How to stop caring what people think: self-esteem for overachievers
BY MORGAN GREENWOOD
LAST UPDATED FEBRUARY 20TH, 2021
For nearly 2 million years, caring what people think was a savvy survival strategy. Piss off the wrong member of your tribe, for example, and, yes, you ran the risk of being kicked out of the cave and into the cold.
Fortunately for us modern-day humans, if someone finds unlikeable, we are less at-risk of becoming a late night wolf snack. Our real problem, is that we’ve yet to shake the primitive brain wiring that tells us that acceptance is essential to, well, life.
A far more likely risk is that we’ve begun to place more value on what others think of us than on what we think about ourselves. Some of us are in so deep, that we’ve begun to confuse 'self-esteem' with 'other-esteem'. This is especially true for overachievers who’ve long been conditioned to contort their hearts and souls to meet - or better yet, exceed! - the expectations of discerning rank-and-file systems.
A lifetime of being held to inflexible standards?
Of being graded?
Of being compared to peers?
Of anxiously awaiting to hear back on whether we’ve earned our way 'in'?
If not shaken, this pressure can cause us to sacrifice not only what makes us stand out, but also what make us happy. In this post, you will learn six tools and one awesome little exercise to help you turn the dial down on your need for acceptance and on your fear of rejection. You can use these tools to grant yourself the freedom to find self-acceptance - and, guess what? You can still have a tribe!
Click on any of the titles in the Table of Contents below to jump to a specific section of the article or, should you prefer the more scenic route, you can read right on through.
Three [100% overcome-able] reasons why overachievers struggle with self-esteem
Overachievers think they have self-esteem, but it’s really this…
Overachievers often mistake self-esteem for self-confidence, but the two are not the same. Let’s shake out these key concepts:
Self-confidence is your belief in your ability to do something, or to accomplish something, or to become something. So, if you have a healthy level of self-confidence, then you believe that you have some degree of control over how your life unfolds.
Self-esteem is NOT about your belief in your abilities, it’s about your belief in your innate worth. If you have a healthy level of self-esteem, then you believe that your needs, wants, and expectations are valid. That your ideas, hopes, dreams, etc. are worthy of pursuit or even sharing with the world. It also means, that although you may be working out some personal growth kinks, you still hold the belief that you are worthy of love and joy just as you are.
And then there is Other-esteem. Other-esteem is how much value you put on what others think about you.
If you have high other-esteem, then you assign significant worth to what others need, want to see, and expect from you, i.e., you care a lot about what people think. Now, let’s consider these concepts from the perspective of an overachiever.
Self-confidence, Self-esteem and Other-esteem: The overachiever's dilemma
Do overachievers typically have high self-confidence?
Yes, overachievers often believe in their abilities to do things, accomplish things, and become things. They have a proven track-record of doing all of that.
Do overachievers typically have high self-esteem?
Not necessarily. High self-confidence does not always translate into high self-esteem. Overachievers often discover the difference between self-confidence and self-esteem the hard way. Let’s say an overachiever loses her prestigious job, makes a public mistake, or doesn’t “come in first”. If, under these circumstances, her sense of self-worth stays relatively intact, then she has high self-confidence and high self-esteem. If her sense of self-worth crumbles along with her achievements, then she may have high self-confidence, but her self-esteem is low. In this case, it’s also likely that her other-esteem is high as well.
Do overachievers typically have high other-esteem?
Yes, overachievers often put a lot of stock into what other people think. More on this in a moment.
Here is why it's so critical to understand these differences: It is nearly impossible to have both high other-esteem and healthy self-esteem.
Why do overachievers care what people think? A tiny, sticky explanation.
From a young age, overachievers often commit to a system that rewards standardization, competition, and perfection.
First place medals. Straight As. Special “lists”. Applause. Terrific! stickers.
These early nods of “official” acceptance trigger the release of feel-good hormones in the brain. Hormones like dopamine and serotonin, which, when released tell the whole body "That was great! We should do that again!" The young achiever feels happy and sees happiness and pride on the faces of the grown-ups in their lives. This is a powerful incentive to do well again. So they do.
Overachievers are able to adapt well - and quickly - to any standard that is defined for them. So well and so quickly that some can enter adulthood with little sense of self at all let alone self-esteem. And, if they are unable to trigger that feel-good approval loop from within, then they will continue to look out. Hence that over-inflated other-esteem.
Where always “Getting it Right” goes wrong: perfectionism and your health
When you have a long-standing track record of getting things ‘right’, getting things ‘wrong’ can create significant discomfort. Critique, even when well-meaning and constructive, can be difficult for the overachiever to process. The pressure of always measuring up – of perfectionism – can actually make the human body extremely uncomfortable. Ill even.
