My favorite NewYorker cartoon shows a man sitting at a table across from a young woman. The man is dapperly dressed, with swept-back hair and a confident smile. He leans toward the woman, and in the first frame says, “me, me, me.”
Again in the second frame he continues talking, with the caption, “me, me, me.” The third frame repeats this pattern. Finally, in the last frame, he sits back and says to the woman, “Well, that’s enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?”
We laugh at this self-involved man, who only seems to care about himself and how he appears to others, but most of us do care very much what others think of us. We care because in our hearts we have a deep need to belong to a community. This need is built in to our very structure; we crave the warmth and safety of community, and dread the possibility of being abandoned and rejected. Other people’s views of us let us know that we are valued and safe. As demonstrated in the cartoon, though, our care for what others think of us can manifest in unhealthy ways when, often from feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness, and the anxiety that comes from the possibility of loosing security, the need to belong leads to fear: the fear of judgment and rejection, and of the uncertainty that would result should we need to change.
These fears put us in the position of either living our lives as puppets to the perceived opinions of others, or as a drive to dominate others so that we can feel safe. Either way, our relationship with others becomes one of control of controlled - controlled by the perceived opinions of others, or controlling others so that they will think well of us. At the extremes, we can loose our identity in the desire to please or the drive to manipulate.
There are teachings that tell us that we should not care what others think of us; that, according to a popular saying, “What others think of you is none of your business.” At the level of control/controlled this is absolutely true. On the other hand, we do live in relationship to a community, and what others think of us reflects our impact on others, and personal areas that require attention and growth. So, how can we resolve this dilemma? Are our only choices to care what other people think of us and become neurotic worriers, or stop caring and become insensitive and irresponsible? Not exactly wonderful alternatives!
The good news is that these are not our only choices.
As individuals, we can engage in three basic categories of relationships. The first is an internal relationship with ourselves - an I-I relationship. Here, we introspect and look inward so that we can better know ourselves. Meditation practice helps us to grow this relationship. Since this relationship, essentially, is a monologue, it has limitations, though. If we only rely on our interior conscious to guide us, we can develop blind spots (those things that everyone sees in us, to which we seem strangely unaware), and if we truly stopped caring what other people think of us, we can become oblivious to how our actions affect others.
The second type is an I-It relationship. This is the relationship that we have with inanimate objects, but also can be how we relate to others - as objects of our needs. One who cares about the opinions of others out of fear of abandonment is relating in this way; relying on other people in order to feel better about himself and to confirm or reject his worth (me, me, me). Although it seems that I-It is a two-way relationship, like I-I it is also essentially a monologue, since the only feelings that objects have are the ones that we project on them.
The last type or personal relationship is I-You. Here, we engage others as fellow human beings who have the same needs and desires as we do. In this way, instead of looking to others for self-validation, we can create healthy relationships of support and nurturing where we care about what the others think because we value their opinion, and know that their input is for our benefit. This is the only relationship that is truly a dialogue. The great teacher of this type of relationship is the theologian Martin Buber. In 1923 Buber wrote his famous essay, I and Thou. Buber asserts that I-Thou (I prefer the less formal word “You”) relationships happen when people meet without agenda, without pretense, in honesty and authenticity. Buber says that such encounters are powerfully transformational because in those moments of deep connection we experience the Divine in the other. That spark of recognition is God’s presence in the world. At that moment we are quite literally looking at the face of God in the full presence of another human being. Buber writes:
I require a You to become me; becoming me, I say You. All actual life is [this type of] encounter.
In other words, the only way that I can truly know myself is in relationship to another. I am incomplete alone because I need the dynamic of a deep relationship with another to recognize myself as an image of the Divine. In this way, I do care deeply about the regard that others have for me, but not in order to control or be controlled, but so that I can rise to my true, highest self.
Imagine truly living in this consciousness - in the awareness of the Divine in other people and, consequently, in yourself! In this way, you would hold others' opinions of you in high regard, as a vehicle for growth, without fear or rejection. This can be very difficult, even in romantic and family relationships, since we tend to shield ourselves from this level of intimacy and exposure. This type of connection is especially difficult in business, since most of our relationships are transactional, and we naturally tend to fall in to an I-It approach. But a conscious I-You connection will help us to better understand the deeper needs of our family, co-workers, clients, and peers. This is a connection of love, and is the only avenue we can choose if we hope to create a finer world for ourselves and for our children.