“You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.” ~ Richard P. Feynman
What would your life be like if you did not care what other people thought of you? If you were completely independent of people’s opinions, good or bad, and would go about your day without so much as a single self-conscious decision. It would be wonderful freedom, of course. You would feel free to do what you wanted, and have a clarity of mind that comes with not being constantly preoccupied with thinking about the judgment of those around you.
Looking at our current state of affairs, it would seem that the culture we humans have created for ourselves is driven by “what other people think,” the tension between the desire for approval and the fear of disapproval. Businesses, families, friendships, sports, politics; everything is, if not completely driven by this tension, at the very least heavily influenced by it.
And this we can see very clearly when looking for it, how much our motivation for doing things arises in the concern for what the world thinks. It is a feeling that your very existence relies on other people’s judgment of you; that you exist only as a mental image in other people’s minds. Which is mostly unconscious, of course, because when we drag it up to the surface and into the light we can see clearly just how insane it really is.
The Ego and Approval
In the world of ego, the promise of approval and the threat of disapproval are commonly used tools that people use to get what they want from each other—or rather a single tool, a double-edged sword where one always follows the other. And you’ve all seen how this works: one person can be said to almost purchase another person with approval, and then attempt to control their behavior with the threat of disapproval.
And the economy of approval is a zero sum game, as per usual with the ego, where some people have a high approval rating and the only way others can get some is by attempting to get the ‘well endowed’ ones to share their lot. And because approval is subject to inflation just like money, those with high approval don’t want to give too much away to those who have little, as that would diminish the purchasing power of their approval.
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” ~ Mark Twain
The insatiable nature of the ego and its constant feeling of insecurity then dictates that it is always trying to secure itself by attempting to gain approval. This can be achieved in different ways. For instance, by disapproving of others, becoming famous, and by forming alliances with others on a similar level of approval as themselves in an attempt to pool their resources and form a collective ego.
These collective egos can then be seen manifest in a group of friends, companies, religious organizations, political parties, and cultural niches. Layers upon layers of these complicated networks, all intended to maintain and drive the game of approval and disapproval — a game that operates on many levels, and that, once you’re on the lookout, can become almost comically transparent at times.
Freedom From The Game
One thing to keep in mind is that when people use disapproval as a tool to either inflate their sense of self or to control others, they may use very subtle and sneaky ways of doing it.
It’s fairly obvious when somebody comes up to you and says “I don’t like you,” but less so when that person takes a disapproving glance at your car, or makes a backhanded critical remark about someone famous that you happen to know or admire. In many cases these are almost like ‘long-term subliminal negative advertising campaigns’, where someone will make repeated but barely perceptible stabs at something you like and identify with.
And there is the key to your freedom. Right there in the words “something you like and identify with.” Because if you didn’t identify with your car, you wouldn’t take it personally if someone were to disapprove of it. If your sense of self weren’t invested in knowing or admiring that famous person, that critical remark would not have anything to do with you personally at all.
Taking things personally is the root of the problem—or rather, the root of the problem is that we are identified with a person; a story-line and a bundle of concepts and associations that we think of as ourselves. Because when we don’t identify with the person (ego), we have transcended the reach of the ego and all of its games altogether.
So, the key to becoming independent of other people’s opinions is simply to let go of the person, and thus cease to take anything personally, whether it is praise or derision. The polarity of approval and disapproval can then no longer affect you, and you are free to observe the game with detachment.
Now, if you don’t feel ready to tackle it on that deepest of levels yet, there are other ways to view it that may be helpful to start off with. In an everyday situation when you need an affirmation of why you can be independent of people’s opinions, saying to yourself that “you are not a person” may not work.
“One of the highest places you can get to is being independent of the good opinions of other people.” ~ Wayne Dyer
It is important to remember that these are just words, and their only real purpose is to point beyond themselves. So instead of using that core-level pointer, let’s put it like this: you simply let go of the polarity of approval and disapproval; nullify the polarity by ascribing the same value to both: value neither approval nor disapproval.
The only reason why you are afraid of other people’s disapproval is that you value their approval, and when you see that their approval is of no value to you whatsoever, the promise of it will not work on you anymore and thus the threat of disapproval will cease to work as well.
The important thing in this is to let go of both sides of the coin, because while there is even the faintest belief in you of the promise of approval, fear will not leave you. And this is the largest and most persistent obstacle you will face in becoming independent of other people’s judgment. Our culture is relentless in feeding to us the promise of approval, and ultimately it is an aspect of the larger promise of the world, the promise of form. As long as you believe that letting go of it is a sacrifice, the attachment remains and with it your vulnerability to its polarities.
To be able to let go of the promise of other people’s approval, we need to see that people’s judgment is fleeting, insubstantial, and very unreliable either way. The reason we’re afraid of the polarity is because we know how unreliable it is, and that approval can become disapproval in an instant. And the delusion that keeps us attached to it even while seeing how unreliable it is, is that we try to convince ourselves that if we just get enough approval, it will finally become secure and permanent.
But you only have to look at some extreme cases to see that even the world’s highest ‘approval rating’ is not beyond the basic laws of the polarity. This can be seen when celebrities fall from grace, like for example in the cases of Tom Cruise, Michael Jackson, and countless others that have experienced the volatility of universal approval — no wonder these people have teams of professionals to maintain their public image!
It is easy to be drawn in by the glamorous images of what it must be like to have that much approval, and celebrity is certainly a favorite fantasy of the ego, but you only need to look past the glossy surface to see that relying on other people’s judgment to that degree is very far from being desirable.
The title of this article is taken from a book of the same name by physicist Richard P. Feynman who was, among other things, known for his colorful approach to living and a joyful disregard of what other people thought of him. And his freedom from the judgment of others is exemplified in the following conversation, taken from the book, when he was awoken by a phone call at 4AM one morning:
“Hey! Why are you bothering me at this time in the morning?”
“I thought you’d like to know that you’ve won the Nobel Prize.”
“Yeah, but I’m sleeping! It would have been better if you had called me in the morning.”—and I hung up.
This was a man who lived a life of creativity, enthusiasm, and spontaneity; blissfully independent of other people’s opinion, good or otherwise. And this is a level of freedom that is available to you right now, if you are willing to let go of the polarity without reservation, and say to the world, in the words of Wayne Dyer, “what you think of me is none of my business.”
Source: the now defunct ‘Everyday Wonderland’, a “weblog on the subject of spiritual awakening, creativity, enthusiasm, inspiration, and generally everything having to do with the higher levels of human consciousness”, as expressed there by an anonymous author. It has been preserved here for your pleasure.