Ana Sandiou – an editor for Medical News Today – explains that studies have linked perfectionism with a range of adverse health effects including “a shorter lifespan, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, eating disorders, depression, and suicidal tendencies.”
Not only does an enduring desire to impress cost us our individuality and our happiness, it might also cost us our health. But, this is all overcome-able. Overachievers CAN put their self-esteem disadvantages in the rear view window. And what they stand to gain is far more valuable than any sticker.
What happens when you stop caring what people think? 4 transformations.
Once you untangle self-esteem from other-esteem, some pretty amazing things will begin to happen. These include:
1. You will look different.
Your newfound self-esteem will give you the permission to wear what you want to wear, to get the cut you’ve always wanted, or to smile like you really mean it. You may take better care of yourself physically. The way you carry yourself will change and, eventually, the calm, easy, soft look of someone who is entirely comfortable in her own skin will be yours.
2. You will start creating.
When you begin to see your thoughts and ideas for the valuable cosmic confetti they are, you will begin to do something with them. To write the song, pick up the pencil to begin the sketch, work through the formula, do the analysis, prototype the product. And you might consider sharing your work with others or you might just do it for yourself.
3. Your relationships won’t be the same.
When you have healthy self-esteem, you can more easily recognize conditional love when you see it. Sadly, you might realize that conditional love is what you have been receiving from parents, siblings, long-time friends, lovers, etc. The good news is, you will now value yourself enough to either speak to them about it or to reallocate your emotional energy into those who love you unconditionally. And, yes. Healthier self-esteem makes it easier to spot those who love you unconditionally as well.
If you embrace your authentic self and start turning up as that everyday, people will reject, people will not like you. But people will also love you, they may be new and different people, but they will love you and most importantly of all, you will love you because you are living your truth.
And speaking of love…
4. You might fall in self-love.
It’s true. Once you realize how goddamn fly you are, you just might fall in love with yourself. Bow-chicka-bow-wow.
6 Practical tools to help build self-esteem
Self-esteem Tool No.1: The quarterly core values review
Keeping a short, up-to-date list of your core values is a simple, but wholly effective tool for building a solid self-esteem foundation. Here’s why:
Something amazing happens when you can clearly, concisely articulate your core values. You will find yourself beginning to live them.
Your thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and decisions will align. And when those cylinders are firing in sync, then you can confidently take your life in whichever direction you'd like…and you won’t care so much about what other people think about it. This is an empowering feeling. A self-empowering feeling.
If a history of people-pleasing has left you confused on what your core values are, we have a self-reflection exercise that will help you give shape to your personal core values. Start by using that exercise to create a draft of core values, then revisit and revise your core values once every three months. This way, your core values list stays up-to-date even as your self-knowledge and self-esteem grows.
Self-esteem Tool No.2: The Approval Autobiography
When there is someone specific in our lives whose acceptance we deem priceless, well, we will pay any price for it. To increase our chances of acceptance, we often adopt the values, beliefs, behaviors and/or “success” standards of the person or people whose approval we seek.
Self-esteem Tool No. 2 is The Approval Autobiography. Creating it involves writing the story of where your need for approval comes from. Making the root(s) of this issue clear to yourself and something that you can see on paper, is a good first step in unearthing those roots and planting healthier ones (your own core values, for example).
Once your Approval Autobiography is written, you can read and re-read it whenever you need. A good time for that would be when you feel the too-familiar pull of the people-please. Or, when you catch yourself about to make a decision that you know is out of step with your core values.
A bit of honest truth about creating this tool – you might have to revisit uncomfortable or even painful parts of your past to write your Approval Autobiography. For example, maybe your approval story is rooted in an experience with a never-present parent, a hard-to-please lover, a demeaning teacher, an overbearing coach, a boss who seems hell-bent on keeping you in your place. Maybe there was a group of kids at school that you would have done anything to be a part of. This can be a difficult exercise. Psychologist and author Dr. Mara Klemich explains why it is worth it: "By identifying where the approval-seeking started, you can identify the types of situations that trigger your need for approval in your current life."
Please note: if you were or are the victim of abuse, this exercise should be done with the help of a trained therapist.
Self-esteem Tool No.3: Making and keeping more promises to yourself
Another effective tool for building self-esteem? Promises.
