Just imagine how different your life might be if you simply didn’t care what people thought? Stylist delves into the art of not giving a damn...
Additional images: Rex
You can’t help admiring them. The women who say what they think, who wear outlandish outfits with no hint of apology, who refuse to attend hen-dos, baby showers or spend time with people they don’t cherish, regardless of social convention. They will speak out when someone pushes in at the bar, send a meal back if it isn’t right and happily announce their undying love for Andre Agassi in public. They are women who live life on their own terms, who simply do not care what other people think.
But such creatures are rare. The fact is, most of us do care. Very much. It matters if people think we’re intelligent, decent, generous and attractive. If we nod to the latest trends, make the right decisions and show up at the ‘right’ social events. From the language we use to the information we post on social media, caring about what others think infiltrates every aspect of our lives. And while both sexes are guilty of revelling in the approval of others – we are socially conditioned to do so – it’s a habit particularly predominant in women. You can guarantee men don’t care half as much as we do.
A 2010 study by the University of the Basque Country in Spain found that men simply feel less guilty than women. Regret, remorse and empathy are emotions that run deep in the female psyche; we’re hardwired to feel terrible about hurting others. Meanwhile, men only beat themselves up when their problems are self-inflicted – when they’re hungover, for instance. Experts believe this difference is an evolutionary throwback to traditional roles. Men went out to earn money while women looked after the family; though those roles are fluid now, we were brought up to care for others. Even our childhood toys – grooming My Little Pony; serving up plastic tea cups to our siblings; collecting Care Bears with their variety of designated fuzzy feelings – reflect the importance placed on being sensitive to the needs of others. Men, on the other hand (all guns and spaceships), are raised to look after number one.
Plus, says chartered psychologist Dr Cynthia McVey of Glasgow Caledonian University, women’s behaviour has always been under the microscope: “Sexual, maternal and social behaviour has long been monitored by society. Generations of historical shame and guilt are heaped upon us.” We’re conditioned to constantly make sure we fit the social norm. And it can be crippling. Instead of moving forward, we end up pandering to others’ needs. Men have no such issues. How many Sunday mornings have you woken up desperately paranoid that a friend took a remark the wrong way? You worry all morning, and finally send a tentative text. Would your boyfriend ever do that? Of course not – he’s already in the pub with his mates
Our overly developed sense of empathy and guilt can also set us back at work. We fret about looking pushy or bossy – and with good reason. Research from Aston University shows straight-talking men are seen as an asset in the workplace, assertive women are considered rude. So we have to be conscious of how we behave, because – god forbid – we say exactly what we mean. Even when disciplining a colleague, we can often hear a little voice inside our head whispering: ‘I hope she doesn’t think I’m a complete bitch’.
And while caring how others perceive us isn’t all negative – it can act to censor us – taken too far, it leads to a loss of self. We waste hours over-thinking when we could be enjoying; we fail to follow our passions for fear of what peers might say; we stay in jobs that don’t satisfy us because they give us social recognition. We behave within safe, group-defined boundaries. We aren’t our true, authentic selves.
Ultimately, it’s down to self-esteem. American psychologist Carl Rogers believes recognition from others is crucial to our feelings of self-worth, with those with lower self-confidence struggling without constant validation, and those with high self-esteem just not giving one. That’s why they get ahead. Moving forward on your own terms – unencumbered by social niceties and no longer paralysed by the perceptions of others – is incredibly empowering. And a learnable skill; it’s still not too late.
Columnist Julie Burchill knows a thing or two about giving the finger to social convention. In the hallowed (slightly paraphrased) words of Frank Sinatra, she did it her way…
“Though I have been called ‘The Worst Mother in Britain’, I like to think I’m a pretty good godmother. I have lavished my four female goddaughters with cash and liquor and laughs throughout their lives. But if I could only have given them one gift – like the bad fairy Carabosse turning up at the Sleeping Beauty’s christening – it would be for them truly to never give a damn what other people think of them.
