Caring about what others think

I did something this week that was uncharacteristic of me; I turned down a social invitation even though I had no excuses, and I told the truth why.

A friend of mine had invited a rather large group of women to get together. I didn’t have anything on my calendar at the time, and, as members of my friend’s social circle, the women on the guest list were no doubt interesting, intelligent, and successful people. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t go through with it. (Couldn’t or wouldn’t – the two feel almost the same). I thought about the continuous small talk I’d need to engage in, the repeated explanations of what I do for a living, the awkwardness of sitting alone once small talk exhausts itself and the person has moved on to someone else, or has already found her niche. Not that I am anti-social or always awkward socially, but I’m outgoing and friendly in certain situations, in certain moods, and with certain people. And very likely 10 or even 5 years ago I would’ve put on my networking mask, told myself I needed to get out of my comfort zone, and gone. This time I questioned what was so wrong with being comfortable. And so I turned down the invitation and, instead of offering an excuse, I simply told my friend the truth (tactfully so, of course).

I remember when not caring about what others thought was such an alien concept – a shock that it was even a concept at all. I was 30 when I was introduced to a gentle 43-year-old divorcee on my first day at a new job. After we exchanged hello’s, my boss told me privately that Mina had come a long way since she turned 40 and became single again – better able to hold her own and less anxious about what others thought of her. That evolving to this emotional freedom was even a possibility in a woman who didn’t seem all that different from me was inspiring and hopeful. Emotional independence became a silver lining in the inevitability of one day turning 40: I had something to look forward to.

I’m now there – or here, rather, and I’ve noticed myself indeed drawing the line more and more. Over the years, marking this boundary has evolved from consciously choosing to responding instinctively to a desire to take care of myself. The PTA begging for volunteers, another friend asking for a favor, someone organizing a big party, a client asking for a last minute appointment, acquaintances wishing to get together when we travel. How and when to mark one’s territory is rarely an easy decision, because in some of these situations it’s the choice between being selfless and being selfish. It’s always been hard to make the selfish decision, but I find myself doing it more as I get older.

But it’s not always about sacrificing. Sometimes it’s about what others would think, and a matter of preserving the image that you want to project.  What would others think of you if you acted out of self interest, or chose to reveal the real you? I absolutely knew that I was taking a risk in telling the truth when I turned down the invitation. Though I consider the hostess my friend, our friendship was initially born in the context of a presumably shared professional and social status. I’m aware of the kind of image I should portray – someone confident, someone sociable, someone successful. So why did I risk presenting myself as a socially inept wimp? Because I believed that my friend deserved more than a lie, if even a white lie. Maybe deep down I wanted to “come out,” so to speak, to say, this is the real me. (This is probably why I keep a blog; it’s the one place where I can be authentic.) I’ve also recently come to believe that not liking big crowds is not a weakness; it’s a preference the way I like wine better than beer, or staying in the city over camping in the woods. I have social skills; they just don’t include working crowds of strangers.

Choosing to honor yourself – to not care about what others think – is also about asserting yourself: telling someone that the line starts back there, asking for your money back, telling an acquaintance, friend, or loved one that enough is enough. I think that for many women this strength, if latent before, kicks in during motherhood, when you have no choice but to protect and stick up for your children. I have one clear memory of being on the playground when we first moved back to the States, and Fred and I watched from the swings as a woman I’d never seen before picked up Fred’s bike helmet from the bench and put it over her daughter’s head and strapped it on. We were both incredulous, unsure of what her motive was, and for a couple of minutes I found myself hesitating to go up to the woman. Finally stirred by my 4-year-old’s increasingly insistent cries of “Mommy, it’s not right!” I swallowed my discomfort in confrontation and walked up to the woman. If I can’t do this for myself, I thought, I need to at least do it for my child, to signal to him that he has boundaries to be honored and to model a proper way for standing up for oneself. Assertiveness is not just marking your territory but becoming aware that you actually have a territory to mark, and that territory is defined by respect.

