A few nights ago, I was taking my wife to get a cup of coffee at the local Panera. I was getting ready to turn left into the parking lot, but waiting for the traffic to clear, when I heard a horn honking from behind me.
As I looked in my rear view mirror, I could see a lady in the minivan motioning for me to move into what she obviously thought was a turning lane. It wasn’t. I had a double yellow line, and if I’d moved into the lane she was suggesting, I might have been in the path of oncoming traffic.
I quickly responded by glaring into the rear view mirror and giving this lady my best “Look lady, I’m following the laws of the road. If you don’t like waiting on me to turn, why don’t you just go around?” face. Somehow I don’t think she got the message. She responded with her best “You’re an idiot” face.
This, of course, happened within the span of just a few seconds. Very quickly, the cross lane cleared and I was able to turn into the parking lot and park.
What surprised me was how hard it was to let those few seconds go. What if that lady did think I was an idiot? I thought.
I found myself feeling persecuted. Here I was, trying to drive safely and responsibly, and this lady thought I was unaware and a poor driver. I replayed the driving scenario in my mind—was I in the wrong lane? No. I did the right thing. Yet, I felt upset.
Then I was jolted out of my obsessive thoughts by the sound of my wife trying to carry on a conversation with me. I realized that I wasn’t even really paying attention to the woman I love. My mind was on someone I didn’t even know. I had become absorbed in what someone else thought of me. It didn’t even need to be an important someone.
I should make the point here that this was kind of a rare thing for me. I don’t usually get obsessed with these small things. But for some reason, this silly one stuck with me. It highlighted for me that no matter how much I wish it weren’t so, I place far too high a value on what other people think of me. If someone thinks I’m doing the wrong thing, it can really weigh on me.
Can you relate? Isn’t it a tough feeling to think that someone is looking down at you or thinking you’re stupid?
My daughter is in first grade, and she often brings home classwork for us to see. One page in particular caught my attention. The class was talking about what makes them “wilt” emotionally and what makes them “bloom” emotionally. I thought it was interesting that, as a class, they felt that what made most of them wilt was having people call them names and laugh at them.
I get it. If someone’s disparaging remark or demeanor catches me on the wrong day in the wrong frame of mind, I have the capacity to “wilt” too. So, as I often do on this blog, I’m just forwarding to you my own personal notes from when I lectured myself on how to do better in this area. I decided that I needed a plan to work through this issue, and I came up with four key things I need to remember. I hope they help you too.
1. Embrace the fact that wanting to please people can be a good thing.
Often in my coaching ministry, I’ll be talking with a couple about their differing personalities when one person will admit to being a people pleaser. They’re almost a little bit ashamed to do so, as if wanting others to see them in a good light were a narcissistic thing. It isn’t. It’s a great thing. It means that you are a highly relational person. When we care about other’s perceptions of ourselves, we’re exercising our empathy and self-awareness muscles, and that’s a good thing.
After all, if it were a bad thing, what would be the cure? Would it be better for that person to come into my office a week later and say “I fixed my problem. I’m not a people pleaser anymore. Now I don’t care what anyone thinks. I’ve developed a total disregard for other peoples’ thoughts and feelings.” I can’t think of anything that sounds more anti-relational than that.
Proverbs chapter 22 verse 1 (NLT) says this:
Choose a good reputation over great riches;
being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold.
It is natural, then, to hope that others will see the best in us, and also natural to be bothered when they don’t. There are some times and circumstances where the Bible tells us that pleasing people becomes problematic, but generally they have to do with pleasing people instead of God, or trying to please everybody. John Piper has a great article about the balance between these two ideas here.
There is a balance here. The balance point comes at the point of why. Why do you want to please people? Is it for the sake of having a good reputation, or is it because your self esteem comes primarily from other people’s view of you? Your reputation lies in the hands of other people. They are responsible to parse out your behavior and develop an impression.
Your self-esteem, however, is in your hands (or at least it should be.) While (safe) others should be given permission to impact your self-esteem, the final conclusions you reach about your personal worth should be between you and God.
