As a university instructor teaching entrepreneurship, I am always surprised at how even my smallest perceived action can affect a student. For example, last month one of my student teams referenced me in their business plan as an advisor. Since this particular team is quite serious about launching their business, I made a comment in the margins that one should always ask permission before listing a person as an advisor. Then I returned the business plans to the student teams and thought no more of it.
During my next office hours, I was surprised to see one of my quieter students waiting for me outside my door. Nervous and flustered, he asked me to shut the door once I ushered him inside. When I asked what was on his mind, he started apologizing profusely without mentioning what he was apologizing for. I had to ask him a few pointed questions before he revealed that he didn’t mean to upset me by listing my name as an advisor in his team’s plan. Before I could allay his fears and tell him I was not angry, he went on to proclaim it was his mistake, not his teammates’, and to please not be mad at them too for his mistake.
When I finally got a word in edgewise, I told him it was an honest mistake and a good learning opportunity. I eventually convinced him I was not angry, and we talked at length about the challenges of launching the business. He left my office a completely different person: confident and relieved.
In our day-to-day lives, we interact with a wide variety of people. It’s easier (in theory) to understand the motivations and actions of close family and friends because we have interacted with them for a long time. Interactions with others – such as co-workers, acquaintances, and even strangers – aren’t nearly so clear cut.
Unwittingly, we often overlay our own fears and emotions on their actions to bridge the communication gap. A casual comment by the new guy at the office might seem like a personal insult on our lifestyle choices. A smile given by a friend-of-a-friend might appear forced. The lady behind the counter at the grocery store might be glaring at us. However, without knowing more about each individual, it’s impossible to tell what each of these actions might mean. And oftentimes, a comment is just a way to make conversation. A “forced” smile might be the genuine article. And a glare might be a glare, but might be the result of a bad day, not our buying choices.
While it is always possible that the people we interact with on a day-to-day basis are judging us (and finding us wanting), odds are, they’re not. The truth is, most people are living their own lives and worrying about their own problems and concerns. As long as you have not done something completely egregious, the average person isn’t going to give your actions a second thought.
Why is this important? As someone who in the past has been paranoid about how others think of me, I know how easy it is to spend the better part of an afternoon worrying about why the Starbucks barista frowned at me. After having many encounters like the one with my student, I realized how easy it is to overblow another person’s intent out of proportion. This knowledge helped me to let go of a lot of stress in my life.
But let’s say you had an interaction that makes you feel guilty, angry, or another intense emotion. First, if it’s not an important relationship, it’s likely not worth the stress. If the barista continues to be rude or mean, it’s time to change where to get coffee. Problem solved. But if you value the relationship, it’s worth talking to the person at the center of your worry. By coming to visit me in my office hours, my student learned I wasn’t angry, just instructional. If you find over time that most people are surprised by your intense reaction, you can learn to let go more easily. If you’ve never tried this, you will be surprised at how often people will not even realize they upset you.
If, on the other hand, you find that many people are indeed directing their emotions at you, you have several choices. You can look at the behavior that’s causing the reaction and decide if it’s worth altering. For example, I let my toddler run across the seats at a local play area for several sessions before I realized this broke the rules and irritated other parents. I altered our family’s behavior because it was appropriate to do so.
If your behavior is legitimate, then you have also gained knowledge about your current situation. You can decide to “trail blaze” and help make the behavior more acceptable, which can help your whole community. Think about what people like Rosa Parks did for their community by standing up for their actions. Or you can decide whether it’s worth removing yourself from your current situation. If being constantly judged is going to stress you out at work, for example, you may decide to reduce your stress by finding a job with a less judgmental work environment. Either way, you have gained valuable knowledge that you can base your subsequent actions on.
Odds are in your favor that people aren’t judging you. Giving others the benefit of the doubt not only frees you from stress, it frees you from self-doubt and worry. So take heart that it’s not all about you. And that’s a good thing.