A work colleague came into my office and asked if she could speak to me . She seemed nervous, which made me nervous too, and this made her even more nervous, making everything excruciatingly nerve-racking. This caused both of us to combust into flames of nervous energy. While we were simmering in the ashes of our nerves, she expressed her concern that our work relationship had gone awry. She felt tense, was worried that I viewed her unfavorably, perceived some of my many sullen expressions to be directed at her, and felt anxious that she had done something wrong. I was simultaneously taken aback by her candor, strangely intrigued by her confession, but sincerely empathetic. Though I certainly wasn’t surprised by her experience and perception of me, I was, however, surprised that she cared so much.
Sad; Annoyed; Grumpy; Tired; Standoff-ish; Mean; Uptight; Irritated; Angry; Upset; Intimidating … These are just a sampling of the many words I’ve heard throughout my life to describe my ‘at rest’ facial expression, i.e . the natural position my facial muscles fall into when am relaxed. I used to be offended, but now it’s almost comical (almost). I’ll be walking down the street, lost in peaceful, happy thoughts, and a homeless man will yell out at me ‘Hey lady, smile! C’mon, life ain’t that bad!’
Um, thanks I guess? I’ll look into a friend’ s eyes with warmth and compassion, and she responds, ‘did I say something wrong? Are you upset with me?’ Noooo sweetie, I love you. I’m sorry you can’t tell… Now I would like to clarify that at no point during my conception and foetal development did I pray to God ‘Hey, do you think you could setup my normal facial expression to be extra surly and dour looking? Please? I really think it will take me far in life and help me gain lots and lots of friends. Thanks Lord!’ I’m not even responsible for how my face looks, for that you can blame Mr. & Mrs. Mathu. Yet having shaken off full responsibility for appearing to be a sourpuss when I’m actually far from it, the fact is that merely appearing to be a sourpuss, or any given characterization, is enough.
Because appearance matters.
Such is the nature of the cruel, cruel world we live in. It’s impossible not to judge a book by it’s cover because covers were made specifically for books to help us judge the content inside, or at the very least give us an inkling of what to expect. No? If, however, the covers do happen to deceive us, if they lead us to believe that the book is about smiling children, puppies and ponies, when in actual fact it’s about murderers, politicians and snakes (or vice versa), then we have every right to cry foul. Hence my work colleague had every reason to expect the worst from me. And I can only hope that I was able to defy her expectations. Because I cared! I cared about what she thought and how she felt about me.
But I could have, and perhaps should have, taken the alternative route; that of not caring what she, or anyone else for that matter, thinks about me. What difference does it, or should it make to me? Why should I let someone else’s, likely incorrect or unfounded thoughts towards me affect me, myself and I? If you choose to view me in a certain light then that’s your prerogative, right? To a large degree this alternative route is what conventional wisdom instructs us to follow. Yet the world, society at large, and our unfortunately hard wired human instincts, force us to care, shackling our limbs and dragging us into the dungeons of judgment, comparison, etiquette, standards and attaching these monsters to our perceptions of self-esteem. The end result – we end up caring far too much, and in many cases much more than we’re physiologically equipped to deal with.
‘But I truly do not care what others think!’ you may retort. ‘I never let other’s opinions of me affect me!’ you may ad d. Sure you don’ t. It’s easy enough to dismiss what Mr . Stranger over there thinks about those bags under your eyes, but didn’t you recently buy that expensive anti-aging face cream – you know the one you saw in the ad featuring that fresh-faced, youthful, ever so beautiful, smiling model capturing everyone’s attention? Didn’ t that ad stir up some envy, compel you to stare into the mirror feeling disappointment, or worse , shame? Haven’t you been desperatelyanalyzing your face every morning since purchasing the cream, hoping to notice a difference in your complexion? Aren’t you secretly wishing that someone, anyone, would notice how youthful you now look and offer you a compliment?
