August 4, 2021 - The Stoic Gym Blog
How to Deal with Other People’s Opinions
We are concerned about what others think and we are anxious that others may not approve of us. We do many things — live in the ‘right’ neighborhood, buy the ‘right’ vehicle, buy the ‘right’ clothes, eat the ‘right’ food, and so on, to gain the approval of ‘others’. It seems that other people’s opinions are enormously important to us. We want others to approve of not only what we have and what we do, but also how we think and run our lives.
Who are these people that you want to be admired by? Aren’t they the same ones whom you used to call crazy? Well, then, do you want to be admired by madmen
— Epictetus, Discourses, 1.21.4 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Foundations, Chapter 21)
It is comical that we want the approval of even those we don’t respect. Yet it is not a harmless pursuit. A vast part of our anxiety can be traced back to our preoccupation with what others think.
A shortcut to freedom
We can realize enormous freedom right now by doing just one thing — by not worrying about what others think of us. Acting independently of other people’s opinions is one of the basic tenets of Stoicism.
To achieve the good life, what we need to do is to conform to what is virtuous and not to what others think.
[The Stoic sage] pays no attention to what others consider shameful or miserable. He does not walk with the crowd.
— Seneca, On the Firmness of The Wise Man, 14,3–4.
What others approve of may not be the right thing to do. As Epicurus said, “What I know, they do not approve. What they approve I do not know” (Seneca, Moral Letters, 29) What is the payoff for walking the road all by yourself, whether anyone else joins you or not?
If you do not worry about what others think, say or do, but only about whether your actions are just and godly, you will gain time and tranquillity. […] Run straight towards your goal without looking left or right.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.18 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, 4.18)
Practicing wisdom is better than seeking the approval of the foolish
We all like other people’s approval. We would rather be applauded than derided. And yet it should not drive what we do. When we set approval-seeking as the goal, the possibilities of a virtue-based life diminish.
- Are we going to do what is wise or what others approve of?
- Are we going to do what is just or what others approve of?
- Are we going to do what is moderate or what others approve of?
- Are we going to do what is courageous or what others approve of?
As long as we have a life guided by principles (such as Stoicism), seeking approval can only damage the principles and curtail our freedom to act. We will be sacrificing ourselves and our principles for the sake of approval and the unstable opinions of other people. We even care about what a stranger or even someone we don’t respect might think of us.
How foolish one must be to leave a lecture hall gratified by the applause of the ignorant! Why do you take pleasure in praise from those you cannot praise yourself?
— Seneca, Moral Letters, 52
Doing your best is better than seeking approval
The need for approval also makes us susceptible to flattery. Others can manipulate us by shaping our behavior to their liking by approving or disapproving our behavior. As others manipulate us, we gradually move away from principles that guide our life in the right direction. A Stoic does what is virtuous whether it brings flattery or disapproval.
As long as you control your desires and aversions, there is nothing to worry about. This is your opening statement, your case, and your proof. This is your last word and your acquittal.
— Epictetus, Discourses 2.2 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Choices, Chapter 2)
As Abraham Lincoln observed when asked about other people’s criticism,
I do the very best I know how — the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out alright, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.
— Abraham Lincoln (Fred G. Carpenter, Six Months with Lincoln in the White House)
Seeking approval makes us sheep-like
When we seek approval, we want to be like everyone else. We accept untested advice. But following the masses will not lead us to a principled and happy life.
Nothing gets us into greater trouble than our belief in untested advice; our habit of thinking that what others think as good must be good; believing counterfeits as being truly good; and living our life not by reason, but by imitating others.
— Seneca, On Happiness, 1 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Happiness, Chapter 1)
Dealing with other people’s disapproval
Whenever we are bothered by what others think, we can remind ourselves of the Stoic principles and ask ourselves a few questions:
1. Do we want to do what we believe to be right or what some else thinks we should do?
2. When we are doing the right thing, why should other people’s opinions matter?
3. Are we sure that other people are so wise that we should follow them?
4. Who lives with the consequences of our actions — us or others?
Most likely we will notice that we seek the approval of others mostly because of our anxiety and what we need to do is to live the way we believe to be right and ignore public opinion. And remember the words of Marcus Aurelius:
Don’t waste the rest of your life worrying about others — unless it is for some mutual benefit. The time you spend wondering what so-and-so is doing, saying, thinking or plotting is the time that’s lost for some other task.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.4 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations 3.4)