Mates, dates, family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues and co-workers, your doctor, your lawyer, your therapist, the clerk at Walgreens, random strangers — whose opinion matters to you? I mean opinions about you. Personal opinions about who you are.
Consider these three sentences: I don’t care what you think. I don’t care what people think. I don’t care what anybody thinks about me!
It’s interesting, from time to time, to examine your life and see where you “sit” in the equations of what folks think about you.
Take infants/toddlers, for example, up until right around age 30 months. Pretty clear to me they have zero investment in what anybody thinks. My sons at this age never once said, “Hey, if you get a minute, my diaper is wet and uncomfortable, and I could do with a bite to eat.” Nope. They cried, wailed, screeched and thus shamelessly reminded me they were the center of the universe and they didn’t give a damn what I thought.
But, then the human ego emerges to consciousness, and children figure out they live amongst giants. It’s no contest. Papa and Mama are bigger, stronger, smarter, more verbal and wield more life experience. Parents have all the power. And children care very much what others think, because what others think can make the difference between living and dying. Between truth and fiction. Between sane and crazy.
Adolescents are quite fond of reminding their parents, “I don’t care what you think!” Indeed, adolescents rehearse this to themselves, peers and anyone who will listen, “I don’t care what anyone thinks!” But it’s a charade. Adolescence is commonly a time of painful self-consciousness and commensurately little self-awareness. A time of great vulnerability to selling one’s soul to be part of the group.
The No. 1 thing, statistically, found in an adolescent suicide note is the breakup of a love relationship. While we adults have the experience to put high school romance in proper perspective, make no mistake, the kids take it very seriously.
In my 20s and 30s, I really leaned into the idea that “I don’t care what anybody thinks.” But, looking back, it was still more a constructed persona and functional ego defense than actual fact. But different from high school. I wasn’t particularly self-conscious. I think I leaned into the “I don’t care” persona because I was fleeing what I thought of me! Trying desperately not to notice the self-doubts, the fears, the insecurities, the dark fantasies. All normal, I see, but in those days I couldn’t bear normal and ordinary. I didn’t believe I could be loved as normal and ordinary.
Middle age is, for me, a great sigh of relief. Because, for most people, certainly for me, life has a way of chipping and hammering away at personas and ego defenses. Sometimes “nuking” them to dust. It’s as if, in spite of ourselves, we finally … relax. We know ourselves. We accept ourselves. And one of the graces of this time is this: At once we notice that we are not obliged to care what just anyone thinks, yet, we are also free to oblige ourselves to care what some people think. And we want to.
A reader writes to tell me what a terrible person I am. His letter is short on argument — which I would enjoy and welcome, perhaps even care about — but big on diatribe. He doesn’t like me. And I notice I read his letter pretty much the same way as I might watch a circus sideshow. Or stare into a petri dish in chemistry class.
Bemused, but not invested. I don’t care. In fact, I find it fascinating that the reader thinks I might care. In middle age, it’s simply joyous to be free.
I care very much what my girlfriend thinks of me. I care very much what my best friend thinks. I care very much what my children think. I’m deeply invested in those opinions.
Think of the people in your life whose abject disappointment in you would tear your heart out. The important thing is to make sure the people on this list deserve to be on the list. And, should you discover people on this list who are undeserving, to promptly disentangle yourself from them. Eject them. Render them irrelevant.
I no longer have any ambition to die having succeeding in actually not caring what anybody thinks. Because I no longer think that would be a good thing.
I think it would mean that I was utterly alone.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at skalas@ reviewjournal.com.