Biases and Anxiety

What Other People Think? part 3

We Need Our Group. So Find One that Values Changing Your Mind.

I find it helpful to keep in mind: We are able to not care what some people think – THOSE people – by caring instead about what other people think – OUR people, as we have generalized them. I also find it helpful to remember the limitations and biases of my brain, and how seeing the world the way I do is largely a fluke of my social situation, mixed with some genetic predispositions.

Is there something we can do about this? A little bit, yes. Rather than Polonius, “to thine own self be true,” go back to Socrates, “know thyself.” Identify your own confirmation biases. You were made to be oriented toward tribal bonding, so try to be aware of how that’s at work in your opinion formation.

Since we are such a group-oriented species, see if you can hook up with a group that values evidence over any particular story for interpreting that evidence. This is tricky, because every group likes to think of itself as valuing the evidence, but almost all of them fail to notice how highly selective they are about the evidence they value.

But here’s an example. I understand that members of the Yale Political Union
“are admired if they can point to a time when a debate totally changed their mind on something. That means they take evidence seriously; that means they can enter into another’s mind-set. It means they treat debate as a learning exercise and not just as a means to victory.” (David Brooks, New York Times)
Can you identify times when evidence changed your mind? Can this congregation become the sort of tribe that admires members who talk about when evidence broke through their confirmation bias and changed their mind?

Nonanxious Presence

Edwin Friedman (1932-1996)
As I look further at this question – “Should we care what other people think? How much, in what ways, under what circumstances?” – there may be an underlying issue here of anxiety. The issue of how other people are judging us tends to come up in our lives when we’re feeling some anxiety about where we stand with people around us. The question, “do they like me?” naturally raises some anxiety, and to deal with that anxiety, one strategy is to tell ourselves we don’t care. This strategy tends to be disconnecting. It's a tried-and-true strategy for coping with anxiety without ever acknowledging to ourselves that the anxiety arose. And the drawback is that we disconnect.

Here’s an alternative that derives from the work of Jewish rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman: nonanxious presence. Nonanxious presence is one of my slogans I try to live by – not always successfully, but I try.

If I tell myself, “I’m not going to care what other people think,” I conceal from myself the anxiety that prompted me to say that. If I tell myself, “be nonanxious,” I’m bringing awareness to the fact that, yes, a little bit of anxiety is there, and I’m now intentionally going to move past that.

If I say, “I don’t care what they think,” I’m disconnecting. If I say, “nonanxious presence,” I’m telling myself to stay connected, stay present.

Another popular strategy for dealing with do-they-like-me? anxiety is to go the opposite way – instead of “I don’t care what they think,” I start doing and saying things I think they will like.

Those are the two main strategies: blow ‘em off, or bend over backwards to appease. Nonanxious presence is neither of these. It’s an approach that, first, recognizes the anxiety. I notice anxiety first in myself, and then notice how anxiety is functioning in the system around me, the anxiety of the people who aren’t liking me. Whatever reason they may say they disapprove of me, underneath that, there’s anxiety. Something about me is challenging their assumptions, their status quo, their world picture, and that’s anxiety-producing for them. Bringing awareness to my anxiety, and the anxiety in the system, I make a decision not to be ruled by that anxiety. This is easier said than done, and it’s a skill that takes a while to develop.

Supposing I’m able to move into being nonanxious, the next part is presence. I’m going to bring my presence to the situation -- MY presence – who I am. This is not appeasing, or saying what you think they want to hear so they’ll like you. Friedman’s term is self-differentiation. Self-differentiation is: the capacity to be present to, but not caught up in surrounding emotional processes – not taking on the anxiety in the system. It also involves reaching clarity about your principles and vision, and a willingness to be exposed and be vulnerable.

Nonanxious presence neither disregards what other people think, nor is it controlled by the natural human impulse for approval.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In sum, other people, some of them, form judgments of us -- and though they probably think about us less than we imagine, making judgments of others and relating to how others judge us is inherent in being the social species that we are. This involves some good, some bad, and some ugly.

The good is that we care, we want to connect, and bond, and have a shared story, and not be psychopaths.

The bad is that we’re oblivious to evidence that doesn’t support our story, we suffer confirmation bias, and despise people with different opinions.

The ugly is anxiety – in ourselves and in the systems of which we’re a part. This anxiety can make us disconnect on the one hand, or lose ourselves and our integrity in seeking after approval on the other hand.

May we find ways to embrace and celebrate the good, compensate for the bad, and effectively manage the ugly.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "What Other People Think"
See also
Part 1: We All Care What Other People Think of Us
Part 2: The Self and Its Worldview

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