The Fear of the Gaze of the Other: Why We Should Stop Caring So Much About What Others Think of Us

The existentialists notably wrote about the fear of the other’s gaze, of being perceived as something other than your ideal. And it’s interesting how much so many of us value others’ opinions of us. Most people have some level of social anxiety, which exists on a continuum of severity, as social rejection and/or exclusion can be deeply painful. Lately, I’ve been wondering why I care so much about the opinions of people whose opinions are often highly irrational.

Our reasoning is often clouded by error, which, almost as often, stems from emotion. Jealousy can affect whether we’re proud of our friends or become resentful of them. Anger can cause us to misperceive treachery where there is none. And fear can make us see danger in a place of relative safety. So many of our judgements and choices are founded in emotion that it’s frequently difficult to accurately assess our reality testing, whether or not our beliefs are based on truth. Yet, most of us think that people are basically rational, that their perceptions of us indicate who we are. And that may be one of the most harmful and personally destructive beliefs about human psychology.

Figuring out what someone is truly thinking and feeling is almost, if not, impossible. For example, it’s difficult to differentiate the objective remarks from those of one’s haters, and that reality isn’t lost on them. They’ll make comments like, “Everyone is just lying to you.” Everyone. Since they’re the objective, rational actors, who have no stake in your well-being, they can afford to be honest. Whereas all of the others feel sorry for you. They’re so good at their craft because they pick up on our need for certainty and persistent self-doubt; they know that we’ll never know. Personally, I’ve devoted a great deal of time to trying to make sense of others’ positive comments with some of the harsh criticism received. But, eventually, I accepted that both versions of reality were equally true.

Since much of the praise sounded sincere and was unsolicited, I almost wholly accepted it. However, what helped me almost as much was understanding the hate. The standards of those individuals were incredibly high and black and white; you could only be considered intelligent, attractive, or good if you were perfect. Their hate wasn’t even conscious, for they truly believe that you aren’t worthy of self-esteem. Sometimes, they don’t believe what they say, but say it to hurt you. At others, they believe it and want to hurt you. But, when almost completely unconscious, they justify their statements as means of providing you aid. And how many times have we tried to “show them,” as though their bars weren’t absurd?

On the other hand, how many times has someone told you how wonderful you were only to then bad-mouth you behind your back? People can also easily fake liking you, or, at the very least, pretend that they aren’t upset with you. And they can also idealize you. In romance, people fall in love with their partner’s perception of them, the gravity of whom they think they are, as often as they fall in love with their partner; who doesn’t want to be seen as amazing? Eventually, however, idealization gives way to nuance, and a more holistic image is formed, and more mature people accept this aspect of love even if they prefer to be perpetually idealized.

The search for approval is inherent to all of us, but the dependence on it, and the terror of rejection, is a form of pathology. Through social media, it’s easy to live and die with each praise and censure, especially since you’ll never know why what’s said is said. In aiding you, I propose that you continually ask yourself who said what and why, and remind yourself that all you’ll ever have is an assumption, one just may be stronger than another based on the evidence. In taking into consideration the praise I’ve received, I remind myself that some came from friends and others from strangers. Some was prompted by me and the rest of it wasn’t. But, the important parts are the threads that run through the compliments, strengthening my belief in each one of them.

Again, you’ll never know for sure what someone else thinks of you, but, in writing this article, my hope is to get you to accept the absurdity of caring so much.

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