As we struggle through the 21st century and its complicated conditions, we are all subjected to a high volume of well-meaning advice that is, ultimately, utterly useless. All our woes can, apparently, be solved by a slew of platitudes, giving up sugar and turning it off and on again.
However, there’s one piece of pointless advice that I’m resolving to put into practice in 2019: “Stop worrying what other people think of you.” People have often made this suggestion during especially anxious, obsessive periods in my life. It comes from the kindest place, but they might as well be asking me to improvise a song in Mandarin, or to fix a car with a pair of tights. I long for people to like me and, up to a point, my professional survival is contingent on it.
But when we say “people”, who do we mean? Unless we go out of our way to maintain our privacy, most of us are regularly seeking the approval – and risking the disapproval – of the whole world.
As an author and journalist, I sometimes feel uncomfortably and unavoidably exposed. I want to write for a wide audience, and I know that if strangers don’t find anything of merit in my writing, then I won’t be able to earn a living from writing it. This can feel frightening. I believe there are times when this knowledge makes my work sharper, but often, it kills my creative impulses. The harder I work, the more anxious I become about winning the eyes and ears of people I will never meet. Constantly worrying about the opinion of strangers means that I become less excited about trying and more anxious about failing. Unsolicited opinions can be petrol for self-doubt, and the weaker we feel, the harder it becomes not to listen.
I still feel aggrieved about a comment that a strange man made about a cake picture I posted in 2015
I believe one of the best aspects of social media is that it allows creative people to share their work from anywhere. Theoretically, no one needs to wait to be discovered by someone with power. If there is a demand for what you do, you can build a fan base and directly communicate with people who want to support you.
However, there are inherent problems in this system. If we choose to participate – and millions of us do – we are the consumer and the consumed. We can feel a false intimacy with people we will never know and then leave a scathing, loveless review of a family member’s breakfast eggs. Having the same level of digital connection with, theoretically, everyone in the world, has warped our understanding of what it means to be connected. To put it a different way, I still feel aggrieved about a comment that a strange man made about a cake picture I posted in 2015. But I can’t remember any Instagram interactions between my sisters and me.
I should not care what the strange man thinks of me and my cake. But I do care what my sisters think – and I’m not paying enough attention to them. Jenna Kutcher, a photographer and Instagram coach, made an analogy that will stay in my head forever: “Sometimes, social media feels like a dinner party you have invited all of your friends to – then, instead of feeding your friends, being a good host and paying attention to them, you ignore them to stand on your doorstep and yell at strangers to get them to come to the party.” I have been wasting too much energy on winning the approval of strangers, but that doesn’t mean I should eschew the judgement of the people who know me the best and care about me the most.
It’s easy to blame many modern problems on the idea that we spend too much time talking through screens and not enough time being physically present with each other. For example, a 2015 study found that low levels of face-to-face contact could double the risk of mental illness in adults. But my friends and family are scattered all over the country, and I’m delighted to live at a time when our screens allow me to chat to them regularly. Some friends have mobility issues and feel that social media makes them less isolated than they might be.
But the pros of social media are lessened by the fact that we make these loved friends compete with strangers for our attention. It’s easy to discount their advice and opinions, because they are drowned out by the roar of random voices. It’s even easier to make a series of bad decisions, because the disapproval or indifference of internet strangers has made us feel needy and insecure.
We don’t need to care about what everyone thinks. But if there is someone out there who loves us and wants us to be happy and safe, they will always be worth paying attention to. We don’t always need to follow their instructions, but we do need to hear them out.
Being alive during an era of constant communication sometimes makes me feel as though I’m drowning in a sea of sound. The cacophony of voices is so dense and shrill it’s impossible to think clearly. Yet, we all have people in our lives who are trying to cut through that noise in order to issue safety instructions; our life buoys, doing whatever they can to guide us through the dark. We should care about what they think, and listen – because their voices might be the ones that will give us the power and strength to cut through the anxiety and self-doubt, and get back to shore.