The More You Believe in Yourself, the Less You Need Others to Do It for You

If you’re like most people including me, you struggle with criticism. You find criticism harsh and unhelpful because criticism strikes at the very conflict between two deep-seated human desires—the desire to be accepted just the way you are and the desire to learn and grow. Consequently, even a nonthreatening comment can leave you feeling uneasy, irritated, angry, and vulnerable.

The More You Believe in Yourself, the Less You Need Others to Do It for You Your sensitivity for disapproval is often justified. Your detractors aren’t perhaps thinking straight. When they pass judgments about you, their critical pronouncements often reveal a great deal about themselves and little about you. Psychologists contend that critics, in offering their disapprovals, are subconsciously projecting their own insecurities, pessimism, and fears onto you.

Most people are driven by emotions and not hard evidence. They tend to impulsively estimate your merits, instead of evaluating you thoughtfully. Therefore, when you confront those inevitable disapprovals, disappointments, and setbacks, don’t pity yourself and feel sorry for the conditions you face in life. Don’t get hung up on waiting for others to give you positive strokes. Give yourself gratitude for your efforts, and choose to get back up, dust yourself off, and move on.

'The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus' by A.S.L. Farquharson (ISBN 0192827901) Life isn’t easy for anyone. But it could be made easier by valuing yourself when you confront adversity, hardships, and disapprovals. As the Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote about the art of forbearance in Meditations (trans. A.S.L. Farquharson,)

Remind yourself of the kinds of things you have passed through and the kinds you have had strength to endure; that the story of life is written and your service accomplished. How many beautiful things have been revealed, how many pleasures and pains you have looked down upon, how many ambitions ignored, to how many unkind persons you have been kind!

Coaching, feedback, advice, criticisms, and comments are great tools that can help you learn and grow, but only when they come from the right people—benevolent people who are knowledgeable, understanding, supportive, and, most importantly, have your best interests at heart. When they come from others, the best response is to listen, mull them over objectivity (Was the criticism offered in good faith? Was the criticism true?), and disregard them if they don’t seem justified.

Idea for Impact: When people try to tell you who you are, consider them with a grain of salt. You are the sole curator, guardian, and defender of your integrity and your sense of self-worth. So, don’t sweat when others think less than you actually are. Care less for what other people think. Believe in yourself.

Care Less for What Other People Think

Care Less for What Other People Think - Quote by Theodore Roosevelt

The American sociologist Charles H. Cooley once described the irrational and unproductive obsession with what others think; he said, “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”

Some people care excessively about what others think. They place undue importance on external validation, so much so that they sometimes place more emphasis on the commendation or disapproval they receive than on their actual actions.

The great Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations (trans. Gregory Hays,)

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own. If a god appeared to us—or a wise human being, even—and prohibited us from concealing our thoughts or imagining anything without immediately shouting it out, we wouldn’t make it through a single day. That’s how much we value other people’s opinions—instead of our own.

'Self-Reliance' by Ralph Waldo Emerson (ISBN 1604500093) In Self-Reliance, American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged people to shun conformity and false consistency, and instead follow their own instincts and ideas:

Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be chaste husband of one wife,—but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever only rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth. Does this sound harsh to-day? You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and, if we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last.

Don’t become dependent on what others think of you

'What Do You Care What Other People Think' by Richard P. Feynman (ISBN 0393320928) Feedback, advice, criticisms, and comments are great tools that can help you learn and grow, but only when they come from the right people—people who are knowledgeable, understanding, supportive, and have your best interests at heart. When they come from others, the best response is to listen, mull them over objectivity, and disregard them if they don’t seem right.

Idea for Impact: Don’t do things differently just because somebody asked you to or just because you want to be different for somebody. Do things differently because it makes sense to you. (Read my articles on discipline and motivation.)

Being Underestimated Can Be a Great Thing

This spring, I attended the 2016 annual meeting of shareholders of Fairfax Financial Holdings Limited in Toronto. Fairfax’s chief executive Prem Watsa opened his remarks with the following joke:

A young boy enters a barbershop.

The barber whispers to a customer, “This is the dumbest kid in the world. Watch while I prove it to you.”

The barber puts a dollar bill in one hand and two quarters in the other. He then calls the boy over and asks, “Which do you want, son?”

The boy takes the quarters and leaves.

“What did I tell you?” says the barber to the customer. “That kid never learns!”

Later, when the customer leaves the barbershop, he sees the same young boy coming out of an ice cream store licking a wafer-style ice cream cone.

He summons the boy and asks, “Hey, son! May I ask you a question? … Why did you take the quarters instead of the dollar bill?”

The boy licks his cone and replies, “Sir, because the day I take the dollar, the game is over!”

Being Underestimated Can Be a Great Thing Although the barber sought to characterize the young boy foolish, the joke was really on the barber.

