“What will the neighbors think?”

06 Jun 2011

“How did I learn to care so much what other people think of me, Annie?  And how can I stop?”


Dear Nina,

Let’s see what your question reveals about you.

It shows me that you’re a delightful, caring, warm-hearted, generous-spirited woman.  And you’re a people-pleaser, and a permission seeker; you’re desperate for other people to validate you.

Sadly, the person you most desperately want to validate you, and tell you that you matter, is the person who has the least intention of ever doing so.

How do I know all of this?

In part, because I’ve been there, and I resonate with you.  But, more to the point, I’ve just told you you’re a delightful, caring, warm-hearted, generous-spirited woman, and I bet you didn’t get any great surge of good feelings from hearing it, did you?

Nina, I’m guessing you read that and thought: “Yeah, but…!  Annie can say that but she doesn’t know me.  She can’t see what I’m really like – (only my abusive partner can do that).  She doesn’t know how awful I am, really.”

Really, Nina?  Are you really awful?

Sure, you have your dark thoughts – we all have our dark thoughts.  Especially when we’ve lived with people who definitely walk on the dark side, and we’ve been through dark times.

But that doesn’t make us bad people.

Abused women, as a group, are nice to a fault.

The only people we are ever consistently horrible to are ourselves.

You’d never treat anybody else the way you treat yourself.  There is no way you’d ever visit the daily, even hourly, tongue-lashings, and ego-bashing, on anyone but yourself.  You just wouldn’t.

It’s such a damaging way to live.


But, you tell yourself if only Mr Other People would, finally, mouth the words you so want to hear Everything Would Change.  You’d be able to believe in yourself.

‘Fraid not.

We both know Mr Other People is never going to do that sincerely.  And I’ve already proved to you that when real other people – starting with me – validate the person you are, it just doesn’t register.

So, it really is all about you, isn’t it?

That said, Nina, you ask a good question.  You learned to care so much what other people thought about you, because you were taught to do so.

My mother was a Founding Mother of the “What-Will-The-Neighbors-Think” School of thought – or, more correctly, “The School For Self-Conscious Misery”.

It was a brilliant device for making me feel observed, and judged – negatively, of course – at every moment of the day or night.  She taught me from the time I was knee high to a grasshopper that the role of neighbors was to watch and criticize.

As a reasonably bright child, it didn’t take me too long to realize that if my family watched to criticize (which they did), and neighbors watched to criticize, then that must be what everybody on the planet did.

Unless they were strange.

In my teens I had an Italian teacher who recognized my flair for language, praised me, and took an interest in my welfare.

She had to be strange, I concluded.

I never realized what a hold Mother’s What-Will-The-Neighbors-Think thinking had over me until a few years back.  It was 3 am, my daughter – who was of an age to be out until 3 am, and have a boyfriend – was out, kissing her boyfriend goodnight on the pavement outside our house.  Repeatedly.

I was awake because the two of them had been in and out of the house repeatedly, banging doors behind them.  I peeked out of the window to see what was going on, saw, and was amazed to find myself thinking: “What will the neighbors think?”

“What will the neighbors think?”!!

There was no earthly reason to suppose the Neighbors were even awake, let alone worrying about why my daughter was kissing her boyfriend, repeatedly, outside our front door.

It was just old programming, coming back to haunt me.  (I made a mental note to do some serious work on myself, at a more civilized time of day.)

Nina, your mother may not have trained at the What-Will-The-Neighbors-Think School of Programming, but – I’m guessing – someone close to you taught you much the same syllabus.  They may have attended the What-Will-People-Think Academy, or the Your-Friends-Must-Love-You College, or another similar body that specialized in teaching children Self-Conscious Misery.

You were taught you had to work very hard to gain approval from Other People because, if you did not, they would be sure to find you wanting.

So, how do you stop?

There are just two ways to stop.

The first is to keep telling yourself Other People’s opinions don’t matter.

The trouble with doing that is you may convince your rational mind, but you probably won’t succeed in convincing your feelings.  Chances are your feelings won’t buy it.

The second way is 100% effective: you program yourself to believe, 100%, that your feelings count.

When you truly believe your feelings count, that sense of being at the centre of your own world eclipses Other People’s opinions.  And you’ll find two things happen:

First, there will be occasions when you read their negative judgements – and you will be correct in your assessment but you won’t care. You’ll have glorious Rhett Butler moments, and simply not give a damn.

Second, other people will sense the shift.  They’ll sense that you don’t give a damn.  When that happens the poor, sad Other People, who had nothing better to do with their lives than judge you, will realise they’re wasting their time.  And they will revise their opinion.

They’d never do it if you asked them to.

You’ve never managed to persuade them just by being nice.

But once you change they have to change, too.

So when your whole demeanour says: “Terribly sorry, old chums, but your disapproval is water off a duck’s back”, they’ll get the message, and they’ll start to see you in a more favorable light.

So, the last and best question is: “How do I learn to let my feelings really count for me, and Other People?”

The answer is that that’s the work I do with women through the programs and teleclasses I run.


Oh, and one more thing: caring so much what other people think of you is a thoroughly miserable way to live.  Knowing that you count is delightfully liberating, and opens the way to lightheartedness and laughter.

Clearing the Self-Conscious Misery training means you’ll have to experience much, much more happiness in your daily life.

You will get through this, Nina.  You will come out the other side.  But if you’re struggling, it’s a sign that it’s just too hard for you to do alone. You need help.

Please remember, ‘ the darkest hour is just before dawn’.  My support teleclasses will give you the help, focus and strength you need.



Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

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