In his book ‘Rules for Ageing: Resist Normal Impulses, Live Longer, Attain Perfection’ (1), essayist Roger Rosenblatt, offers the following advice:
“Rule #1: It doesn’t matter
Whatever you think matters–doesn’t. Follow this rule, and it will add decades to your life. It does not matter if you are late, or early; if you are here, or if you are there; if you said it, or did not say it; if you were clever, or if you were stupid; if you are having a bad hair day, or a no hair day; if your boss looks at you cockeyed; if your girlfriend or boyfriend looks at you cockeyed; if you are cockeyed; if you don’t get that promotion, or prize, or house, or if you do. It doesn’t matter.”
This is great advice, as long as you don’t take it too literally. You don’t want go so far in this line of thinking that you loose all sense of meaning and purpose. This is a dangerous form of extreme pessimism known as nihilism that can lead to depression and even an impulse to destroy (2).
In general though, we tend to lean so far the other way that this isn’t really a concern. Most of us tend to heavily overestimate the impact of what we do or how we appear to others, which is why I also like Rosenblatt’s second rule:
“Rule #2: Nobody is thinking about you
Yes, I know, you are certain that your friends are becoming your enemies; that your grocer, garbage man, clergyman, sister-in-law, and your dog are all of the opinion that you have put on weight, that you have lost your touch, that you have lost your mind; furthermore, you are convinced that everyone spends two-thirds of every day commenting on your disintegration, denigrating your work, plotting your assassination. I promise you: Nobody is thinking about you. They are thinking about themselves–just like you.”
This rule even has some scientific back-up. Our tendency to believe that people are paying far more attention to us than they actually are is known, in psychology, as the ’Spotlight Effect’ (3).
It’s also been documented that we overestimate how well others can read our mental state. This cognitive bias is called the ’Illusion of Transparency’ (4) and is part of the reason why public speaking, in the polls, is commonly rated as being far worse than dying (5); believing that everyone in the room is picking up on our nervousness creates a downward spiral of more and more stress which, in the end, leads to a form of self-fulfilling prophecy in which we create the poor performance we have convinced ourselves we’re having.
How to Stop Worrying So Much
The next time you catch yourself being worried about something you did or how other people perceived you, remember that you are very likely making a mountain of a molehill. People pay way less attention than you think, and when they are paying attention it’s usually on their own performance, not yours.
Put everything into the bigger picture and be self-compassionate. Life is hard and you’re going to screw up from time to time.
It doesn’t matter.