee
1. Figure out which members of your current committee are working against you.
Refer to that list you made above—the negative judgments that haunt you—and write the names of people who've expressed those judgments:
Now write the names of anyone who'd judge you harshly if they knew your darkest secret or your heart's desires or what you look like naked. Do not list groups, only individuals. Dealing with actual data, instead of your generalizations, is the key to making this work.
These people no longer get seats on your Everybody Committee. Mentally hand them their pink slips and explain that you're heading in another direction. Then keep following these instructions, or the nasties won't leave.
2. Choose one "compassionate other" to chair your new committee.
You may already have someone on your Everybody Committee who loves you absolutely unconditionally. If so, that person may remain as chair of your new committee. If you don't know any unconditionally accepting people, you must find one. This person doesn't actually have to be alive. Or even human. If you're stumped, consider these candidates: anyone who treated you with respect and kindness when you were little (a teacher, your nana, Kermit the Frog); any author, blogger, or performer whose work makes you feel understood and encouraged; any nonhuman mammal that loves you (in a pinch, a highly affectionate bird will do); your higher power. But I'm not talking about a crazy-ass God who loves to hand out one-way tickets to hell. I'm talking about a loving presence that wants nothing but your happiness. If your higher power means anything else to you, replace it with a golden retriever.
3. Use "snowball sampling" to round out your committee.
Snowball sampling is what social scientists use to obtain the opposite of a random sample—that is, a group of people who are linked in certain specified ways.
Imagine your new committee chair as a snowball you've packed with your own mittened hands. Now use the snowball to "pick up" additional like-minded souls by mentally rolling it through the people who are near it. Seek out any cousins who loved Nana as much as you did. Chat online with your favorite blogger's fans. Google other parrot owners. Check out congregations that share your spiritual beliefs. Even if it takes a while to connect with these folks, here's the awesome thing: You need only three or four people to create a new Everybody Committee, to convince your irrational, emotional brain that these people represent the whole world.
That is, if you follow the last step.
4. Connect with your new committee members every day for 90 days.
Obviously, I stole this idea from AA. Newly recovering alcoholics are encouraged to attend 90 meetings in 90 days, because this helps remake their social network, changing boozy or abusive Everybodies into people committed to sobriety. It works, people, so take the challenge. Every day for 90 days, spend at least an hour reading, watching, Facebooking, or physically interacting with your new loving, accepting, encouraging Everybody Committee. It'll feel odd at first, but I guarantee it'll grow on you.
Keep the Snowball Rolling
I began my current Everybody Committee with a possibly fictional Chinese philosopher who died 2,500 years ago. For months my committee was composed of dead writers I knew only on paper. But I hung out with them by reading their work every day—I still do—and the more I aligned with their enlightened perspective, the more I found myself connecting to people who are similar to them. That first tiny, deceased committee has snowballed into a passel of beloved friends.
This is what I want you to experience, too. I want you to oust your internal critics, the ones who say you're not good enough, who think you're on the wrong track. I want you to be supervised, all day every day, by people who forgive your errors and believe in your destiny. I hope you try this method of achieving that. And if you think that makes me a bit smarmy or completely insane, go right ahead. That's really none of my business.
Martha Beck's latest book is Finding Your Way in a Wild New World.(Free Press).
More Life Advice from Martha Beck