How to Stop Worrying so Much About What Other People Think

Do you remember the first time you got a “like” on something you posted on Facebook? That little spark of excitement you felt was fun, right?

Like a standing ovation, glowing review, or positive feedback from fans in the audience, it’s nice to get that little bit of validation – to feel like we’ve earned someone’s “stamp of approval.”

And there’s certainly nothing wrong with feeling good when we get that occasional pat on the back. But there’s a dark side to feedback too. Because what happens when we don’t get the “likes”? When the audience response is tepid?

What happens to our confidence then?

As of May 2013, there were 4.5 billion likes being generated every day1. Combine that with tweets, retweets, swipes, etc., and you’ve got an awful lot of feedback flying around out there on the line . There’s probably never been a time in history when it has been so easy to elicit or give feedback to so many people so quickly.

And if our self-worth is too reliant on that external feedback, it can be a bit like riding a roller coaster – our emotions and confidence going up and down from a totally ignored status update to our teacher’s approving smile to mixed comments from the audition committee.

It can become easy to question ourselves, and to worry constantly about what others are thinking. What will the audience think? What will the audition committee think? What does my teacher think? What will my friends think?

How do we break out of this cycle, and as e.e. cummings said, find the “…courage to grow up and become who you really are.”?

The impact of “likes” on self-esteem

A recent Cornell study yields some interesting clues about the connection between external validation, self-esteem, and a third factor that plays an interesting role in the confidence equation.

96 undergraduate students participated in a study to see what sort of impact social media “likes” might have on self-esteem.

And because of findings in other research, the authors suspected that a sense of purpose in life might affect the degree to which fleeting instances of external validation impacts one’s self-esteem, so everyone started by taking the Life Engagement Test to gauge their sense of purpose in life.

They were then told that they would be pilot testing a new social media site called “Faces of the Ivies” (sort of like Facebook), and that they would have to create a profile, and upload a profile picture. Each participant was asked to take a selfie, and the experimenter then uploaded the photo to the site (in reality, there was no such site, and no uploading of any photos).

The experimenter then said that the profile picture would be displayed for 5 minutes, during which time other users would have a chance to view and “like” the photo. After 5 minutes, they were given feedback about how many likes they received. Of course, the feedback was totally made up, and given to them at random.

One group of students were told that they received an average number of likes (27 likes to be exact). Another group was told that they received an above average number of likes (48). And a third group was told that they received a below average number of likes (6).

Then they took a self-esteem assessment.

The role of purpose

As predicted, getting more likes did indeed seem to boost self-esteem. Those in the above average likes group had significantly greater self-esteem scores than those who received an average or below average number of likes.

But here’s where things got interesting. Getting a high number of likes only increased self-esteem for those who had lower scores in life purpose. Students with a greater sense of purpose showed no real change in self-esteem even after getting a lot of likes.

It’s almost as if purpose served as a buffer, helping students’ sense of self to be better insulated from the opinion of others. Where having meaningful long-term goals, and valued activities helped cultivate a sense of personal value that was less contingent on others’ opinions.

Take action

A difference of a few likes on one’s profile picture, and having a rough performance are two very different things, but what if cultivating a stronger sense of life purpose could help us become more resilient in the face of the ups and downs of a life in the arts? What if this might be a way to help us remain less affected by the external validation (or lack thereof) that we receive every day, keep our eyes on the big picture, and stay the path even when we have one of those days where it’s easier to be our worst critic than our strongest supporter?

Umm…but how are we supposed to find our purpose exactly?

This is a question that goes beyond the scope of this post, but there are lots of thought-provoking articles online like this, and even a TED playlist for purpose-finding insights and inspiration.

And, since purpose is an important component of perseverance and ''grit'' , there’s a whole chapter2 devoted to the research on purpose in Angela Duckworth’s recently released book on grit (Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance).

Ultimately, while there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for cultivating one’s sense of purpose, it seems that a good place to look is at the intersection of a) things that you geek out about, b) the skills you have and enjoy using, and c) a vision for how you might be able to make others’ lives better in a way that has personal meaning.

And it needn’t be some grand history-altering pursuit like world peace. It could be something that you may not even realize has the kind of impact it does.

Such as?

I’m usually zonked out before any of the late shows come on TV, but I did see Jimmy Fallon’s first night hosting The Tonight Show. His guest was actor Will Smith, who said something that I think relates to music as much as it does to acting, or any of the performing arts.

