More often than I’d like to admit, I delete things on social media. And yes, I do the usual, such as Instagrams that were not fire, or typo-filled Tweets, or political comments on Facebook that I quickly decide aren’t worth it. But I also delete other things, things that I like or agree with personally, but which I worry might make certain people judge me, or roll their eyes. In my mind, there is an imaginary jury of people whose approval I crave (mostly people in my own industry, but not exclusively), and often, when I write things publicly, I’m doing so with them in mind. I know that part of this is writing professionally, and knowing that that acceptance or judgment from the media world at large is directly tied to my livelihood. But it’s more than that — it’s social, and it’s often just as petty as if I were worried about what some shiny-haired girl thought of me sweating in gym class.
This happens in my personal life, too, just like it does with everyone (I think? Hope?). I have a few acquaintances, who hover on the border of ‘friend,’ probably, who genuinely make me feel badly about myself. Now, this could be for any number of reasons, and most of them are not “this person is an asshole who does or says shitty things to me.” Hopefully, we all managed to abandon the passive-aggressive frenemies who didn’t want the best for us back in college at the very latest. No, these people are usually in one of three categories: people I envy/feel inferior to, people with whom I have a very superficial (and therefore very empty-feeling) relationship, or people with whom I am always the one to initiate with/reach out to. Some of these dynamics are more my fault than theirs — if someone isn’t reciprocating your efforts, stop making them, and you’ll quickly discover how important that relationship actually is — but I know that their results are all the same: I feel quantifiably worse after spending time with them.
And just like the posts I might delete on social media, because I’m worried that some all-seeing eye of People More Important/Smart Than Me might not approve, these are the people for whom I’ll agonize over an outfit choice, or worry about making dumb jokes with, or berate myself post-hangout for something dumb I said. And of course, the easy solution is to say “Well, stop seeing these people.” But relationships are complicated, especially on the acquaintance level, where everything from work to family to mutual friends to shared history can keep two people at a certain level of contact, even if the relationship itself doesn’t merit that.
I accept fully that part of adulthood means having some relationships that are more surface than others, and that navigating them in a healthy way is my responsibility. I can’t suddenly say “Oh, don’t invite that one guy when the group goes out because he always makes some weird comment about my work that makes me feel like crap.” I can’t say “I don’t want to go to this person’s wedding, because that other person in attendance has my dream career and I feel like a trash monster around her.” I can’t say “I’m going to drop an important work friend altogether just because our non-work talk is stilted.” Life doesn’t work that way, and life is about forming important networks that are about balancing your own needs with the needs of everyone around you, and preserving your own sanity while accepting that someone else might not see things the same way you do.
But I need strategies for preserving that sanity, particularly given my tendency to experience terrible, physical bouts of social anxiety over things that are often unavoidable in life. I need things to do when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the judgment of people I admire, or desire the approval of, or who leave me feeling insecure. I need things to remember when I leave a lunch that makes me feel fake, or like I might not be as good at making conversation as I thought I was. And for me, the rule that has always helped bring me back down to earth and remember what really matters — particularly when it comes to my own self-worth — has been my “One-Hand Rule.”
Put simply, I have forced myself to come up with five fingers’ worth of people whose opinion of me is absolutely essential, not just because I love them dearly, but because I respect and value their judgment. I consider them fair, thoughtful, compassionate, and wonderful people themselves. They are the people whose approval means everything, because their love is unconditional, and while they are not incapable of giving me shit when I need it (a crucial thing, actually), they are also forgiving of superficial flaws. They love me for me, and see me for me, and that means that their reading of me is going to be fair and comprehensive, not depending on some dumb thing I said or did one day.
When I’m in panic mode about what this impressive colleague might think, or what that not-particularly-nice girl at brunch said about me, I run through these five people in my mind. They are family, friends, significant others, but each holds a key to feeling confident and assured in who and what I am. As long as they are happy with me, and see me as the constantly improving, evolving person I strive to be, that is what matters. And if there is some strain or tension, that is the thing I know needs to be resolved right away, because they are too valuable to not dedicate mental health time to, when I’m busy dedicating it to people who don’t matter.
Of course, you might be able to think of more than five people who fit this bill. (Counting family members, most of us can.) But there’s something very helpful, to me, about the simplicity of keeping those five people in mind, and remembering that they are not meant to be your only sources of social confidence, but rather be an accurate and fair assessment of how you’re doing as a friend, family member, spouse, or whatever you happen to be that person. They are shorthand for how trustworthy, kind, funny, open, compassionate, and patient you are. And if you’re doing well with them, you can be pretty sure that you’re doing well overall.
Perhaps your rule will be different, but mine has served as a source of huge relief for me, particularly in a world and a job where my value is constantly up for debate in comments sections or unsolicited opinions. But it’s just as effective for me in the personal as in the professional, and remembering whose opinion really counts has been invaluable to me, in learning that the white noise of others will always be a part of life, but that it is within all of our power to tune it out.
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