Recently I gave a birthday card to a friend which featured an elderly woman wearing stereotypical motorcycle gear including black leather jacket and hat complete with metal studs. The message on the cover was something like “We’re young enough to be rebels” followed by the punch line inside: “but old enough not to give a crap!” We had a good chuckle over this sentiment, but it got me to thinking. How many of us really get to a point where we stop caring what other people think? Of course, there are some of us who have never cared. Personally I admire those free spirits. But most of us have public perception so deeply ingrained in our psyches that it is difficult to avoid dancing through our lives to someone else’s tune. Even if we manage to avoid the trap of wondering “how will this look to others?”, we often create arbitrary standards for ourselves by which we gauge our actions or appearance. We berate ourselves when we fall short and feel pleased when we meet the measurement only to be disappointed when we find it difficult to sustain. We’re all guilty of this at one time or another, myself very much included.
Another friend recently described an incident in which she found herself running through a crowd trying to catch up with a group she was with that had moved on without her. “I was so embarrassed!” she said as she recounted the story. “What if I had tripped and stumbled or fallen?” Thankfully, she didn’t. And she did manage to reunite with her group. But I could not help but wonder why this should be embarrassing. The fact that she could run at all was, to me, something to celebrate rather than something to hide. And even if she had slipped, someone in the crowd would certainly have helped her. In my opinion, the fear of “looking silly” limited her freedom. Instead of enjoying that run, she probably just wanted to get it over with hoping that no one would notice. Our society places a high value on the concept of freedom and yet as individuals we consistently limit our own.
Sometimes the fear of being judged by others can, unfortunately, be justified. It never ceases to amaze me how easily people are willing to condemn perfect strangers based on nothing more than third party hearsay. Judgments can be pronounced without any personal knowledge of the individual being judged or the circumstances that person finds themselves in. Our modern society seems to be particularly segmented these days with people forming like-minded groups and listening only to those that agree with them. Regrettably, this is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on for as long as humans have engaged in social structures. In fact, it may well be the reason we all have built-in judgment meters. Centuries of rules and standards of behavior have been established to mark the differences among tribes. These standards have given people observable methods for determining who is like me (safe) and who is different from me (dangerous). It has been programmed into our DNA to abide by the rules others have laid out.
But I digress. This article is not about the rules societies need to survive and thrive. Instead I’m referring here to those quirky internal rules we think we need to follow that are more related to perception than they are to survival. In fact, rather than contributing to our well-being, these rules can instead be a source of resentment and self-destruction. Still there is an upside. Since we created these rules, we have the power to change them.
Here is something to keep in mind when you’re worrying about how others will view you: most people are so focussed on themselves that they won’t even notice what you’re doing. Which brings me back to my favorite topic: exercise. These ideas, though, can apply to anything done in groups or in public. In general, whatever it is that concerns you, the person next to you is probably worrying about the same thing. Or maybe something completely different, but whatever they are thinking it is probably not about you. The stress you create for yourself by stewing about what you look like is keeping you from paying attention to the movement itself, how it feels and the positive benefits it is providing for you. It also keeps you from experiencing the freedom of customizing the rules and moving in a way that is uniquely your own.
In the days when I was running I knew that my biomechanics and body type would probably never allow me to become a really fast runner. Once when I asked a shoe salesman if he could recommend a style suitable for my foot type and running style he said, “There really isn’t anything. Most people with those characteristics find it too painful to run.” As discouraging as that sounded, it did not keep me from running. I ran for the love of running, not because I ever expected to be any good at it. I learned to do the best I could with what I had to work with regardless of how it looked. When injury and other circumstances meant that I could no longer sustain running, I changed my goals and found other ways to continue moving that have been just as satisfying. Goals are an important motivating force, but all goals need to be flexible. Everything is always changing. Goals and the rules we establish to get to them should always be adaptable to changing circumstances.
One more thing to remember – we are all individuals with our own gifts, characteristics and idiosyncrasies but ultimately we are also interconnected. Despite our fear of “the other”, we all have more in common than we might recognize. Everyone wants to survive; everyone wants to be loved. We all need the basic elements of survival – food, shelter, etc. – and we all want to provide for ourselves, our families and loved ones. Similarly everyone has experienced their own trials, mistakes, regrets or other foibles. No one is exempt, no matter how perfect they appear or how good their lives look to us from the outside. So do your own thing and stop worrying. If you stumble, have some compassion for yourself Pick yourself up and keep moving. The person next to you has had their own stumbles and knows what it feels like.