Namely, that what’s most important, is to “keep loving people.” To remember that art is not about us and our ego, but a way to make a contribution to others. “To help people get through the day,” and ”to help their lives be better and to be brighter” as Smith put it. Or, as Fallon saw it, to do what he could to make sure his viewers can go to bed with a smile, no matter how tough their day may have been.

I had never thought of The Tonight Show in that way. But I imagine it would change your approach to the job when that’s your vision and purpose for doing what you do. Have you ever thought about purpose, and how you might define this for yourself?


  1. Source: Facebook’s Growth Since IPO in 12 Big Numbers
  2. (It’s chapter 8, if you have the book)

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8 Responses

  1. Your next to last paragraph echoes what Christianity is about. We were sent here with a purpose to show kindness to others, to share our gifts. Thank you for this excellent article.

  2. This was an amazing article, Noa. While I thoroughly enjoy all of your articles, this one soared into first place.

    When my children were just babies, and I was trying to figure out why I would continue teaching piano or look for something else to do, I did a lot of thinking—thinking about why anyone should learn to play the piano. I decided it was more about learning how to be creative than anything else. That was my purpose.

    Playing the piano, while wonderful in itself, was only a conduit to learning how to be an artist. From that point on, my purpose was clear. And every day I teach, I see music, teaching music, and playing piano (or any intsrument, for that matter) that way. It makes it so much easier for me to demand quality as well because while this in itself gives me the self confidence I need, it gives my students confidence and self security, if you will, in expressing who they are in their music.

    And to your point, no matter what people may like or dislike about me, I know where I stand.

  3. Hi Noa, appreciate this post which is a timely reminder for me as I prepare for my first time playing principal horn on Tchaikovsky 5, with a (professional) orchestra I have never performed with before!

    You summarized purpose as arising from the intersection of passion, skill, and relevance; that is exactly what my older sister taught me. She has worked for years as a brand strategist who helps people uncover/refine their purpose, orient it to meet real world problems, and then polish and market a brand that is personally meaningful and socially relevant.

    I went through her process and it did indeed ground my career and sense of self in something that felt more permanent and reliable.

    For what it’s worth, I might verbalize my own purpose as “mastering and sharing music as a path of wellness, empowerment, and love”. Having this has helped me, for example, contextualize auditions as something greater than a win/lose scenario, even more than “just” a learning experience. Auditions have become crucibles for me to look at and evolve my overall life patterns, my relationship with music, practice, my body, and society. They have motivated me to live healthier, be more unconditionally loving, to identify what I really want from my musical career, and more. All of that has come out of a purpose-driven approach.
    Thank you for sharing these ideas in such an accessible and empirical manner!

    I want to be the lotus. I want to always tell you ; what horrible, tough situation I am in. I want that I hacve always something to tell you. I want to tell you the tough situation I am in and I want to be enthusiastic telling it to you. I want to tell you all the time time what I am going through.
    I don’t want to tell you about the perfect this guy has, because if I was telling you about it, I wouldn’t be telling you how it feels like to be in the mud like I am at the moment. My determination is so high that I want to be more in ther mud. I want to show myself more in the mud than I am. How to be more in the mud than that ?
    I am always in the mud right now.
    From today all my diary sentences begin with : “I am in the mud right now because…”. Thank you

    1. I think your article wasn’t about what I wrote, since you wrote about a “like” on something someone posted on Facebook… In the chapter confidence, you rather were talking about being loved, our need of being loved. That’s what goes with the chapter “confidence”.
      The more we get rejected, the more we learn about to protect ourselves from not being loved and the more we protect ourselves efficiently.
      Our barriers serve us to hide our need of being loved.
      With our barriers, we give the impression that we fear nothing.
      To give away to what we are doing, we have to recreate emotive insecure environment or to place ourselves in a situation of danger. In the hope that the other person secures us by a soft warm physical contact (in the case of a love relationship). In the hope of getting approval in the case of being a musician trying to be more popular.
      To pass from a total insecure state to a total secure one is responsible for the enjoyment that we get from an affective exchange.
      It’s just a little psychology of emotions and affection. I don’t know how this would relate to performing or to popularity for a musician.

  5. Something that helps me a lot is chanting on gig days, similar to Herbie Hancock. Even 15 min is ok for me. I ask to align me with the rhythm of the universe. And so after I do this, regardless who is in audience, or anything, I feel free to completely let go because, I have done my practice, and I have asked the universe for acceptance. So all there is left to do is let go and give all I have from love. Just do.

  6. I’m not a musician, but as a writer, I think about purpose all the time. You make some excellent points that could be helpful to all sorts of creative people, I think. Remembering that my purpose is to do what I love in service of others does help insulate me from audience reactions.

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