What Will People Think?

Ann and GennyWhen 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.

What Am I?

IMG_1080I have gotten to the point where I just hate labels.  Not the kind of labels we find on our groceries, of course…they keep me from eating too much sodium or trans fat, and that’s a good thing.   I mean the labels that we give ourselves, and worse, the labels we assign to other people.  Maybe it’s because I’m not much of a joiner, and no matter what group of people I’m with, I almost always feel like the “odd one out.”  Or maybe it’s because most of the people I know well are complicated, complex individuals who don’t fit the labels that we toss about so casually.  All I know is that the minute people start assigning labels, to themselves or to others, I get very uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand why people like labels so much.  We want to know something about each other, and being able to identify someone as a “Southerner” or a “Liberal” or a “Protestant” seems as if it would help.  We think it gives us a point of reference, of knowing just how much someone is like us, or even whether or not we think the person is worth bothering to get to know.  Sorting everyone neatly into categories seems like an efficient way to deal with all the people who cross our path, and we know right away who’s “in” and who’s “out.”  What could be simpler?

The trouble is, simple isn’t always good, or accurate.  There are tons of different interpretations of just about every label out there, and it’s a mistake to just assume that our interpretation is the same as someone else’s.  (Personally, I am still completely confused on just what exactly is the difference between a “right-wing dictator” and a “left-wing dictator,” yet we hear those terms all the time as if everyone knows.)  It’s sort of like when we talk to someone from another country and they ask, “What do Americans think about that?”  And the only honest answer I can give is, “That depends on which American you ask.”  We may all live in the same country, but we definitely do not all think alike.

And that, I think, is what I find the most offensive about labels:  the assumption that everyone within that label thinks exactly alike and shares exactly the same values. I don’t want to be “assigned” a to a group that I don’t truly fit in with, and I haven’t yet found a group that I always agree with, on everything.  Or even a group I usually agree with, if I’m totally honest.  And I doubt very seriously that I ever will.

I want the freedom to think for myself, and to draw my own conclusions.  I want to be allowed to have a “conservative” opinion on one issue, and a “liberal” opinion on another.  I want to associate with lots of different kinds of people so that I never stop learning, never stop expanding my personal horizons, and, most importantly, never become complacent in the supposed superiority my own beliefs.  I also want the option of changing my mind, either because I’ve learned new facts or because I’ve simply finally figured out that the way I’ve always thought about something is just plain wrong.

But I know that there are always going to be people who prefer labels, and that there are always going to be people who are eager to stick a label on me.  And when that’s the case, the label I’d prefer is simply “human.”  That one fits me like a glove.

You Can’t Please Everyone…

IMG_0115As we all know, some days are better than others.  Some days flow smoothly, with everything going according to plan, and leaving us feeling competent and content.  Other days are much more trying, hitting us with one unexpected problem after another, each one more urgent and dire than the one before.   We scramble to keep up, to fix everything as quickly as we can, but it feels as if we are trying to bail out a leaking, sinking canoe with nothing more than a thimble.  And just when we think we’ve pulled it off, just when we think we’ve solved all the problems and fixed all the issues, someone is kind enough to point out the one thing we missed, or the one thing we did wrong.   I don’t know about you, but when that happens to me, I don’t handle it well.

My initial reaction is rarely to thank them for pointing out what I missed, or where I messed up.  I’m too busy feeling hurt, angry and defensive.  Don’t they know that I was doing my best?  Don’t they know how hard I was trying to do all that was asked of me, and to make everybody happy?  Why can’t they just say, “Thanks for all you did,” and leave it at that?  Because, darn it all, I really was trying!  And so I rage for a while, thinking of sharp retorts, perhaps venting to a friend or relative, or even (when I’m feeling particularly vulnerable), having a good cry.

Later, when I’ve calmed down, I often wonder why I let myself get so upset by a bit of criticism, especially when I know that it wasn’t intended to be hurtful.  It’s taken more than half of my life, but I think I’ve finally figured out the answer.  I don’t get upset because I think I’m a perfect person who never makes mistakes.  I’m well aware of my lousy memory, how often I make mistakes, and all my other shortcomings.  The reason I get so upset is because I was trying so very hard to please other people, and one of them took the trouble to let me know that I failed.

Which means the real problem isn’t that I make mistakes, or that I can’t fix everything all the time, or that I don’t always reach my goals.  The real problem is that I am putting too much value on what other people think of me and my efforts.  In other words, I’m not focusing on fixing the problems; I’m focusing on pleasing the people who are telling me about the problems instead.  And all too often, that attitude just sets me up for failure.  Seeking validation from others almost always does.

Slowly, very slowly, I’m learning to judge my accomplishments according to my own values, and to stop seeking the constant approval of other people.  Of course it’s nice when someone takes the time to tell me that I’ve done a good job, or to let me know they appreciated my efforts, even when the result was less than what we had hoped for.  But that has got to stop being the measuring stick I use when I determine my own self-worth.

When I know that I have done my best, in any given situation, I need to let that be good enough and be satisfied with my efforts, even when someone else thinks I should have done better.  I am never going to live up to everyone else’s standards, all the time, any more than they are always going to live up to mine. And in the end, it’s what I think of myself that matters the most.