The barber never suspected the boy’s recurring motivation to seem stupid. Additionally, the barber never learned his lesson or questioned his own assumptions.

Idea for Impact: As the above joke attests, being underestimated, underrated, or misjudged can often have its benefits. Don’t sweat when others think less than you actually are. Don’t let them make you feel small. Embrace their misjudgments with equanimity. Believe in yourself with humble confidence. Then outthink, outsmart, and outperform. Surprise them.

Choose Not to Be Offended, and You Will Not Be: What the Stoics Taught

Choose Not to Be Offended, and You Will Not Be: What the Stoics Taught

When somebody offends you or causes you distress, think of the anxiety as their problem, not yours.

The Stoic philosophers taught that if you choose not to be offended by others’ actions, you will not be. An offense is up to your interpretation. Instead, treat others with kindness and assert your autonomy.

This moral is exemplified in the following clip from the movie Gandhi (1983) portraying racial discrimination in South Africa and Gandhi’s espousal of Christian values. A young Gandhi and his friend Charles Freer Andrews are walking in a Johannesburg suburb when they’re accosted by menacing louts who yell “Look what’s comin’!” and “A white shepherd leading a brown Sammy!” (Sammy—for swami—was a South African derogatory term for an Indian.) Despite Andrews’s misgivings, Gandhi strides along rather nervously and invokes the Christian principle of turning the other cheek. When one lout’s intentions of “cleaning up the neighborhood a little” are disrupted by his mother, Gandhi responds, “You’ll find there’s room for us all!”

Mastering an Offensive Situation Is Ultimately a Matter of Mastering Yourself

'Meditations: A New Translation' by Marcus Aurelius (ISBN 0812968255) In Meditations, the great Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote about taking responsibility for the things within your control:

Someone despises me. That’s their problem. Mine: not to do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me. Their problem. Mine: to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them. Ready to show them their mistake. Not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way.

Marcus Aurelius counsels compassion for those who offend you:

When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?

Strength dissipates when you choose to be offended, and harbor malice. Marcus Aurelius counsels acting compassionately towards those who offend you:

That kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere—not ironic or an act. What can even the most vicious person do if you keep treating him with kindness and gently set him straight—if you get the chance—correcting him cheerfully at the exact moment that he’s trying to do you harm. “No, no, my friend. That isn’t what we’re here for. It isn’t me who’s harmed by that. It’s you.” And show him, gently and without pointing fingers, that it’s so. That bees don’t behave like this— or any other animals with a sense of community. Don’t do it sardonically or meanly, but affectionately—with no hatred in your heart. And not ex cathedra or to impress third parties, but speaking directly. Even if there are other people around.

Another Stoic Philosopher, Epictetus, who advocated integrity, self-management, and personal freedom, wrote in Discourses (transcribed and published by his pupil Arrian):

For there are two rules we should always have at hand: That nothing is good or evil, but choice, and, That we are not to lead events, but to follow them. “My brother ought not to have treated me so”. Very true, but it is for him to see to that. However he treats me, I am to act rightly with regard to him. For this is my concern, the other is somebody else’s; this no one can hinder, the other is open to hindrance.

Idea for Impact: To Be Offended Is a Choice You Make

Don't Take Things Personally: To Be Offended Is a Choice You Make When somebody insults, mistreats, snubs, or disrespects you, choose not to be upset. To be offended is an issue of the self—it’s a choice you intentionally make. Taking offense is about what you want them to be. It is about your desire to change their perspective and behavior.

Try to isolate offense by choosing to respond differently: by overlooking others’ wrongdoings with compassion and reminding yourself that you cannot change others, just your own self.

The Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament) instructs, “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11.) To be offended is a choice you make; it is not a condition inflicted or imposed upon you by someone or something else.

Choose not to let others dictate your emotions—purposely or otherwise. Live life with the wisdom that nobody can make you do anything and that you alone can control how you react to your surroundings and circumstances. Choose to be more at peace.

Life Is to You as to Everyone Else: What the Stoics Taught

Mosaic of Alexander the Great, who Sucked at Geometry

Life is as hard for one as for another

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius (Latin orig. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium) tells a story of Alexander the Great’s schooling.

Even at a young age, the hugely ambitious Alexander dreamt of conquering empires. He had no patience for formal learning. When faced with the difficulty of understanding geometry, he whined to his tutor, “Teach me something easy.” His tutor replied, “These things are the same for all, as hard for one as for another.”

'Letters from a Stoic' by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (ISBN 0140442103) Alexander, king of Macedon, began to study geometry; unhappy man, because he would thereby learn how puny was that earth of which he had seized but a fraction!

Unhappy man, I repeat, because he was bound to understand that he was bearing a false title. For who can be “great” in that which is puny?

The lessons which were being taught him were intricate and could be learned only by assiduous application; they were not the kind to be comprehended by a madman, who let his thoughts range beyond the ocean.

