The difference between caring for people, and caring what people think about you

Many of us were raised with the idea that caring about people and caring what people think of us are one and the same. And our culture reinforces this nonsense! It’s such dangerous, confusing thinking.

 Let’s clear this up once and for all. 

There is an enormous difference between caring for the well-being of others, and caring about what people think about you. 

Caring about what people think of you means that your actions are directed – either consciously or subconsciously – by a concern for how other people will perceive your actions or public image. 

So often we hear people use the term, “I don’t care.”

I’ve used this phrase so often myself. I still do sometimes. It’s a default defense mechanism to fend off any and all assaults to my autonomy.

But it’s not really true. I do care. A lot. I care about other people’s feelings. I care about other people’s safety. I care about other people’s point-of-view. I honor the space that others take up in the world.

I even care about what other people think about me. I want to be viewed as a person of integrity. I want to be viewed as an authentic person who lives my values out loud. I want to be viewed as a safe, trustworthy person.

When we say “I don’t care,” what do we really mean?

What we really mean is that we don’t want to care whether other people approve of the way we live our lives, as long as we are doing the best we can with the circumstances we’ve been given.

We don’t want to care whether someone doesn’t like the way we dress, the car we drive, the house and neighborhood we live in, who our friends are, how our children behave, what religion we practice, and just generally how we navigate our day-to-day lives.

And we don’t want to care about these things in other people.

Is it possible to not care about these things?

Of course! I know that when my seemingly “perfect” life came crumbling down in my early 30s, I was deeply humbled, and let go of so many of the pretenses and toxic comparisons that I’d carried for so long.

The two and a half years I spent desperately ill with autoimmune disease removed much of what remained of my pretenses. There’s nothing quite like planning your own funeral to really put life in perspective.

My 40s have been a whole other type of liberation from caring what people think about me.

You’d think after all that I’d be about as close as a person could get to truly “not caring” about what people think of me.

And yet…

I still feel self-conscious when someone comes to my house before I’ve had a chance to put away the clutter of life.

I still feel awkward in social gatherings.

I still feel the heat of embarrassment rise when I discover I’ve walked around all day with my pants unzipped.

I still struggle with grace for myself and others.

But overall, these days I’m a pretty chill person. I haven’t always been this way, but the older I get, the more I find myself truly “not caring” so much about what people think. I wonder though, at what point does “not caring” go too far?

I try to be intentional about all the words I use.

I try to choose words that truly describe what I’m thinking and feeling. This is part of living an authentic life and holding myself accountable.

I’ve started checking in with myself when I use the phrase “I don’t care.”

Do I really mean it when I say those words? Do I honestly not care what people think of me, or is it myself I’m trying to convince?

What do my kids hear when I say those words? Do they hear that I don’t care about people, or that I don’t care what people think of me?

How can I set boundaries if I don’t care?

How can I give grace if I don’t care?

I’m not arguing the case for caring what people think about you. But I do think it’s valuable to be aware of what we really mean by the words that we speak, out loud and inside our heads.

The danger of saying, “I don’t care.”

Our brains are very literal. We are wired to pick up on cues. You may be talking about caring what people think, but your brain only hears that you don’t care.

My brain doesn’t hear the specifics. My brain hears that I simply don’t care, which isn’t accurate, and is not the message I want to send out into the world.

So what’s an alternative?

Tell your brain the truth, and speak this truth out loud. Rather than muttering, “I don’t care,” tell someone you trust how you are feeling. We need to honor our own integrity by sending clear messages to our brains.

Here’s what to say instead:

I love myself. I love others. Everyone, including myself, is struggling with something that had nothing to do with anyone else. I honor my own journey. And although I honor the journey of others, I do not need to join everyone. I set a boundary by drawing a safe line around myself.

I hold myself accountable. Do I need to make amends? Is there anything for me to apologize for? If yes, I attempt to initiate a healing conversation. I remind myself that forgiveness and apologies are as much for myself and my own integrity as they are for the other person.

I hold others accountable.* Is there something they should apologize for? I acknowledge that I cannot force other people to be accountable. The only behavior we can control is our own.

*Note that this does not need to be (and often isn’t) a conversation that needs to happen with the other person. This is an internal conversation with myself.

I give grace to myself. Once I’ve done all I could to make it right and learned from the experience, I give myself permission to forgive and move on without guilt, regardless of how others respond.

I give grace to others. We do not know what struggles others are facing.

I honor their journey, but recognize that we are on separate paths, and that is okay. We can go our separate ways in peace.

Truth may be initially harder than “I don’t care.”

Boundaries, Accountability, and Grace requires a lot more time and energy than “I don’t care.” Especially at first. But it’s worth it.

Saying, “I don’t care” when we actually care an awful lot creates cognitive dissonance. We know that our words are inconsistent with the truth. Living with these inconsistencies leaves our hearts and minds feeling unsettled.

It might be harder up front to sit with the discomfort of conflict and hurt feelings. But in the long run, when we process and let go, our brains and souls are free to think and grow without distraction from nagging thoughts and negativity.

There are times that you may truly not care. But the only way to know for sure is to dig in and ask yourself the hard questions.

Let’s talk about it!

Want to keep talking about caring for others versus caring what others think about you? The Redefining Love Community is meeting on this topic via Zoom on Friday, February 18, 2022.

To receive an invite to this FREE online discussion, please sign up HERE:

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