When I was young and wore a new dress to school, my mother would almost always ask me when I came home, “And what did the other kids think of your outfit?” Money was a bit tight in our household, so new clothes were a special treat. And sometimes my mother had sewn my new dress herself, so her question made sense in many ways. Even so, I always had the distinct impression that what I thought of my new outfit wasn’t all that counted, and that it was important that other people liked it as well. And I understood that, because like most children, I wanted the approval of my peers, my family, my teachers, and almost everyone else I came into contact with. The problem is, there’s a part of me that still does.
There’s a part of me that still wants to make sure other people approve of me and what I’m doing with my life. Did my latest blog post get enough “likes” on the site itself or on my Facebook page? Will my atheist friends think I’m weird if I admit that I go to church nearly every Sunday? Do people with successful careers look down on me because I’m just a volunteer now? Do the staff at the animal shelter where I volunteer really think I’m helpful, or am I just a giant pain in the butt, too often pointing out problems that need to be fixed? And I’m embarrassed to say, there are still times when I wonder what others think of “my outfit.”
I know I’ve spent far too much time and energy trying to please and win the approval of other people. Sometimes its was necessary, such as when I was working in an office and needed my boss to think highly of me and my work skills. And an essential part of my free-lance writing career was finding out exactly what my editor wanted and making sure that was precisely what I delivered. Back when I was an English major in college, you can bet I paid attention to whatever biases my professors happened to hold and was careful not to challenge them when I wrote my papers. Sometimes, the approval of others is a necessary thing.
But one of the advantages of growing older is that it gradually becomes easier to tune out the values and opinions of other people and to listen to our own inner voices instead. It’s a slow process, and requires almost constant vigilance. There will always be those moments when I find myself caring too much about what others think of me, and have to remind myself that its what I think of me that matters the most.
I want to get to the point where I care very much about other people, but very little about what they happen to think about me. I want to have the courage to do and say what I think is right, even when the people around me disagree. I want to be a able to stand firmly in my own truth and to follow my own moral compass. At 57, I am still very much a work in progress, and I’m sure there will always be a certain distance between the person I want to be and the person I really am. But I’m working hard to close the gap.