If you’re anxious about people judging you, you need to read this!
Do you worry a lot about people judging you?
If you feel like some part of your brain is constantly monitoring or managing how you look, how you act, or the decisions you make— in the hopes of keeping people from viewing you negatively—you’re not alone.
“I just don’t want people to judge me!” is one of the most common refrains I hear from clients, both when it comes to weight gain and other body changes, and to any number of other factors, like how they dress, what they do, and what they say.
I’ve always found the fear of judgment to be an interesting one.
After all, other people’s thoughts about us don’t technically have any real impact on us, do they? Their behaviors do, but their thoughts don’t. So what is it that we’re actually afraid of, when we’re afraid of being judged?
I’ll often pose this question to my clients: “why would it be so bad if someone was judging you?”
If they don’t know, I’ll ask them to imagine a scene in which someone is thinking negative thoughts about them, and to put into words what about that feels so threatening, dangerous, or intolerable. To separate thoughts from actions in this scenario (and clarify where the danger seems to live) I tell them to assume that the person doesn’t do or say anything aloud about their judgements, they just think them.
See if you can answer this question for yourself right now:
Imagine that someone is silently judging you, for whatever it is you don’t want to be judged for. What about this scenario feels so scary or bad to you? What are you really trying to avoid, and why does it feel so important to avoid it?
My clients often report a feeling of almost primal panic when they do this exercise at first; a confusing sense that even though other people’s negative thoughts or opinions about them can’t technically hurt them, they simply must prevent them from happening! But when I ask them what they’re so afraid might happen if they don’t prevent them, they usually start telling me what they’re afraid the person will go on to do or say.
And that’s the thing: it doesn't actually impact us for someone to view us badly, but someone who views us badly is a lot more likely to treat us badly. And more often than not, that’s what we’re really afraid of.
Without even realizing it, my anxious clients are often engaged in a strategy of “doing everything perfectly” or “making everyone like them,” in order to avoid being treated poorly.
Yes this strategy costs them dearly (in time, attention, energy, self-worth, and the ability to be present in their lives, for example), but it makes sense. Why? Because when you don’t know how to hold people accountable for their bad behavior, your only recourse is to try to avoid it.
Many of us conditioned as girls or women learned that it’s our job to always make other people feel comfortable, which means always being agreeable, never expressing anger, and never making anyone feel bad. So instead of learning to speak up or handle conflict, we learned to laugh at inappropriate jokes and shrug off disrespect. Instead of learning to set boundaries and advocate for ourselves, we learned that if only we could be “perfect enough,” then there would never be a need to do so. And instead of learning to hold other people accountable for their behavior, we learned to blame ourselves.
Is your desire to avoid being judged might really be a strategy to avoid certain social situations you don’t feel equipped to handle? If so, what specifically are you trying to avoid? Conflict? Violence? Disrespect or insults? Rejection or exclusion?
Get clear on your answer to that, and you’ll know exactly what you need to do to overcome your anxiety about people judging you.
To be clear, nobody wants to be insulted, rejected, or excluded. Conflict is rarely enjoyable, and there are some contexts in which speaking up is legitimately not safe. But those experiences wouldn’t feel so terrifying (and therefore so important to avoid) if you knew you had the skill and experience to hold other people accountable!
Go back to the visualization of a person silently judging you for a moment, and now imagine that they decide to express their negative view of you directly, through words or actions. Maybe they say “you got fat and look gross,” or “I used to admire you, but now that I see your body has changed, I’ve lost respect for you.”
Obviously most people would never say something like this (which is kind of the whole point), so it would be very jarring and unpleasant to hear. But I’m hoping you’ll agree that the above scenarios don’t tell us anything about you, right? All they tell us is that the other person just revealed themselves to be a complete asshole.
Now imagine that you are extremely skilled and experienced at holding assholes accountable for their assholery.
You might be a bit shocked for a moment to discover that this person chose to say something so inappropriate and rude, but you quickly regain your composure, and respond from a place of calm and empowered self-advocacy.
“What a horrible thing to say to someone,” you begin. “Where on earth did you learn it was ok to speak to people like that?”
Your comment tells them that you don’t agree with their assertion that you deserve to be disrespected, and that you’re unwilling to absorb or hold their shame for them. Most likely, they’ll respond by looking abashed and embarrassed. “Sorry,” they might mumble, and then backtrack a bit, or change the subject.
Luckily, your skill and experience have prepared you for this part, too.
If their apology doesn’t feel genuine, or their response isn’t enough to restore a feeling of mutual respect, you might say “I’m actually not interested in engaging with someone who treats people that way,” and bid them adieu. (Best case scenario, they think more carefully about the consequences of their actions in the future; worst case scenario, you just saved yourself from spending time and energy with an asshole.)
Of course, if they’re not used to being held accountable, or feeling their own shame, they may try another tactic, such as gaslighting. Maybe they act like you misunderstood them, or try to “clarify” (read: recontextualize your reality) by saying something like “I’m just worried about you.”
You’re prepared for this, too! You might tell them that you’re not interested in hearing an explanation or justification for what they said, because it simply wasn’t ok. Or if you feel like pressing the issue, maybe you ask them where they learned that insulting people was a valid way of expressing concern, or inform them that what they’re expressing is called “weight stigma” and “concern trolling,” and that it actually causes more harm to people’s health than being fat.
But what if they try to employ the old classic standby, saying “it was just a joke!” or insisting that you lighten up a bit?
You know how to handle that one, too! They’re clearly expecting you to smile or laugh along and smooth things over, but you don’t. Instead, you say something like “I guess I just don’t think it’s funny to disrespect people,” or you feign confusion and ask them to explain the joke to you, like “wait what do you mean, what’s funny about the fact that I’ve gained weight?” Depending on how well you know the person, you might even explain that jokes like that can have deadly consequences for someone with an eating disorder, and to please think about their words more carefully in the future.
How does all of this feel to read?
What impact would it have on your day-to-day anxiety about people judging you, if you knew you had the skill and experience to speak up in the face of disrespect, navigate conflict, set boundaries, and hold people accountable for their behavior in the moment?
For many of my clients, it’s a total game-changer. Because when you trust yourself to handle the “consequences” of people judging or disliking you, you no longer need to spend your whole life trying to avoid it. And when you no longer have to scrutinize, manage, or worry about every aspect of your appearance or behavior, you’re free. Free to make whatever decisions feel best for you, free to express your authentic self, and free to be fully present in your life.
PS: If you need help or guidance to break free, I can help you! This is what I do, and I would love to work with you– check out all the details, and apply for private coaching with me here!