When I was in college, I knew a woman who would say, “I don’t care WHAT people think.” I didn’t believe her. There was something too self-conscious in her assertiveness. She seemed as determined to convince herself as she was to convince me.
In all honesty, I often have that perception when people make this declaration. Only securely isolationist people can afford to truly be unconcerned about the opinions of others. The opposite extreme is the conformist who is governed by them, but most of us are in the middle.
And that is where we belong if we strive to be healthy and happy!
We live in a culture that venerates individualism even more than we prize authenticity, but these values are gifts in the hand of a problem because we also ostracize anyone who is too different. The allowable level of difference varies depending on what sub-culture you are part of (we are all part of several), but you are given greater dispensation if you have some quality to balance against the difference, such as beauty, artistic skill, social status, athletic achievement or wealth.
But to a greater or lesser degree we are all caught between competing personal and social values, between what is important to us and what is important to those around us. It can be hard to be true to oneself without paying a price for being different, but to never do so means that you are pretty self-rejecting and passive.
Some people will buck every social expectation that they don’t fully agree with, and usually end up frustrated, angry and alone. Others put up no resistance and defer to outside approval at the first sign of a clash (even a minor one).
Of course, neither of these alternatives is very desirable. I don’t think you can fight every battle, and I would hate to see you surrender every one as an alternative; so you must choose those battles that are worthy of fighting. How do you do that? Here are a few guidelines:
- Consider that you could be wrong. I say this first because my experience is that when people find themselves at a difference with others, the first response is to feel defensive. The typical situation is the client who gets poor feedback about his or her work, or you find that others think of you as a difficult co-worker. Perhaps your view will turn out to be right, but pretty often you do yourself a favor if you give good consideration to the merits of the other views first.
- Review whether the issue at hand is a real priority for you. There have been times when I have apologized over something that wasn’t my fault, just to smooth the water. Sometimes it isn’t worth it to be right (even if you are)!
- Do a cost/benefit analysis. Maybe you want to express an unpopular view you believe strongly in. But, will you be glad you did if others start to avoid you? Conversely, if you hold back at a team-planning meeting, will you end up resentful when your work is harder because your views weren’t considered?
- Think of all the possible impacts of what you are doing. This should include impacts to yourself, your relationships, your reputation, and your opportunities – but it can’t just be immediate effects. You can start a sequence of events that will come back at you later as well as you can decide to do something that will pay off only in time.
- Don’t compromise your principles unless you have no other choice, and you have made an appropriate protest against doing so. There are some things that are too important to surrender. Your bodily integrity is one, but the things you really believe in are critical. They are what you stand for and the core of who you are. The force that you are up against has to be sufficiently compelling to justify a sacrifice like this. For instance, you may think your idea is of greatest importance, but you don’t want to ruin your marriage. You sacrifice one critical value and priority only to another of greater value.
There are, as in most things in life, no hard and fast rules for knowing when “to hold ’em and when to fold ’em,” but hopefully these few ideas give you something to think about.