Has anyone ever told you not to care what other people think? Did you think it was a good idea?
My father used to tell me not to care what people thought. In some ways this landed me in good stead. In many other ways it became part of the dysfunctional conditioning that destroyed my emotional wellbeing for years.
I think the idea that I shouldn’t care what people thought about me hurt me because I tried to deny to myself that I did care. When I was about to do something which I knew would be socially disapproved of, it was not so much bravery that brought me to do it but a stubborn refusal to even consider the danger. When they lashed out at me, it hurt more than it should have, because I told myself they shouldn’t lash out at me, that it was wrong. And I ignored the pain rather than processing it, because I told myself I shouldn’t have that pain and therefore it wasn’t there.
I became a catch-22 — I wanted love and approval but told myself I didn’t need it. I tried to get it while also trying to… not try. Two conflicting mental processes that could do nothing against one another.
Eventually, I found better environments to be in and I slowly broke down my walls to other people, learning from them more normal ways of interacting.
I still am quite staunch in trying to live as I want to and not be unduly affected by the opinions of others. But, I don’t pretend I don’t care what others think. I do; everyone does. What people think and say can hurt. I think that’s the most realistic way to see things.
Still, there is a difference between caring what other people think and being controlled by them. Many if not most people have entirely impossible standards to live up to. You have to be heterosexual, not too quirky, get a job, like football (if you’re a man), like fashion (if you’re a woman), be monogamous, be agnostic or religious depending on what your social circle is, be a consumer and not be too passionate about anything (unless it’s football or a few other socially approved things).
What’s more these people tend to abuse their power of social approval to try and get you to fit these moulds.
I call this being “normative” – a word I’ve taken from the queer community, e.g. “hetero-normative” and “cis-normative”.
I think this isn’t okay; I think we need to stand up to these people.
So I think “not caring what other people think” is, even while in some ways impossible, also a very good way of acting in some situations.
Better said, it’s good to minimise the hurt normative people can do to you, and where you are still affected by them, simply act unaffected. If for no other reason, it’s better to smart a little from what someone says and still do what you want to do with your life than to bend to their criticism and become another robot.
However, if you can, go one step further. Act unaffected loudly, publicly. In this way being yourself can be, in itself, a form of activism.
It shows normative people that their attempts at control are ineffective. It inspires others to do the same as you and shows them they’ll have support when they do. And, finally, it shows people that the population of normative or controlling people is one less than they thought.
Eventually, I think, when people are out and public with a non-conformist identity for long enough, that identity becomes normal and less of an object of attack. I hope that eventually people will learn just not to attack what they don’t understand, but till then some more diversity can’t hurt.
As is often the case I’ve been pretty theoretical in this post. Let me get a little more illustrative with this.
When I was in the south of Portugal, a pretty normative place, I had a little fling with a guy who is now my mostly platonic friend. At that time I was still presenting as male.
Neither of us are big fans of hiding our non-conformity, so we held hands quite visibly on the street.
The interesting thing is at one point we passed two guys who we both intuitively saw were a couple. They were walking slowly, in synch, standing closer to each other than usual for two men.
As we passed, flaunting our public displays of affection, their gaze lingered on us, and not in a hostile way. You could just *see* the cogs turning in their heads. I imagine they were thinking, “What if we don’t have to hide anymore?”
When I came out as a male to female transsexual – or rather publicly announced my intention to live as female – I got a lot of feedback. At least one person told me they were inspired to try living as their chosen gender too. Other people said they were inspired by how strong I had been in fighting the tide of normativity. Yet others asked me in private for tips on coming out.
So, seriously. How do you not care what people think?
I think the most powerful thing for me was learning to surround myself with non-normative people.
My problem was not that I found it hard to ignore normativity, but that I found it hard to get the acceptance I so craved because I was so staunch in fighting normativity. Either problem, though, can be solved just by surrounding yourself with people who will accept you with no conditions.
The best place to find these people is through interest groups about an interest which isn’t normative.
Not everyone in such a community is non-normative, but at the very least they pretty much have to be non-normative about the thing the interest group is about. From there, it’s not unlikely they will be non-normative in general.
I also find that the Berlin queer scene is very non-normative, as here it’s rather tied into the left-wing scene in general. In other places LGBT can often be distressingly mainstream, though even then I find it easier than normal to find non-normative people among them.
So go to these places and find friends who don’t put conditions on their acceptance – but who celebrate you for your differences.
Then drop normative friends, perhaps by becoming public with your quirks and letting them excuse themselves from your life. (This doubles as a way of finding non-normative friends).
Remove yourself from normative environments, including normative family, work and school environments. If you live in a deeply normative environment, cutting these ties and dependencies will involve a transition, likely a long one. But it will be worth it. Who wants to be told how to live all their life?
And if you have a normative family (I can count the people I know who have non-normative families on one hand) find close friends – adopted “brothers” and “sisters” – and lovers who can provide the support which a family normally would.
When you have that, I think normativity fazes you much less because you know you don’t depend on the acceptance of normative people. And so then you truly “don’t care what other people think” in the same way.
The occasional negative comment can still get through to you. You won’t be an impervious wall of righteous self confidence. But you’ll get fewer such comments (less normative people will be close enough to make them to you) and such comments will mean less because you don’t depend on normative approval in the same way anymore. At worst, you can resort to the support of your non-normative friends to help you feel stronger, supported and protected.
And don’t forget to examine your own normativity and challenge it. I think few if any people are totally clear of normativity, though some are definitely more than others. Remember that while changing your environment is crucial, you also have to be the change you want to see in the world. If you catch yourself judging someone who is doing no harm*, observe that in yourself and resolve to retrain that habit. Watch out for judgement masquerading as other things such as supposedly well-meaning criticism or healthy aversion. Only by accepting others with all their quirks can we ever hope to live in a world where we are all free to be ourselves.
*I think it also might do us good if we refrained from judgement of people who do harm. But that’s a different post, perhaps.