2. Face the big E
Lions, tigers, embarrassment; oh, my! I suppose it’s time here for a personal admission. I fear embarrassment. I’m working on it… I’d prefer not to, and someday perhaps I’ll kick this fear. But in the mean time, I have to be aware that the idea of looking sheepish in front of other people creates real anxiety for me. I want the world to see me as polished, put together, and competent. I want people around me to think I’m the guy that can fix it, explain it, design it, supervise it, preach it, write it, and win it.
The problem comes, of course, when I prove to myself and others that I can’t do all those things.
I’ve made my peace with the idea of failing. I know that there’s no way I’ll ever be poised for success if I let the fear of failure keep me from trying. But public failure is another thing entirely. It leaves a divot in my pride. And I don’t like that. But I am slowly warming up to the belief that embarrassment isn’t always a bad thing. You see, when my pride is diminished, my humility has a chance to grow. And humility is often the fast-track to lasting success. The Bible even tells us that humility is a way to center ourselves in the path that leads to God’s grace.
James 4:6 (NIV)
But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”
So I guess embarrassment isn’t the end of the world. It could be the beginning of a new opportunity. Being real about our shortcomings inspires confidence and trust among those around us because they know we’re not hiding our failures. It can help others relate to our experience, and it can be a way of keeping our attitudes in check.
3. Push back against the anxiety
In his amazing book “The Good News About Worry,” Dr. William Backus talks about how our thoughts about anxiety can be bracketed by a good understanding of the “fight-or-flight” reflex. This reflex was designed by God to help us deal with things that threaten us. In theory, the body gears up when a threat is perceived to either fight it, or run away from it.
Anxiety, then, is what we experience when something threatens us that can neither be escaped or beaten. This would definitely be true of other peoples’ perception of us. We can’t fight other peoples’ thoughts about us, and we can’t run away from them. In a sense, perception is something we must simply accept.
Here, Jesus’ words really help:
Matthew 6:27 (NLT)
27 Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?
We can’t add a moment to our lives by worrying, and we certainly can change other people’s thoughts. They are what they are. As we said earlier, it’s a good thing that you care about what other people think. If you didn’t, we’d have a whole different problem on our hands. But because you do care, you must be careful not to let empathy turn into obsession. If you find yourself obsessing about what someone else is thinking about you (as I did that evening going to Panera), take a quick self-examination.
Did you do the right thing? Then stop worrying about it. Did you do the wrong thing? Okay, are you going to fix it? Are you resolved to do better in the future? Are you making amends to the best of your ability? Then stop worrying about it. Let them take responsibility for their thoughts. You take responsibility for yours.
4. Let God be your mirror
Our self-worth has to come from somewhere. It would be nice if we could manufacture self-esteem from within, but I think that DIY self-esteem has a very short shelf-life. Our more enduring self-views often come from other people that I call mirrors. They are the people that you pay close attention to for the purpose of knowing how you’re performing. You bask in the glow of their approval and you feel crushed by their disappointment. They are the ruler by which you often judge yourself. I have a few people like this in my life.
There’s nothing wrong with having a few, trustworthy, healthy, human mirrors in your life, but they should never be the primary source of your self-esteem. If we belong to God, then he should be our primary source of evaluation. We should “measure” ourselves by God’s standards, not by our own, or those of someone else.
Romans 12:3 (NLT)
3 Because of the privilege and authority* God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.
I love the above verse because it encourages us to measure ourselves by the “faith God has given us.” This is a statement that encourages us not to be lifted up in pride, because God’s standards tell us that no matter how good we might try to be, we will always fall short of perfect. On the other hand, we should not despair at our mistakes, because God’s grace helps us measure our worth from the viewpoint of a God who loved us enough to send His Son to die for us. In short, it means that while we will fail, God will love us anyway.
Next time someone honks at me for doing the right thing, I’m going to do my best to smile into the rear-view mirror with my best “Thanks for the heads-up, but I think I’m good” face.