Making and keeping promises to yourself requires you to peel some focus away from what people think about you and to re-invest it into two better places:
- 1on what you think about yourself and
- 2on working toward who you really want to become
Making promises to yourself is akin to – but not entirely the same – as personal goal setting. The difference is very important, especially for the overachiever. We explain it in much more detail and offer a promise-keeping guide and free downloadable template here. For now, here’s a brief excerpt to help you get the gist:
"In action, self-love is a tricky balancing act of two efforts that seem to be completely at odds with one another. Those two efforts are:
- 1a commitment to personal growth and development
- 2acceptance of yourself just as you are
One of the most actionable, exciting and effective ways to strike a healthy balance between personal growth and self-acceptance is the act of engaging in small, meaningful personal projects. Making progress on these personal projects triggers the reward circuitry in your brain releasing those lovin' feelings induced by endorphins, dopamine and serotonin.
The most fundamental element of these projects is this: they are purely self-initiated. This means, that the positive feedback loop is initiated from within, not from outside approval. Working on these projects will train you mentally, emotionally and physically to understand that you do not need outside approval because you are capable of initiating those warm, fuzzy feelings for yourself."
These personal promises are not (read: cannot) be like traditional goals. They are not explicitly time-bound nor do they produce measurable outcomes. They are able to work their self-acceptance and self-love magic without these conditions.
Self-esteem Tool No.4: The truth about criticism, mistakes and failure
In her pursuit of justice and peace, one of Wonder Woman’s most useful tools was her Lasso of Truth. Self-esteem Tool No.4 is your Lasso of Truth. It is a smart, golden whip that you carry with you always and sling at the feet of the lies you tell yourself about criticism, mistakes and failure.
When to wield your Lasso of Truth? Any time you tell yourself something other than the TRUTH about criticism, mistakes and failure, which is:
Criticism means that you were brave enough to make a statement – with your words, your art, your work, etc.
Mistakes mean you were bold enough to try.
“Failure” means you are that much closer to raging success.
If you are trying to do anything meaningful with your life, then you will be the subject of criticism. You will make mistakes. And you will fail. And when you wake up and rub the praise-seeking, people-pleasing sleep out of your eyes, you will see more clearly that criticism, mistakes and failure are all sure-fire signs that you are growing.
And, the very minute you begin to view criticism, mistakes and failure as promising omens of personal growth, then self-acceptance becomes much, much easier. There are two authors that I think suss up the Lasso of Truth tool beautifully well. The first is best-selling author, Robert Pagliarini:
There are three sure-fire ways to eliminate criticism in your life: be dreadfully normal; do not take any risks whatsoever; and do your best to sacrifice what is special and unique about yourself in order to blend in as much as possible. Pray for criticism. The second-worst thing is getting negative feedback, but the worst thing is being ignored. Jump at the chance to impact the lives of a few rather than being ignored by all.
And the second is author and yoga instructor Mark Stephens:
-YOGA INSTRUCTOR AND AUTHOR-
When we recognize and accept that life is an ongoing process for learning, growing and evolving, we are more inclined to self-acceptance.
Self-esteem Tool No.5: The flow of unconditional love
We mentioned a bit earlier that an improved ability to recognize conditional and unconditional love is one of the life-changing benefits of healthy self-esteem.
A truly enjoyable way to grow your self-esteem to a healthy level – and to keep it there – is to surround yourself with people who love you without condition. Yoga practitioners and followers of Buddhism call this your sangha, or your loving, supportive community. Taylor Swift calls it your “chosen family”.
Whether you come in first or last place, these people will root equally hard for you. Whether you are in your finest dress or stained sweats, these people will point you out as their own. You cannot accomplish your way into the hearts of people like this. But, then again, you don’t need, too.
So, really, this “tool” is a support system. Remember, how we said you can have healthy self-esteem and still belong to a tribe? This is how.
And, as if unconditional love weren’t enough, the added benefit to a group like this is that people who care more about people and less about accomplishments are typically self-assured themselves. Spending time with them can reinforce your new perspective on what self-esteem is. With time, you will become one of these people. And when you do, our sixth and final tool will be easier for you.
Self-esteem Tool No.6: The word "Stop" (as in, being part of the judgment machine)
We are not cannibals in the literal sense, but make no mistake, we do consume one another. We size each other up. For looks. For talent. For wealth. For the ability to get us somewhere by association. For how we worship. For who we love. Without really knowing someone at all, we deem them worthy of our admiration or not. Average or above. Interesting or odd. Acceptable or not. If you’ve been evaluated like this, then you know what a cruel and lazy practice it is.
Everyday, we tear each other up with our judgment. And still, there is good news: once one of us decides to stop, that chain is broken. Forever. It’s over. Just like that.
Self-esteem Tool No.6 is the word “STOP”. It is to be used aloud whenever you catch yourself sizing someone up “for parts”, even if the person you are scrutinizing is yourself.
