One day when I picked up my then four year old daughter from school, she shouted ‘There’s Luke!’ and ran off in his direction. He was a slightly older boy who used to be in her pre-school class and who had recently gone up to the next year. He was talking to some friends, she tapped him on the back beaming. He carried on talking. She kept tapping, saying ‘Luke’. He turned around. She smiled and said ‘hello!’, he shrugged and turned back to his friend. I wondered how she would handle this, expecting tears, disappointment, embarrassment even. Then she came running back to me still beaming, still brimming over with her usual excitement, energy and love of life. She’d seen someone she liked, done what she wanted, said hello. His reaction didn’t phase her one bit. It was nothing to do with her.
What enormous freedom lies in that attitude: the freedom to remain sure of ourselves, our value and our importance regardless of the reactions of others. And how quickly that disappears. How quickly we start using other people’s reactions, or more accurately what we perceive as other people’s reactions to judge ourselves and our value.
A few years ago, I know what I would have done in a similar situation: thought of a hundred things I had done to cause the ‘rejection’. He doesn’t like me. I’m annoying. I’m wearing these stupid trousers. I am embarrassing him in front of his friends. On and on. Conjecture. Invention. And all about me and my insecurities. Nothing about Luke. Who knows why Luke didn’t say hello? The closest we can get to knowing is to ask him outright. And even then we might not get anything close to the truth. We might not even get to what Luke thinks is the truth.
It seems very natural to judge our own worth according to whether we are popular, accepted, liked, respected or praised. How else do we know if we are good at what we do or if we are a good person to be around? Certainly if you watched 5 minutes of TV at any time you would come away with that impression. The young good looking bloke with his crowd of mates in the beer ads. The beautiful girls with their best friends advertising anything from yoghurt to air freshener. The weekly vote out of the Big Brother house / the jungle / the ice rink / the ballroom. The message is that approval from others is critical and that you can get this by doing the right things, wearing the right clothes, having the right shape, drinking the right drinks, living in the right house, or saying the right things. Via facebook, linkedin and twitter it is not just our actions and thoughts that are held up for others to judge via likes, shares and retweets, but ourselves via the numbers of friends, contacts and followers.
The tabloid media has long played a unique role in the deification and then vilification of individuals. Now with mass global communication creating its own momentum and influencing public opinion on a scale never seen before, people can crash from global hero to villain with the click of a mouse. All of this is creating a culture in which value is judged by an external audience and the belief that there are things outside of ourselves that we can do or acquire to increase our worth.
As someone who has spend her working life in the communications industry, I am obviously never going to say that popularity, acceptance and respect are not useful. If you are respected at work, then doors will open. If people like being around you, you will have more opportunities. If your family enjoy your company, Christmas and Birthdays are far more enjoyable. Anyone who has worked in any sort of organisation will have seen how strong relationships can often be more useful than expertise in getting and keeping a job. It is clear that the more able we are to influence opinion and the more able we are to relate to others, the more opportunities we have. And we can learn how to do this just as we can any other skill.
HOWEVER, the very important point that we seem to be in danger of completely forgetting is: POPULARITY HAS NO RELATION OUR VALUE. What people think of us is irrelevant to our self worth. There is enormous risk to our self esteem and to our well being if we fail to make a crystal clear distinction between what we think of ourselves and what we think other people think of us.
People’s opinions reflect any number of things: their backgrounds, their beliefs, their fears, their desire to follow consensus and avoid ostracism. In 20 plus years working in the communications industry, I have seen over and over again how easily opinion can be changed. Present information in a certain way and you create one reaction. Present it in a slightly different way and you can provoke an entirely different response. This is the premise on which the entire public relations, communication and marketing industry is based. Many experiments have shown the decreasing likelihood of someone sticking to what they know for sure is a correct answer if everyone who goes before them provides an incorrect answer. Marketing research agencies devote themselves to stripping out the various influences to get as close as possible to the real opinion but it is impossible. What people say in a focus group will be heavily influenced by the way the questions are asked, by the views of a strong, vocal person in the group, by what is going on in the world at that time, by the participants’ desire to project a certain image of themselves.
And it is exactly because opinions can so easily be changed that we need to separate the vaguaries and flux of opinion from what should be rooted in stone – our certainty of our own self worth, the sense of our own value, capacity and potential. Why would we give someone that power over us? Should a reaction from someone, anyone, even someone we care deeply about have the power to change our inner world, to affect our sense of self and our belief in who we are? The answer is absolutely, resolutely, not.