A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill Goldson: Why we care what other people think

Why do some of us care what other people think, more than others? Photo / iStock
Why do some of us care what other people think, more than others? Photo / iStock

The vast majority of conversations I have with my clients, and that's hundreds of people every year, involve analysis of what other people think of them. Or what other people think about what they, the client, may be poised to do.

Whether we're talking about their desire to leave their partner, have an affair, or the fact they're facing bankruptcy or redundancy - the perception of those around them is never far from their mind.

We might scoff at those who fear 'what the neighbours think'; dismiss it as a provincial attitude that might vanish with our grandparents' generation. But this is human instinct as old as humankind itself. Embarrassment and shame are emotions that have evolved to keep us socialised: without self awareness,at least a passing concern about what others might think, we would all be sociopathic.

Further to this, maintaining good relationships - of which one element is convincing others you're an okay person - is essential to who we are as a species.

To wit: studies have shown that as many as four out of five processes going on in the background of our brains relates to our relationships with others.

We are hardwired to orient ourselves in the context of other people. Abandonment does not work well for survival.

But - and this 'but' can cause huge mental anguish - what if this need for approval is too high? And how do you know if you suffer from that excessive need? A sure sign is an uncomfortable, and at times debilitating, level of anxiety. This will most often manifest as neediness and insecurity.

If you recognise yourself in this description, it may come as some comfort to know that we underestimate the existence of ego bias. Translation: what matters about you, to someone else, is whatever has most meaning for them, not for you.

Take job applications, for example. When evaluating candidates, average-looking people penalise attractive applicants, while good-looking people don't, because the 'average' ones feel a subconscious "social threat". The lesson here is that judgement is so often about the perceiver, not the perceived.

In the face of potential judgement, what can be done? Balance is key here: if you betray yourself to shape others' perception about you, different sets of problems arise. Our need for authenticity is great and not worth risking. As Bernard Baruch, the esteemed American statesman famously said, "Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."

We need to instead think critically and develop 'creative solutions', much like we might in the workplace. If you consistently receive negative responses, for instance, such as people backing away when you're recounting (what you think are) interesting stories at a party - then there may well be something to be learned from that social response. Hyper-sensitivity to what others think is unhealthy, but we also ignore consistent social messages at our peril.

Which is to say, thoughtful analysis and balance is required. That includes knowing when our fears of judgement are unfounded, or inflated.

Take heart in the consistent expert opinion that the vast majority of consistently overestimate just how much, and how badly, others think of us and our supposed 'failings'. Feelings are very often not facts.

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A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill's fascination for what makes us tick stems from sheer bloody-minded curiosity and a genuine desire to see people live healthy, happy lives. Born in Manchester, the award-winning family and relationship counsellor moved to Auckland when she was nine. Being the middle child of an immigrant family she was neither the oldest nor youngest child, neither a Pom nor a Kiwi. This kicked off a lifelong fascination with how people can make sense of transitions and how uncertainty can be turned into a greater understanding of ourselves and of those who push our buttons. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, and seen her working for the Family Court; in hospitals; universities; aboriginal training programmes, inner London social work practices, and now–her own private practice in Auckland. Whether she's counselling everyday Kiwis, highly paid power couples or the children of Bengali immigrant families, Jill has an inherent ability to tease out what's really going on in people's lives, and strategise to improve the situation, whatever that may be. • Jill Goldson is a Family Dispute Resolution mediator and counsellor, and Director of The Family Matters Centre in Auckland.

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