For most of my life, I feel like a regular person – normal, even. I laugh, cry, love, hate and wonder how in the name of all that’s holy Sandi Toksvig ever made it in the media. But on a few occasions, people express emotions which they take for granted but which make me frankly feel like a martian. And the foremost among those would have to be caring about the opinions of other people.
Women, especially, are expected to tiptoe around clutching their lifetime report cards to their modestly covered chests, proffering them meekly up to family, friends, loved ones and complete strangers alike, forever doing things they don’t want to do and not doing things they want to do in the hope of a few tacky gold stars for good behaviour. But I far prefer to live by the Spanish saying, ‘Take what you want and pay for it, says god.’
Once people sought to serve and please god, for he would be their judge. But increasing lack of faith, interestingly, has not stopped women from bending themselves out of shape in their ceaseless search for approval. ‘When people stop believing in god, they don’t then believe in nothing – they believe in anything,’ GK Chesterton said, and though it’s generally used about the rise of superstition, it could also be said of the false gods that women now pay homage to. Vanity is a big one. I once heard a smart older model contemptuously sum up her career as, ‘Aren’t I pretty? Please buy me.’ And though I can see why models, actresses, prostitutes and kept women need to see themselves as objects in order to earn a living from their looks, the rise in over-grooming – among women whose looks are not their living – which has taken place over the last decade strikes me as being as weird and neurotic as any over-grooming inherently is.
Once, only drag queens wore false nails – now nail bars are one of the fastest growing businesses in the country. The biggest chain in Britain, Nails Inc, is forecasting a turnover of £22million this year, while Superdrug and Tesco are considering nail bars as a way of pulling in customers. There’s something slightly tragic about women whose position in the job market is as vulnerable as never before spending their disposable income on preening rather than on something that might give them far more of an advantage in the real world, such as learning a language, which can be done for the same investment in money and time. They may say that beautification gives them confidence, but confidence built on something as laughably fragile as nice nails can, logically, be easily destroyed by something as superficial as chipped varnish.
Whereas men tend to see themselves as organic beings who are what they are, do it their way and will ride off into the sunset alone if people don’t choose to accept them, women are more likely to see themselves as all things to all people. The fabled female ‘juggling’ act – and the subsequent stress and depression which often accompanies it – is in fact less an attempt to perform tricks for one’s own satisfaction than a desperate fear not to be found lacking at home, at work, even at play, by one’s family, bosses and friends.
But I would argue that if you devote your life to pleasing others, you’re very likely to never please yourself. And far from protecting you from loneliness, as some deluded souls seem to think sucking-up as a life-plan will, it’s very likely you’ll end up by yourself anyway, as few people enjoy being around martyrs, doormats or clingy pushovers. Sure, if I hadn’t chosen to go after the younger brother of my then-girlfriend almost 20 years ago, I would have saved her family and my friends from scandalised disapproval. But I would also have done myself out of a really happy third marriage.
PLEASE LIKE ME
It’s sad how women do it to themselves, the Approval Police thing. And then they blame men for all the high personal hygiene bars they set themselves – which is a bit like tying your own legs together and then accusing someone else of making you hop. It starts at school – too frumpy, too slutty – and, if you let it, it follows you to the grave, when you will be commemorated on your cold hard headstone as someone’s beloved daughter, wife or mother. But never, perhaps, remembered as your own person.
In my book, Ambition, the heroine Susan Street jumps through a variety of sexual hoops in order to grab the prize she wants – the editorship of a Sunday newspaper. Written originally at the end of the Eighties, when young female newspaper columnists such as myself routinely earned more than the prime minister and new recruits to Fleet Street were given unofficial ‘expenses mentors’ when they joined a paper, so as to be sure they didn’t turn in low claims and thus make the rest of the staff look bad, it’s something of a historical novel as much as a sex-and-shopping one now. But one thing which is as fresh as ever is the extraordinary autonomy of Susan Street. I haven’t read EL James’ Grey books, but apparently the heroine is some bed-wetting sad-sack who has to overcome her natural antipathy to being tortured in order to keep her creepy boyfriend happy. Susan, on the other hand, is easily as perverse, perverted and sex-mad as her apparent puppet-master, Tobias Pope.
