„What would people say?”

„What would people say?”

This is not a question. This is a reproach which we often hear in our childhood and teen-age years. It is equal in power to “Shame on you!”, “You are embarrassing yourself!”, “This behaviour is unacceptable!” This is how we learn the norms of the society we live in, where everybody should feel comfortable. There’s nothing wrong with that. Our parents raised us with similar phrases, and we, in turn, raise our kids with them. The worst comes later, when in our adult years we are capable of giving up our own decisions, our understanding of how life should be, in order to comply with “what people would say”. But other people have their own problems and concerns and are hardly all that interested in what is happening in our lives. Well, sometimes they talk about us as we talk about those around us… but that’s it. What they would say is of no consequence. Dubbing us this and that is for their own use and should not concern us one bit. Of course, there’s always one concerned neighbour who would tell us what others are saying behind our backs, but the biggest mistake would be to accept other people’s opinions of us as an authoritative truth and start doubting the correctness of our own decisions.

The minute we accept that their opinion is more important than ours, we surrender the control over our lives to them. If we start worrying about how we’ve been labeled, we gradually start believing them. We start living according to their rules, ignoring our own impulse and strife for a different way of life, for a different thinking. Their “must” and “must not” becomes more important than our “I want”, “I think this is right”, “I get kicks out of this”, “I can’t do this any longer”, etc.

I know many women who have put off their divorce by 5-10 years, endured many indignities, dissatisfaction, physical and psychological harassment, justifying their masochistic patience with the mantra “What would people say?” Aren’t we talking about those people, who heard the row but did not intervene because they thought it was none of their business? Think how many times you have interfered in a similar situation, unless, of course, the victim started screaming for help…

It is true that we care more about the opinion of our friends, colleagues, and the people from our social status. A stranger would hardly be able to offend us, and even if they do, the unpleasant feeling would not last long, i.e. the label won’t stick. But we want people with whom we communicate on a daily basis to see us in a positive light. And to a certain extent we try to make them like us. This is natural, and there’s nothing wrong with it if we do it effortlessly. If it starts bothering us, and we have to make compromises with our most sacred essence, with our values, with our interests, with our principles, maybe it’s time to look for other companions, who will accept us as we are. We will sure feel much better in our own skins if we don’t have to play roles, be careful what we are saying, and seek by all means to make others like us.

“What will people THINK?” is a more drastic version of this argument. Because if we accept that we can control people’s thoughts (even with relation to what we are doing), then we got born on the wrong planet.
You have the leading role, you are the masters of your own life, others are part of the background. When you are passing by a building or a tree, do you get worried what they think about you? Or what they would say, how they are going to comment you in their own language? Maybe they don’t like the colour combination of your clothes, perhaps they find your skirt a bit too short and your cleavage too deep, to say nothing of the colour and style of your hair…Well, accept people around you as part of the landscape and stop worrying about what they think.

From „The power of labels“

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