Friday, March 9, 2018

The Stories People Tell About You

I caught myself the other day in the middle of a chronic nasty habit: pondering imaginary worst endings to some random life scenario.

To be fair, this is a coping mechanism I sometimes use when I am spiraling into anxiety about [insert anything]. If I think things through to the worst-possible-ever ending, the one in which errrything goes terribly wrong, I often find that, in most cases, life would still keep going and the world would still keep turning. If I can picture a bad outcome to a risk, and realize that even if it happened I could survive it, it’s easier to be calm about moving forward.

But that technique aside, I’m talking about the negative edge of this habit of playing make-believe: when you imagine up stories about what people are saying or thinking about you.

e.g. when words come out wrong, or not enough words come out, or way too many words come out, and you fret for the rest of the day about how you could have handled a specific moment more smoothly / suavely / professionally / gracefully / maturely / whatever-ly.

Or something bigger than a stumbly moment — when you’re keenly aware of or paranoid about the things people will think or say about your BIG life choices (who you date, your politics, your religion, your tattoos, your brainwashed liberal California agenda, obviously this is about me, etc.)

It’s the worst feeling to worry about what people are thinking or saying about you. I also think it’s super normal.

How many times, in a given day, do we get caught up in wondering what the people in our lives (or total strangers) think about us? What they say about us? How often do we a) lose sleep / time / energy over these anxieties, or b) hold ourselves back because of it?

For me, a prime example is Facebook: I’ve come to associate a fair amount of dread with posting on Facebook because I immediately start sinking energy into worrying about how people will respond, emotionally prepping to deal with those responses, etc. Truly, social media can be the epitome of “this is why we can’t have nice things.”

To be clear, it’s not all imaginary make-believe baseless worry-warting. (Gross, is “warting” a verb?) Sometimes, these anxieties are rooted in genuinely realistic fear, based on how people have talked to or about us in the past. Other times, people couldn’t actually give a rat’s arse about what we’re doing or saying. Sometimes, they give way too many rat’s arses about it. Somehow, the fear of either scenario can be pretty crippling.

People are going to talk. And they’re going to think. They’re going to form opinions about your life choices and cringeworthiest moments, and they may keep it to themselves or share it with others or even (y tho) share it with you. Ideally they'd focus on writing their own stories instead of contributing to the comment thread of yours, but the world is not always a soft place.

Why do we care?

Honestly, does it matter why we care? If a thing hurts, it hurts. For me, the root of caring what people say / think about my life is based in a need for their approval. It’s generally the people at either end of the good-relationship-with-me spectrum (people I really love, and people I really don’t like), whose opinions end up mattering most.

People I’m attracted to, people I want to be like, people who have voiced opinions about me in the past, people I work with, people I hang out with, people I date or have dated or want to date, people I don’t want to let down, people I want to prove wrong, people I haven’t even met yet who might look me up on the Internet someday………somehow, all these people regularly end up on my list of phantom olympic judges on the sidelines of my life.

So…what’s the advice here?

Maybe I don’t have any strong advice. If I had a tried-and-true remedy for giving up the need for worrying about the things people say and think about me, I’d share it. (I'd also be a mythical unicorn?) Sometimes it helps to simply remind myself that life is short and I can only spend so much time worrying about other people, especially since it's impossible to please everyone. Sometimes it works to ask myself: what would I do if no one else's opinion mattered but my own? And then I try my best to do that thing.

I suppose the overall point of this post, if you can relate to what I’m saying, is that you’re not alone.

Maybe someday I’ll be zen enough to not bother giving a damn about what anyone says or thinks about my life. Maybe you will be too. Or maybe we won't be, but life will still be OK or better-than-OK anyway.

Also, maybe someday I’ll be really good at being gentle with the stories I tell about my own life.

How many authors are bylining the story YOU tell about yourself? More often than not, I hope it’s just you, I hope it’s a good one, and I hope it’s full of forgiveness and grace.


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