STICKS AND STONES
Though it seemed eye-crossingly modern and outrageous at the time, Ambition was written in an age as different from the present day as the days of the horse-drawn carriage and modesty-covered piano legs – an age before the internet.
Cyberspace, though sounding agreeably light and airy and forward-thinking, has turned out to be what an Englishman’s home has always been for inadequate men – not just his castle, but his virtual harem and torture dungeon. ‘Monstering’ and ‘flaming’ – the practice of calling more successful and/or visible women than they, the inadequate men, are, rude things – has breathed new life into the old playground bully routine of calling girls names and expecting them to boo hoo.
And though it’s awful when it happens to young girls – some of whom have been driven to suicide by cyberbullying from both sexes – I can’t help thinking that grown women shouldn’t react with such pantalooned, hoop-skirted uproar when aforementioned inadequate men demonstrate their inferiority by calling them names and threatening them with a fate worse than death. From where I’m sitting, the only fate worse than death these poor seat-sniffers could inflict would be extreme boredom. And really bad punctuation.
Why would you care what they think of you? They’re total strangers, typing one-handed. They can’t get girlfriends. They know nothing about you. And even if they did know something about you, even if they were your nearest and dearest – still, why would you care more about their opinions of you than your opinion of yourself? No-one is morally neutral; the judgments which your loved ones make of your behaviour, and the things they want you to do will invariably be biased in favour of what makes life better for them – not you.
When I was a recent guest on Desert Island Discs, I received a right old monstering for saying that I don’t regret leaving my two marriages and leaving my children with their fathers and their familiar routine, rather than dragging them off to a new and unpredictable life with me and my subsequent husbands. I also said that I had been reckless and selfish and could have done things better. I think it was my completely clear-eyed view of my own behaviour – that along with lack of regret, I could admit to what I had done wrong – which so enraged the hordes of critics who came after me.
But if anything, their hysterical reaction only made me more sure I had done the right thing. We have no problem at all in pronouncing men who walk out on their families great guys so long as they turn up with a toy every two weeks. And the man who has many children by different women – and presumably isn’t playing house with all of them – is still considered to be a bit of a swashbuckling rogue. People who judge men and women by different moral standards are not the sort of bell-ends I wish to be approved of by.
I’ve enjoyed my life immensely, though I can see that my behaviour has been far from perfect. But how perfect have been the lives of those who criticise me? What dead desires and 4am frustrations make them especially critical of my behaviour? I would rather be hated for something I am than accepted for something I’m not. And if my lack of concern for the opinions of others means I end up alone, at least I’ll be in good company.”
Ambition by Julie Burchill is out now in paperback (£7.99, Corvus)
HOW TO CARE LESS
The good news is, forgetting about what others think of you is a skill that can be learnt
If you’re sure who you are, and what you stand for, what other people think will cease to matter. Firstly, you have to identify your core values (Generous? Trustworthy? Ethical? for example) and ensure these sit comfortably with your personal and career goals. Being authentic can mean you take unconventional decisions and tread singular paths, but in the end, you’ll feel better about yourself and come across as genuine to others.
Learn that rejection isn’t so bad
Exposure therapy is a behaviour therapy designed to treat anxiety disorders; the theory goes that if you’re afraid of dogs and are forced to sit in a room full of Labrador puppies, you’d soon realise they’re pretty fun. The same applies to being afraid of what people think; expose yourself to criticism, by writing a blog for instance, and you’ll soon discover you can handle other people’s opinions.
Keep things in perspective
This might come as a shock but while you may be your prime concern, you’re unlikely to be anyone else’s. So, while self-referential thoughts may be natural, they’re not based in reality. We tend to blow up our fears to be all-consuming but by taking time to remember that all things will pass, and that in five years what your colleagues think about you will matter not one jot, is a very soothing practice.