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Edward T. Welch, M.Div., Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and faculty member at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF). He has counseled for over twenty-five years and is the best-selling author of many books including When People Are Big and God Is Small; Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave; Blame It on the Brain?; Depression: A Stubborn Darkness; Crossroads: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Addiction; Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest; and When I Am Afraid: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Fear and Anxiety. He and his wife Sheri have two married daughters and four grandchildren.
Somebody Is Watching
"Lord, please let me be normal."
Okay, maybe you never actually prayed that, but you do want it. You want to fit in. Who doesn't? Imagine you are invited to a formal dinner, but you didn't read the entire invitation and you go in shorts and flip-flops. (Yes, it wasn't pretty. I was also wearing a Killer Dana T-shirt—it's the name of a surf shop, but the other dinner guests thought I was going gangsta.)
We all have these stories. We spend a lot of time concerned about fitting in, which means that we spend a lot of time thinking about our hair, our body, our intelligence, and our clothes so we can be part of the larger group. None of us want to be stared at if it means that the people looking at us don't like what they see. When they look at us that way we want to run and hide.
Oh, and there is another prayer too. "Lord, please don't let me be normal." "If I can't fit in, then I'll be a vampire," and she did just that. She figured that both fitting in and standing out were impossible, so she made a choice. Her parents would have preferred a more traditional route such as starting on the basketball team or high SAT scores. They are hoping it is a phase, which it is—there are not many fifty-year-old vampires. But, unless she discovers something else to run her life, she will always be looking for ways to stand out, and she will be depressed.
We want to stand out from the crowd. We want to be seen, which means that we want people to notice us and be impressed with something. We want them to respect us, to like us, and to love us. Not too many people dream of being average. Take a look at your fantasies, and you will probably find a quest to be noticed.
Have you ever imagined that you scored the winning basket in the NBA finals?
Do you enjoy superhero movies because you like to imagine what it would be like to have such powers?
Do you identify with a celebrity because you would like to live her life, at least for a year or two?
Have you ever fantasized that you were famous or great?
Or maybe you have already given up on greatness and will settle for a B+.
It's complicated, isn't it? If only we could be less controlled by the opinions of others. Maybe a deserted island could be the answer. That would be a pricey way to avoid the judgments of others, but it might work. Apart from that option, you have a creepy sense that people are watching, judging, evaluating, accepting, or rejecting you. Sometimes the eyes belong to no one in particular. Other times you know exactly who or what group you are trying to please. Either way, you are controlled by other people more than you think, and other people, of course, are controlled by how you see them.
The problem is a common one, but we don't talk about it too often. As a way to get it out into the open, keep trying to locate this in your own life.
Do you buy clothes because of what other people will think? Have you ever not gone somewhere because you didn't have the right clothes or didn't like the way you looked?
Do you spend a lot of time in front of the mirror?
Do you avoid people, either because you are angry with them or because you would be embarrassed if they saw you?
Do you ever get embarrassed to be seen with your parents?
Have you ever been embarrassed at the thought of other people knowing that you go to church?
Have you ever been embarrassed to say you believe in God?
Have you ever been embarrassed to say you believe in Jesus?
Do you ever exaggerate to make yourself look better?
Do you feel like a failure sometimes? Do you hate school because from the moment you walk in you feel like a failure?
Are you afraid to ask questions in class because you might look stupid?
Do you wish you were thinner, stronger, taller, shorter, smarter, faster, or better looking?
Have you ever been jealous of someone thinner, stronger, taller, shorter, smarter, faster, or better looking?
Have you ever wished you could shrivel up and disappear?
Agreed, these questions are too easy. You might hesitate on one or two of them, but basically the answer is yes across the board, and they are that way for everyone. They all point to how we can be too controlled by the opinions of others. Why do you think everyone struggles with it? Where does it come from?
One of the riskiest things in life is to like someone—really like someone.
It all starts innocently. You find yourself attracted to another person. Happens all the time. No big deal. But then the attraction grows, and amid the glow of romantic feelings lurks a monster: what if you like the other person more than the other person likes you? What will he or she think about me? you wonder.
You send some friends out on a reconnaissance mission. Their job is to find out if the other person likes you without that person knowing your intentions. If word comes back yes, you can move toward that person safely. If the answer is no, you lick your wounds, thankful for the heads-up that saved you from total embarrassment. In your everyday life, the potential for rejection is enormous. It's amazing that so many people actually get out of bed in the morning. Sound familiar?