Please, forgive me if I’m being presumptuous. And if you’ve never sucked your stomach in, regretted those words that slipped out of your mouth, wished you had worn dress pants instead of jeans, asked someone ‘How do I look?’ felt stomach churning dread at the thought of an upcoming performance review, said ‘excuse me’ upon accidentally letting a burp slip out, or felt embarrassed in any way, shape or form, then I truly applaud you. And you’re also probably a sociopath.
For the rest of us mere mortals caring is akin to connecting. What bothers me about the concept or foolhardy advice to not care what others think about you is that it’s like telling someone not to feel sad – ideal in theory, but impossible in reality. So long as you interact with other human beings you’re going to care what they think. And you should. You kind of have to if you wish to build meaningful relationships and experience true love. Our families, communities, schools, jobs and churches give us the opportunity to connect with our fellow haunted mortals. This connection ties us to something larger than our fragile selves, this knowledge and trust gives us security. We are stronger together; we tend to crumble when forced apart.
The self you are, or pretend to be, or discover when forced not to care about what others think, is not your true self. It’s your ego protecting you from the cruel, cruel world; from the horrors of vulnerability; from the nakedness of authenticity. This is sometimes necessary – the protection our egos give us can positively serve us. But distancing ourselves from caring disconnects us from our humanity.
If you don’t care you may never understand what it’s like to make someone proud, to make someone smile, to bring someone to tears, to challenge someone to see truth or to experience them falling in love with us, one exhilarating day at a time.
But of course l like every single thing I tend to harp on about, it’s about balance and continuously aiming for equilibrium, knowing full well that you will more often than not fall short or overreach.
You know you’ve begun to care too much when you can’t stop thinking about that comment she made, or questioning why he would feel that way, or obsessing over whether or not they like you. When you rely on compliments to make you feel good about yourself you’ve crossed the line into dependency. When a snide comment from the stranger you accidentally bumped into manages to ruin your entire day, you’ve landed in the world of “I need other people to give me my self-worth.”
Believe me, this is not a nice world to live in. It’s a nasty world. It’s a world that exists by distorting reality, convincing you to believe that everyone is looking at you, talking about you, judging you, and damning you to hell. Live here long enough and this world will drive you crazy. You should know exactly what I’m talking about because at some point in time we’ve all ventured into this doomed wasteland. Journeying there is an option, and we make this decision, often unknowingly, every single day.
Though we can in fact choose to care without crossing the border into excessive worry, paranoia and a dangerously unstable self-worth. Of course the choice does come with its risks. Because try as hard as you might, you could, and probably will, end up caring too much. Even worse, end up getting hurt, disappointed, betrayed and humiliated. Despite the risk, I strongly believe that sincerely and fearlessly caring is more than worth it. So much so that I urge you, in fact, I dare you, to acknowledge that you care. To own it! And if you’re equipped with an extra shot of bravery, I dare you to wear how much you care on your heart’s sleeve with pride. Care away, my friends! Responsibly and within reason. Because you want to, not because you’re obligated to. Wholeheartedly but not recklessly. Going back to my work colleague, I thanked her for finding the courage to speak to me. I apologized for what she’s been experiencing, explained that that was not my intention whatsoever, and that the perceived irritation was not at all directed at her. I didn’t however apologize for my behavior or attempt to justify my facial expressions and/or feelings; I had no reason to.
But I have since been making the extra effort to reinforce my actual feelings towards her everyday – to communicate that I care. Mind you, not enough to allow myself to be consumed with guilt (I had done nothing wrong), or to chastise myself for being a terribly mean, grumpy person (I’m not), or to spend hours apologizing profusely in order to get back in her good graces. I certainly don’t care that much, I mean c’mon, she’s a work colleague not my best friend forever.
But I care just enough to take her feelings into consideration, monitor my actions, and move on with my life a wiser, more self-aware individual. A self-aware individual who will continue to pretend not to care, naturally.