Proficient use of this tool starts with your refusal to speak negatively of others. When you catch yourself speaking negatively about someone, say it. “STOP.” Here's where something so simple gets tricky:
Often times, we speak negatively about other people when we are with other people. So if this is happening and you catch yourself gossiping within a group, say something like this: “You know, I have to stop myself here. I'm working on saying only positive things about people. Can you all help me? Is it okay if we switch topics?”
After refusing to speak negatively of others, the next level of proficiency with Tool No.6 is to shut down your negative thoughts about others. Again, whenever you catch yourself judging someone – even if the judgment is only taking place in the confines of your own mind – say it out loud: “STOP”. As many times as it takes for it to stick, say “STOP” aloud.
The next level is to refuse to speak and think negatively about yourself. Say “STOP” aloud, over and over, until you do.
You will have mastered this tool when you are able to replace judgmental thoughts with compassionate thoughts. More on this in the future. :)
Once you have successfully rerouted your thought pattern and compassionate thinking and speaking is your new way of life, you will have freed yourself - and everyone you come in contact with - from your judgment.
A place to keep your 6 self-esteem tools organized: The "How to Stop Caring What People Think Blueprint"
A few millennia has all but hard-wired the primitive thought pattern that foregoing who we are is a requirement for survival. But, by rolling up our sleeves and picking up the six tools we’ve outlined above, we can re-build. We can construct thought patterns that serve us better. We can stop caring what people think and free ourselves from the anxiety and soul wilt that comes along with it.
To help you do this, to keep these tools organized and top-of-mind, I created the "How to Stop Caring What People Think Blueprint". It’s a place for you to draft your Approval Autobiography, to brainstorm self-esteem-boosting promises, to inventory your self-acceptance resources, and to challenge yourself on your negative self-talk. Not only will the Blueprint help you get comfortable using these six tools, it will also serve you as visual representation of the support structure that you can rely on to help you remain true to yourself when you feel pulled in a direction that is people-pleasing and/or praise-seeking.
You can get your copy for free, when you enter your details below.
How to stop caring what people think for overachievers: a recap
It might be Dita Von Teese who sums up why you should stop caring what people think best: “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be some who hates peaches.”
A lifetime spent in relentless pursuit of people-pleasing is three things.
- 1exhausting, because it’s a race without a finish line
- 2unfulfilling, because it requires you to box up your uniqueness and put it on a shelf to gather dust
- 3completely unnecessary because there are people EVERYWHERE who love and appreciate peaches that are a little unripe, peaches that are a little tart, peaches with bruises, etc.
You’ve just spent the last ten minutes taking a step toward excusing yourself from a race with no finish line, toward freeing yourself to be yourself. You’ve settled in, focused, and learned six tools that can help you stop caring what people think. And I hope you continue taking steps today, tomorrow and the day after that or even right now .
Now, what if you are ready to stop caring what people think, but you have some honest-to-goodness fears and limiting beliefs that you know you need to overcome before you can start freely self-accepting and self-loving?
For example, what if:
You are ready to tell your mama or your meemaw that they need to stop pressuring you to have grandchildren, but the thought of telling them scares you?
You’d like to try for a promotion, but the new role would require making sales presentations and your knees quiver at the very thought of speaking in front of others?
You want to try your hand at selling your handmade dog bowties, but feel like others might think you are silly or no one will buy them?
These "something scary is holding me back" cases do warrant a little extra help. And you can find it over at our post, Project one fear less: how to build self confidence.
Neon Soul Supply helps readers make meaningful self-discoveries, build self-confidence and find the guts to self-express through a series of semi-guided paper-and-pen based projects and plans. Learn more...
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A final, serious note about acceptance and caring what people think.
This post is not intended to overlook or make light of the ongoing – and inexcusable and infuriating - long, violent history of rejecting human beings based on the color of their skin, how they worship and/or who they love. In many cases, a teenager who tells their parents they are gay is, in fact, kicked out into the cold. In many cases, a young black male is in physical danger because of his appearance. This post acknowledges, but is not equipped to address violent, abusive reactions toward someone trying to be themselves. If you are in a situation where being yourself means you could be at-risk of physical harm or endangerment, please consider these resources:
If you feel you are at-risk of or have been kicked out of your home because of your sexual orientation or gender identity, contact The Trevor Project.
If you are have been or feel physically endangered by someone in your home, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
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Hello! I'm a recovered Type-A+ people-pleaser and praise-seeker. Through Neon Soul Supply Co., I share the same habits, exercises, projects and tools that I used to start self-defining success and happiness so that you can do the same.