Recently I assisted at a workshop designed to help singles gain social skills and connect with each other.
At the end of the evening, an attractive young woman said she is usually shy because she cares too much about what other people think. During some of the workshop exercises, she was able to not care what others thought of her, and found it liberating. She wanted the ability to not care what others think in the rest of her life.
I gently pointed out that while not caring what others think can be liberating, it can also be problematic. Would you really want ignore how your actions affect other people to the point that you hurt or offend them? Or maybe suffer serious consequences, such as getting fired? Probably not.
Do you focus on failure or success, or do you notice both?
“Caring too much” about what others think often means focusing on what doesn’t work, even if it’s 1% of interactions, and ignoring what does work, even when that’s 99% of what you do.
People in the U.S. are taught that they should be “independent” and “autonomous,” which often means not caring what others think. At the same time, we’re supposed to be nice, caring, kind people, treat others well, and conform to social norms. The result is often oscillation between over-concern with others think, and exaggerated lack of concern.
Rather than thinking in digital, black-and-white, all-or-nothing terms — either focusing obsessively on what others think (strong external reference ), or ignoring their responses (strong internal reference) — it’s often more useful to think in analog terms. How much does it benefit you and others to consider other people’s preferences and responses in situation X? What ratio of attention do you want to give what is working (so you can do more of that) vs. what isn’t working (so you can adjust your behavior, if appropriate)?
Some years ago I shifted my own focus from what others thought of me (or rather, what I imagined they thought of me) to noticing how well what I do is working. That greatly improved my comfort in social situations. My social skills got a lot better, too.
For improving your own and your clients’ responses to other people, I recommend Steve Andreas’s excellent book Transforming Your Self: Becoming Who You Want to Be. Written so non-NLPers can use it, the book is loaded with useful distinctions and exercises. You’ll find detailed instructions for adjusting perceptions in ways that will help you and your clients notice and correct behaviors that cause problems with others, while maintaining a strong and appropriate sense of self.