“Teach me something easy!” he cries; but his teacher answers: “These things are the same for all, as hard for one as for another.”

Imagine that nature is saying to us: “Those things of which you complain are the same for all. I cannot give anything easier to any man, but whoever wishes will make things easier for himself.” In what way? By equanimity.

You must suffer pain, and thirst, and hunger, and old age too, if a longer stay among men shall be granted you; you must be sick, and you must suffer loss and death.

On a related note, the great Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations (trans. Gregory Hays,) “Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.”

Idea for Impact: Put your problems and worries in perspective

Life Is to You as to Everyone Else Beyond the randomness (or providence for those of you with a religious bent) of where we’re born and whom we’re born to, life is generally fair to all and cannot be easier for anyone. The trials and tribulations of life are equally difficult for everyone. Complaining about others having it easier is futile.

Learn to play the hand you’ve been dealt. If you’re fraught with pain and suffering now, don’t ask, “Why is my life so difficult? Why can’t it be easier?” Take solace in the realization that even the greatest and the mightiest had their share of life’s struggles. Make it easier by viewing life with calmness, composure, and evenness of temper.

A Prayer to Help You Deal with Annoying People: What the Stoics Taught

How to Deal with Annoying People

The 18th Century French writer Nicolas Chamfort once urged, “A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the day is over.”

'Meditations: A New Translation' by Marcus Aurelius (ISBN 0812968255) If you’re not looking forward to annoying people who seem to elevate provocation to an art form, consider the following prayer offered by the great Stoic Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 CE–180 CE) in Meditations (trans. Gregory Hays.)

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me with ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.

Along those lines, the Buddha taught his followers to transcend ignorance through knowledge by observing four practices of inner conduct: loving kindness, altruistic compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity with regard to the impure and the evil. And in the New Testament,

  • Luke 23:34 suggests, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
  • Peter 2:23 offers the example of Jesus, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to Him who judges justly.”
  • Romans 12:17–21 recommend, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Considered Response, Not Naiveté

Aurelius’s urging tolerance, understanding, and patience towards difficult people may sound like naiveté at first glance, but what he urges is a wise and measured response.

Aurelius (121–180 CE) was one of the great Stoic philosophers. Stoic philosophy was founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century BCE. Its core themes of inner solitude, forbearance in adversity, and acceptance of fate gained far-flung following and made it the dominant philosophy across the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.

One of Stoic philosophy’s central beliefs is that destructive emotions result from our errors in judgment. The Stoics argue that many things aren’t within our control, as I elaborated in previous articles (here and here.) The best way to deal with situations we have little control over is to anticipate and neutralize any negative feelings.

Stoic Forbearance through Emotional Detachment

The Stoics argued that our lives will be dramatically different if we realize that we can neither avoid annoying people nor change them. We must accept this reality and work on how we respond and interact with them. In On Tranquility of Mind, the other great Stoic philosopher Seneca (65 BCE–4 CE) wrote:

By looking forward to whatever can happen as though it would happen, he will soften the attacks of all ills, which bring nothing strange to those who have been prepared beforehand and are expecting them; it is the unconcerned and those that expect nothing but good fortune upon whom they fall heavily. Sickness comes, captivity, disaster, conflagration, but none of them is unexpected—I always knew in what disorderly company Nature had confined me.

How to Handle Difficult People

The Stoics encouraged a meditative practice of negative visualization called premeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils.) As suggested by Aurelius in his prayer, premeditatio malorum consists of contemplating the potential challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) we may have to engage and how. By rehearsing not to resign ourselves to adversities, we’re prepared for a more considered response—we could forgive, forget, appreciate and empathize.

As part of the premeditatio malorum practice, we’re to contemplate a priori potential difficulties, setbacks, and misfortunes. While envisaging all the difficulties and evils we could foresee seems like an unwholesome—perhaps even a morbid—exercise, the Stoics argue that this practice can help us react to bad news with equanimity and hence minimize the impact of bad news on our self-worth or confidence. If and when a bad thing should actually happen, our initial response would be to think that “this wasn’t totally unexpected.” While we’d rather it hadn’t happened, we would nevertheless not be surprised by it because this potential outcome was expected all along.

Idea for Impact: Cultivate Equanimity and Manage Yourself First

To handle a difficult person, prepare yourself by thinking of all the things that could go wrong. Don’t focus on how he behaves, but focus on how you can react to him. By ignoring his irritating behaviors, you can neutralize his effect on you. In other words, if someone is being difficult but you don’t feel the difficulty he’s imposed upon you, you don’t have a problem.

The cognitive reframing suggested by the Stoics can be particularly effective in situations where you have little to no control. It’s far more productive to focus on your own behavior because you can control it. And by managing yourself first, you’ll come to appreciate that the annoying person isn’t as annoying anymore. As the other Stoic philosopher Epictetus reminds us, “Man is shaped not by events but the meaning he gives them.”