I often have clients say they wish they could stop caring so much what other people think of them and their bodies/appearance.
It’s a tricky topic, because of course nobody wants to feel held captive by fear and insecurity! But on the other hand, we humans are wired for connection and belonging, so “caring what other people think” is neither vain nor silly– we’re a tribal animal whose very survival was dependent on whether or not we were accepted among our people, so rejection can actually feel dangerous, like a threat to our existence.
This is especially true when you’re in a deficit of connection and belonging in your life overall. After all, when you know you truly “belong,” that there are at least a few people who fully see and accept you for who you are, it’s much easier to let it go when someone rejects you. And likewise, when you don’t feel like you truly belong anywhere, or that nobody fully sees or accepts you, you might end up extremely vulnerable to both the paralyzing fear of rejection, and the desire for everyone to like you.
As you can imagine then, a lot of my work with clients who feel like they “care too much” about what people think of them/their body is to get their needs for connection and belonging met more regularly and deeply.
On top of that baseline however, there are some “tips and tricks” for stripping other people’s opinions (especially about body and appearance) of their power, which I’m going to share with you today.
First of all, it’s important to keep in mind that we each have our own lens through which we see the world, and that each person’s lens is informed by their life experience, biases, learned associations, and attached meaning, etc. Nobody’s opinions are any objectively truer than someone else’s. Just because a lot of people think something doesn’t actually make it true.
But if it’s not objectively true, why would we hold onto it, or spend our lives trying to keep people from thinking it?
Let’s say your body image issues are based on the fear of someone thinking/saying something particular about you, such as “she’s too big” or “he’s lazy” or “they’re gross.” I always ask my clients what would happen if someone said “you’re so gross and lazy” to them directly. Would it be hurtful? Sure. Would it be true? No.
Other people’s opinions are about how they see the world through their own lens, not about you. They can’t make anything be true about you. So why do we work so hard to avoid the possibility that someone might think something about us that isn’t true?
I figure, if someone thinks or says something about your body or appearance, you have three options.
You can decide that you simply disagree with it.
You can decide that you agree with the observation but disagree with the meaning they’ve associated with it.
You can decide that you agree with the observations, and agree with the meaning, and then feel super bad about yourself.
Here’s how this might look. Someone says “you’re getting fat,” with the implied meaning being that this is a very bad thing you would want to avoid at all costs.
Instead of giving the person’s opinion all the power, you decide to first ask yourself if you agree. Are you getting fat? If not, then this comment is completely meaningless and silly. The person was mistaken, as well as very rude.
If however, you agree, and in fact you have gained some weight lately, you can ask yourself if you agree with the implied meaning, that it’s a bad thing to get or be fat, or that gaining weight is shameful, bad, gross and wrong? If not, then the comment again becomes meaningless.
If not, however, you can move on to option #3 and begin feeling bad about yourself immediately.
Notice that you get two chances to disagree here, once with the comment/opinion itself, and once with the meaning or associated bias the person has attached to that comment/opinion.
The key to not giving people’s opinions power over you is to remember that you always have the right to disagree with someone’s opinions.
If one person thinks I look sexy, and I don’t agree, that’s no problem. We can both hold our opinions. Likewise, if someone thinks I look ugly and I don’t agree, that’s not a problem either. We can both have our opinions. I don’t need to change their opinion for mine to be true for me.
This is true whether someone makes an actual comment, or just thinks something judgmental (a major fear for many of my clients).
That said, remember that if someone actually says something rude to you, we have every right to point that out and establish a boundary. No matter what the context, it is always rude to comment on someone’s body, and I’m a big believer in making other people feel the rudeness and discomfort that their comments create, instead of holding all that discomfort inside.
It’s not our job to keep a rude person from feeling rude. They did the rude thing, they should feel uncomfortable, not me.
For example, recently a stranger in a coffee shop made a joke about how I could “get away with” eating the cookie I ordered because I’m “such a skinny mini.” I responded with “so you think only thin people deserve to eat cookies?” I didn’t smile. She laughed nervously. It was extremely uncomfortable. I loved it.
Speak up and let the person know that their comment was inappropriate, hurtful, rude, or unacceptable. Let them know you don’t agree, instead of holding their opinion as if it’s meaningful. Ask them what they meant, and force them to explain or clarify their biases. Set a boundary. Don’t smile.
Note that this article isn’t about “how to stop caring what people think of you/your body,” because that might not be possible. It’s more about how to change your relationship to other people’s opinions– instead of viewing them as facts or instructions for you, let their opinions simply be irrelevant data about the other person.
It’s also important to note that it’s ok for this to be hurtful or uncomfortable– being judged feels bad for the same reason rejection feels bad. But feeling bad is not the same thing as the statement being true, or you needing to do something to fix it.