If you start counting the times that you hear other women say, “Oh, but I don’t want other people to think that…” in my experience, you soon run out of numbers to count with. Or you can even count the number of times you think it to yourself without saying it out loud. “Oh, but I don’t want other people to think that… I’m stupid… I’m fat… I’m out of my depth… I’m a bad mother… I’m not experienced enough for this job… I don’t know what I’m talking about… I’m greedy… I’ve got no friends… I’m desperate… I’m getting above myself… I’ve got a big ego… I’m too self-promoting… I’m big-headed…” Basically, insert whatever insult for yourself you’ve dreamt up here. We all have our own different ways to end the sentence, “Oh, but I don’t want other people to think that…”
You get the message. There is no end to the things we don’t want other people to think about us. And not only do we not want them to even think these things, but, also, we want to control the likelihood of them thinking them at all. So, often, we censor ourselves completely from doing the things that might mean other people would think these things in the first place.
So, you don’t say what you wanted to say in a meeting, in case someone else might know more than you. You don’t book the weekend away, because your mother-in-law will raise her eyebrows. You don’t apply for the dream job, because you don’t fit every single last word of the job spec. You don’t ask for the raise, because you already had a small raise two years ago (even though you just found out a colleague is on a lot more than you). And you change out of trousers into a skirt, because the trousers made your thighs look extremely large, indeed. (OK, I don’t know why I’m saying “you” here, because these are my trousers and my thighs. I know you already knew that.)
The moment we think, 'Oh, but I don’t want other people to think that…' is a moment when we are actually trolling ourselves before anyone has even had a chance to say or think anything
The trouble is, we don’t listen to ourselves when we say either out loud or in our heads – “I don’t want other people to think that… (I’m greedy/I’m up myself/I’m too demanding/I’m selfish…)” If we were listening carefully, we would hear the first part of the sentence: “I don’t want other people to think.” Say that again to yourself: “I don’t want other people to think.” How strange is that? We actually harbour a secret wish that other people should have no thoughts whatsoever, that they should not be allowed to think anything. If we could control them, we would want them to think only good things about us. As we can’t control them, we just don’t want them to think at all.
It’s fantastically useful to focus on what a crazy wish this is. None of us can ever stop anyone from thinking anything. They may think all kinds of wonderful and terrible things about us. They may think that finally someone has said what needs saying in those interminable pointless meetings. They may think that you’re brave and assertive to take a break from parenting and that you’re fostering independence in your kids by leaving them for a weekend. They may think that your majestic thighs look bodacious in those jeggings. (They don’t, but let’s go with this anyway, while we’re here.) Or they may think that you are the most terrible person they have ever had the misfortune of encountering. The point is: there is no point in trying to control or influence the thoughts of others, as they are entitled to think what they like. And, actually, their thoughts have very little bearing on us and we often won’t even find out what their thoughts were.
The moment we think, “Oh, but I don’t want other people to think that…” is a moment when we are actually trolling ourselves before anyone has even had a chance to say or think anything. Let us stop inwardly trolling ourselves. Let us stop imagining that we can anticipate, prevent or control the thoughts of others. I am wearing the trousers as I write this.