Success can't protect you. Steven King, the ridiculously prolific and famous horror writer, was told by Miss Hisler, his school principal, "What I don't understand, Stevie, is why you write junk like this in the first place." At the time, he was already writing scary stories that other students were willing to pay to read. "I was ashamed," he says of the incident. "I have spent a good many years since—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write." You too have probably heard words like Miss Hisler's, and they are still etched inside your soul. Can you think of some?
Look around a little more and you will see it—it goes by many names: a desire for acceptance, the fear of rejection, painful self-consciousness, or peer pressure. You can see it when you or any of your friends take muscle-enhancing steroids or illegal drugs. You see it in anorexia, bulimia, and depression. You find it in people who are sexually active before or outside of marriage.
What will they think of me?
What might they think about me?
How can I be accepted?
How can I be loved?
The evidence is everywhere. If you can't relate to any of this, here is a sure way to find it.
Do you think you're especially attractive?
Are you supercompetitive? Do you hate to lose? (And do you usually win?)
Would you say you are self-confident?
There it is again: a life that is always judged by others. The only difference is that, at least for the moment, the judges score you highly. Yet it is even more complicated. Deep down those who are super self-confident don't believe the judges' high scores. They feel like failures—frauds who are barely fooling other people. Do you think beautiful celebrities struggle with feeling judged and unaccepted by others? Count on it.
Some people seem more self-confident or at least less self-conscious than others. It's hard to know exactly why, but everyone can easily recall times when they withered under the rejection (or possible rejection) of other people.
I know, I know. You were trying to manage this perfectly common experience by ignoring it, and somebody (me) comes along and makes an issue out of it. But my purpose is not to make you miserable. Stick with it, because this particular problem is actually a window into the mysteries of the universe. It takes you directly to three questions that every human being must answer: Who am I? Who is God? and Who are you? And there is no way I would invite you down this road unless the road was very good.CHAPTER 2
Skip ahead if you want, but it might be worth your time to take a few more minutes to identify how we can be ruled by the question, What will you think about me?
Here's an interesting one. Did you know that there is a repeating theme in artwork around the world? It is also common in scary movies, hallucinations, and dreams. Eyes. Eyes that follow you. Eyes that see you but can't be seen. There's a reason this image keeps showing up: we are afraid to be seen—we don't want others to see our shortcomings—but we don't mind being the ones who see.
Do you notice how you act differently when someone is watching versus when you think you're alone? You might play a mean air guitar in your bedroom, but most of us wouldn't display this talent in public. "Peer pressure" is the old name for this phenomenon. Peer pressure usually means that the influence of friends is so strong that you wind up doing things you normally wouldn't do to gain acceptance. Using drugs is the classic example, but you could broaden peer pressure to include anything you would do with your friends, but not if a parent, authority figure, or God were present. Some people use normal language with adults and teachers but profanity with friends. Most people wouldn't want their daily lives videotaped and replayed for their parents or pastor.
So keep looking for it. Try to come up with an example from, say, the last hour or so. And don't limit it to actual pressure from other people. Peer pressure doesn't mean that people are threatening to never talk to you again if you refuse to do something. That rarely happens. Peer pressure comes from within you. You want to be accepted and liked. It's more about what you want than what other people actually say, do, or think. Does that make sense? Any examples come to you?
Here is something to keep in mind. If you glance into the future, you'll see that this problem doesn't fade with time. In fact, if you don't do anything with it now, it gets worse. Mothers are always comparing themselves to other mothers and feeling inferior. Men are always jockeying for prestige and significance. People older than forty talk about codependency, which is a 1980s code word for being controlled by the opinions of others. A more recent name is "cosmetic surgery." This is an adult obsession because other people might be watching and judging. It's no longer called peer pressure though. It goes undercover as "low self-esteem," "depression," or "wanting to look healthy," all of which mean, "I will die if you think I am unattractive." People say they are doing it for themselves, and they are right. They are doing it so they can feel confident that you think they still look good.
The problem is within you and me, but the world around us makes it worse. For example, American culture is preoccupied with personal happiness, personal success, and personal fulfillment. This means that our goal in life is to feel good about ourselves, and to feel good about ourselves we need some key people to feel good about us. When we actually say that, it sounds horribly superficial, but sometimes there seem to be very few alternative ways of living. Add to this how families are fragmented and friends can move away. There seems to be nothing larger than ourselves to rely on. You will want to both fit in and stand out.