I remember so many women in college and in the years after who seemed to already be at the place that would take me four decades to reach, so it was reassuring when I later came to hear about women who started to come into this emotional independence in middle age. Why so relatively late for some women? For me part of it may be sheer exhaustion from having done so many things at the expense of my own needs and my desire for authenticity. I’m also much more aware of the passing of time now, and I’ve grown more assertive about how I want to spend the time that I do have.  Certainly it’s a greater inner strength that did require all those years to develop. I have a self now that I didn’t when I was younger, and more faith in myself and in others that I will not be chipped away with each no, disapproval and judgment.

How about you? Do you tend to worry about what others think? 

13 thoughts on “Caring about what others think

  1. I love this post, Cecilia. And the weight of that mask (based on expectations of ourselves and equally of others) can be very burdensome – especially when we don’t fit the mold coming out of certain institutions. (I know you know what I mean. Our cultural success factories, if you will.)

    I think these words convey a great deal: “Choosing to honor yourself – to not care about what others think – is also about asserting yourself: telling someone that the line starts back there, asking for your money back, telling an acquaintance, friend, or loved one that enough is enough. I think that for many women this strength, if latent before, kicks in during motherhood, when you have no choice but to protect and stick up for your children.”

    I applaud your speaking honestly and going with what you truly wanted. (We have so little time to ourselves as it is.) I admit, I am better at this in some ways after motherhood and still have difficulty in other ways – no doubt part of why I have isolated myself (or seem to have) in certain social contexts.

    This is an important read for all women. We don’t have to carry the mask. And we can chooses to sit things out if we wish – and can.

    • Thanks so much for all this, D. I do know that you know what I mean, and it’s my hope that more of us from these “cultural success factories” will come out of the closet because I think there are quite a few of us out there. Really, our ultimate power as women is to be able to stand free from ill-fitting expectations, including expectations from our alma matres.

  2. This came at the perfect time, as I spent the weekend in social situations that I wasn’t entirely thrilled to be in (kids’ friends’ birthdays – goodness gracious there are many!) as it required a lot of small talk, and I just sometimes don’t have it in me. I see many moms “bonding” and making new friendships this way, and I often think there must be something wrong with me that I don’t connect so easily like this. In fact, it exhausts me. Yes, I’m an introvert – no surprises there.

    I think I’ve mentioned to you before this clique of moms and families in my neighborhood, and for the sake of being neighborly and for my daughters (who really should belong in a community), I try to blend in with them, only to feel so inauthentic while doing so. I have neighbor friends I love, but two out of the three moved away, and so it seems like I need to make more of an effort with these other families outside our immediate circle, but I feel torn every time I do…Like I don’t belong. How high school huh?

    It’s great to see that you’re at a point where admitting to your own needs and authentic self feels good to you. How I would love that for myself! I wish I could just do that, but that would mean segregating my girls from the fabric of our community. I also wish one didn’t have anything to do with the other…

    • I really do empathize, Justine. That period where your children are still young enough to need to rely on mom for their connection to the outside world can be hard on mom. Looking back it’s a miracle I found a (very) small niche of friends back when my son was a toddler/preschooler in Japan. Before them, it was just me and him on the playground. I would watch with some envy the groups of moms gathered on different spots of the lawn. I had no friends which meant my son had no friends either.

      If it’s any consolation, you’ll steadily graduate from this as your daughters enter elementary school. By now my son has his friends and I have mine, and there is no expectation at all for the parents to be friends. Of course, there’s a loss there as well, because I now need to find more friends!

      It is hard when people you click with move away. I hope that as your daughters’ social circles evolve, you’ll find that mom or two that will fit.

  3. Good for you, Cecilia! Thank you for such a thoughtful post… This life lesson didn’t come to me until I was about 36 or so when I began to realize that I really didn’t HAVE to participate in every single activity/event…the planet would still revolve on its axis, etc. In point of fact, I did participate so much when younger because I truly enjoyed it and could devote that kind of time to 4-H, Cub Scouts, church, school committees/classroom helpers, you name it! However, once I returned to school myself I had to cut back and then I began realizing that I literally was challenged to find time to cultivate and maintain the friendships that were most important to me. I personally believe quantity can dilute the quality of our friendships overall…

    In addition, following my divorce, I “cleaned house” and quit spending time with acquaintances and “friends” who were “downers” and from whom I really gained nothing positive. I no longer had that type of relationship at home and was determined to delete the remainder of such relationships from my social network.

