Friday, July 1, 2011

Your Opinion of Me is None of My Business

"Your opinion of me is none of my business." --Randy Pausch, "The Last Lecture"

Wow! A commenter shared this quote as a response to Ragan Chastain's powerful post "Who Appoints the Body Judges?"  If you haven't read the post, I recommend it.  Both Ragan's post and Pausch's quote got me thinking.   Because, really, if you sit with this quote, it is a pretty major reversal of how most of us think about the opinions of others. 

It is not an unusual experience for me to be sitting with a client who feels profoundly affected by the opinions of others--and I know that their experiences aren't isolated.  I think we have all felt touched by the opinions of others, both in good ways and in bad.  These others might be family members who told you that you were "disappointing."  The others might be classmates who bullied you in grade school, because you were smart, or tall, or fat, or any-one-of-a-million-ways-you-could-be-different.  The others might be teachers or bosses who did not understand you, or provided you with harsh criticism.  The others may be romantic partners who broke your heart, damaged your trust, or were abusive.    The others may be total strangers who believe that they have the right to insert their opinion about you (your weight, sexual orientation, career choice, parenting choice, etc.) into your life.  The others could be anyone for whom you choose to sacrifice some part of yourself--for a raise, for a relationship, for approval.

All of us have experienced hearing others' opinions about ourselves and our choices.  In fact, it's not unusual for us to give more weight to the opinions of others than we do to our own opinions. Somewhere along the line we have gotten convinced that what others say about us is "objective," while our own experience gets labeled as "biased"--although I have noticed this seems to be more true for negative feedback than for positive.  And so we act as though others' opinion of us is our business--in fact we treat it as the most important business!

Right about now, I can hear someone getting ready to argue with me about this.  To tell me that we have to treat others' opinions as important because we don't live on isolated islands.  Because making a good impression is how we move forward in the world.  Because relationships matter--and so we have to care how and what others think of us.

So let me clarify.  When I am talking about opinions, I am not talking about the moments in relationships where there is feedback about your behavior, or an expression of someone else's emotional experience.  That is communication.  It's critical to all of our relationships, and it doesn't always include universal harmony and agreement.  In fact, as I've discussed in other posts, communication can include some challenging moments.  But opinions are a creature of their own, and they aren't always clearly identified.

Here's what has to say when I ask about "opinion:"

o·pin·ion [uh-pin-yuh-n] 
1. a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.
2.  a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.
The problem that I see is that many of us ignore a few of the key adjectives up there.  We treat others' opinions as though they do have "complete" certainty--and authority.  We forget that the opinions of others are "personal," and treat them as though they are true for our own experience.     
What struck me when I read Pausch's quote is that this is something that is worth a lot more thought.  Think about the last frustrating encounter you had with someone.  How much of what was going on involved that person (or you) acting as though their opinion of you should be your business?  How much was about treating their personal attitude as though it had complete certainty in your life?  How would that encounter have felt if you could have held Pausch's quote in your mind?  Would you have felt less judged?  Carried the hurt or frustration for less time?
Here's where the need for balance comes in.  None of us has all the answers and we don't exist in isolation.  We can benefit from having our own opinions questioned and challenged.  The opinions of others may even provide good insight for us.  But we need to see them for what they are--opinions and not facts.  We need to remove the power, and remind ourselves that we are the only expert on our own experience.   

So, I have a challenge for you.  Some time in the next week, sit down with yourself and identify a place in your life where someone else's opinion has affected your choice, feeling, or behavior.  Ask yourself what your thoughts, feelings and beliefs about that situation are.  And then take action to try to bring your choices and behaviors in line with your own personal beliefs.
I'll be paying attention to this too!