Modern advertising depends on this problem. Do you know what most advertisers get you to ask? What will others think of you? Try this product and you will be cooler, more popular, more cutting edge, and more sexually attractive. Or you will at least fit in better than you do now. Advertising appeals to your allegiance to the opinions of others. Advertisers pay good money to send you a message, and they aren't stupid. They know something about you and what you live for. Any particular advertisements come to mind?
It's everywhere. Walk through the streets of New Delhi or Johannesburg, and you'll hear kids talking about parents who are too strict. Guys will be talking about girls, making fun of each other, trying to outdo each other with loud bodily noises. Girls will be talking about guys, telling secrets, and having daily dramas. And everyone will be concerned about what people think of them.
Consider one very sad example. In both Western and Eastern cultures you will find far too much suicide among teens and people in their twenties. Along with car accidents, it is the top killer among teens. In Western countries such as the United States, teens consider suicide because they feel like unloved failures in the eyes of others. In Asia teens consider suicide because they have brought shame on their families, or they have lost face before others. What do others think about me?
Do you remember the first day of junior high or middle school? Sometimes life can feel like one first day of school after another. Along with your concerns about which teachers you would get and how you would find the right classroom were two questions: "How can I fit in?" and its close companion, "How can I stand out?" Your self-consciousness kept growing until you finally found a group that you could sit with at lunch. That's the way it is. Once you break into the teen years, your view of yourself rises and falls on the basis of your own popularity or successes. Unchecked, it continues until the day you die.
Peer pressure, codependency, shame, low self-esteem—these are some of the words used to identify how you can be controlled by the perceived opinions of others. You could even use the phrase "fear of other people" to describe the experience. When you fear something you are controlled by it. If you fear people, you are controlled by people. It's as if the opinions of other people are a threat to you. You are always looking for ways to ward off their life-threatening rejection.
But even now we can find hints of a better way. For example, have you ever been in a group that made you feel like you were part of something bigger than just yourself? Perhaps it was a sports team, a school play, your family, your church, a mission trip, or a political action group. In that group you had a cause that seemed more important than individual recognition. As you look back on that experience, do you remember what a pleasant relief it was to think less frequently about you and your personal success and more about others and the larger team goals? Now if we could just find something bigger to believe in.CHAPTER 3
So much of life comes down to the following three questions:
Who is God?
Who am I?
Who are these other people?
You might not wake up in the morning with these questions on your mind. In fact, you might never have asked these questions. But, as a human being, those questions are part of your DNA. You will find them sneaking around in your anger, happiness, contentment, jealousy, sadness, fear, guilt, cutting, sense of purpose, life meaning, decision making, moral choices about sex, friendships, school, work, and so on. Notice, for example, how jealousy answers these questions.
Who is God?
"He is someone who should give me what I want."
Who am I?
"I deserve better—better looks, better athletic ability, a better boyfriend or girlfriend."
"I am a judge who is authorized to stand over others."
Who are these other people?
"They are below me. They have things that I deserve more than them."
Sadness or depression? Listen and you will hear their answers too.
Who is God?
"He is far away and doesn't care."
"He is someone who didn't give me what I wanted."
"He could never forgive me for what I have done."
Who am I?
"I am nothing, literally nothing. It isn't that I am trash; I am just nothing."
"I am needy, and I haven't gotten what I need."
"I am alone."
"I am God. I deserved something and I didn't get it."
Who are these other people?
"They are my life. I put my hope in them, and they let me down."
"They don't care, so I am trying not to care about them, but it isn't working."
"They can't be trusted."
You can see what's happening. You already have answers to these questions. You just have to uncover them. You might know some right answers, such as "I am a child of God." But our hearts are complicated. The right answer is rarely your only answer. Instead, you usually have at least two sets of answers: those that are "right," and those that actually guide the way you live. To discover your real answers to these questions, watch how you live. In particular, track your emotions. Look for what makes you upset, depressed, angry, and anxious, or what makes you happy, calm, excited, and peaceful.
Once you settle into one of your less comfortable moods, who do you say God really is?
Far away and not aware of what you are doing in secret
Far away and uncaring about what is bothering you
What about other people? Who are they?
Objects you manipulate so that they serve you
Things that can make you feel really good or really bad
Idols that you worship
Excerpted from WHAT DO YOU THINK OF ME? WHY DO I CARE? by Edward T. Welch. Copyright © 2011 Edward T. Welch. Excerpted by permission of New Growth Press.
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