    I don’t think of this self-assertiveness as selfish, but rather as nourishing to my soul, because we each need some private/alone time in our life, too, and feeling obligated to always say “yes” to every invitation prevents those opportunities. I also feel that perhaps this is more common among females than males who seem to have no trouble saying “no.” As long as we’re respectful and compassionate toward others, there is nothing wrong with honoring our own authenticity, in my opinion. So welcome to the world of “older and wiser”!

    • Lynn, I just love all your thoughts and insights and experience here! And especially this: “I no longer had that type of relationship at home and was determined to delete the remainder of such relationships from my social network.” I like the idea of social “spring cleaning” – just removing people that are toxic and who cannot support the kind of peace that you want. When we were younger we would tolerate and bend to accommodate them.

      I also appreciate how you parallel assertiveness with nourishment. That’s exactly what it is. No one else is going to do it, so it is up to us.

      “Older and wiser” – it’s a good place to be! (I’m still working on it 😉

  4. Oh, I love this post and your idea that in many women, motherhood changes how they assert themselves. I agree. I, too, like you and many women did often do things out of a desire to protect an image of the woman I wanted to be. I talked more, attended social events, smiled instead of argued all in an effort to be the woman who was well-liked, seen as easy-going, and an extrovert. I can be an extrovert. I can be well-liked. I can be easy-going. But sometimes, I am not these things…sometimes, I can’t be these things.

    Sometimes to be all of me, I must be okay with possibly appearing rude, selfish, shy, etc. And I am okay with these things. Motherhood exposed me to an audience of my children that I never had before. I became more aware of myself and in needing to speak on behalf of little people, I found more of my voice. I am 30 and am still growing in this new role, and I love it!

    • That is great, Jessica! At risk of sounding corny (because, after all, we are not going to care about what others think ;-)), I think motherhood brings out the real woman in us. Whatever we were before – eager to please, passive, whatever – suddenly we’re entrusted to become life protectors of these little human beings. We can’t do the job if we’re not tough enough.

      You brought up a good point, too, that we can’t be everything, and that that’s okay. I have to say that the recent publicity on being introverted (like the book Quiet and these other posts that are circulating on Facebook) has helped give me courage to be satisfied with my inherently introverted nature; I had otherwise spent a good deal of my young adult life trying to convert.

  5. Thanks for your candid insight. I can totally adhere that this kind of assertiveness comes with age (being only 41, this sounds really old-ish) but it’s so true. At 20 we are so worried about what other think and especially if, like I did, you didn’t feel like a part of the “cool gang”. So you cut back on what you really want (though you don’t really know it then!), you say yes and you go with the flow. All the while loosing yourself in the process. And I think age (*cringe) brought me a kind of a position where I can take a step back, look at what’s coming and say: “No, not really my thing”. Yes, it took a few decades to get there but better late than never, right?
    I like the “we don’t have to carry the mask” in DA Wolf’s comment. We worked on that in my coach training last year: let go of the mask to unveil the princess sleeping in everyone of us. And that’s when true power in the sense of energy, strength etc. kicks in.

    Thanks for putting words on how I feel. 😉

    • I like how you mentioned the “cool gang” – yes, that brings it all back. It is pretty amazing how we are so hollow as people still, at that age, and maybe it is not anything that is wrong with us but simply a process of life. We do need many years in which to develop a strong self. Absolutely better late than never! That is great that you too are at that better place now.

      I’m really glad to know that this post resonated with you. Thanks so much for stopping by and for sharing your thoughts!


  6. Cecilia,

    I loved this post and enjoyed the discussion in the comments.

    I turn 40 this week so the post is very timely for me. You are right. As I inch toward this age, I am more comfortable asserting my opinions and saying “no” to social obligations that do not fulfill me. I am coming to terms with the fact that I do not have to be friends with everyone and that being truly vulnerable requires courage. In the past, I think I may have tried to “fit in” but now I question how an event and interaction will fulfill me. I’ve always been a little different, but now instead of shying away from this, I am embracing it. And not having any regrets about it later.

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