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From the moment you are born, you are surrounded by voices expressing opinions and points of view. Some of these opinions are helpful, they warn you about potential dangers, while others drag behind you like a ball and chain. It is useful to recognize, which of these opinions are yours and which you should get rid off, as soon as possible, says Joanna Gutral, psychologist from SWPS University.

From a very early age, you meet with opinions of others. The number of opinions grows proportionately to the number of contacts and social competencies in your network. At the beginning, your parents evaluate you. They want you to follow in their footsteps and with time, they want you to hold the same opinions as they do. Apart from the social norms, they try to instill in you the ideals of beauty and definitions of unattractiveness. They tell you what clothes suit you and what they think about your behavior at home and at school. Often, they forget to add that what they deem ‘pretty’ is pretty just in their opinion. So as a young person, you see the world focused mainly on yourself and due to cognitive egocentrism, everything that does not fit your own picture of “I” begins to poke you, bother you and raise objections. But this is only the beginning of coping with opinions of others, because soon a group of your school peers, followed by friends from your neighborhood and acquaintances appear on the horizon and you want to be a part of these social circles.

Where am I on the upward and downward scale?

When you get an A at school, your parents usually ask: “What grades did other children get?”. When you say: “I got a D, just like everyone else in the class”, the parents often reply: “You are not everyone else, we don’t care about the other kids in your class!”. On the one hand, they expect you to be an individual and on the other hand, other people are a point of reference for your grades, your achievements and behaviors.

According to psychologists Amy Summerville and Neal J. Roese (2008), social comparisons occupy approx. seven percent of your thoughts and they help you to process the incoming information unconsciously and without any additional effort on your part.

The two main directions of social comparisons, which in various ways contribute to developing your opinions about yourself, include upward and downward social comparisons. If you compare yourself with someone, whom you consider better than yourself, it is an upward comparison. If you compare yourself with someone, whom you consider worse than yourself in a given field, it is a downward comparison. Both types of comparison provide validation and regulate your self-assessment.

The downward comparisons tend to raise your self-esteem, e.g. you feel better, when you assess that your friend is not as artistic as you are. However, the upward comparisons have a different effect, e.g. if you achieve worse time than your friends, in a 100-meter run, your self-assessment as a budding athlete decreases, so does your enthusiasm for this type of activity.

Social media are the latest platform for making social comparisons and they have become an opinion-shaping tool for the society and for individuals. Researchers Eric Vogel, Jason Rose, Lindsay Roberts, and Katheryn Eckles (2014) asked some students to compare themselves with other Facebook users. The longer the students browsed the profiles of other people, the more frequently they compared themselves upwards, hence they considered themselves to be worse than others, which significantly decreased their self-esteem.

How many of you scroll through social media on daily basis, feeling that you are spying on others? Did she lose weight or is she still fatter than me? He bought a new car. Does it mean he makes more money than me? He looks so happy. Does it mean that his marriage is better than mine? We tend to forget that social media present a very curated and artificially created picture of reality. People create stories about themselves and their lives and you are making very subjective comparisons with these stories. On the other hand, when you change your profile picture and receive attention in the form of many “likes” and comments, it improves your self-esteem. This is how you wind yourself up with these comparisons and opinions about yourself.

Wondering about the reasons for a low or shaky self-esteem, you absorb opinions of others. With time, you become addicted to their assessments, their praise or acceptance. Someone else’s opinions become more important to you than your own thoughts. It is like building houses on shaky ground.

Where do beliefs come from?

Let’s go back to your childhood. It is the time when you learn everything about yourself, about others and about the rules that make the world go round. You have to get this information somewhere and who else if not your family should pass this knowledge on to you? You need their opinions and their way of perceiving the world to build your own model of reality that surrounds you.

Since your childhood, you have been hearing nice comments about yourself, such as: “You are intelligent” or “You are very talented musically”, but also some less pleasant comments, for example: “You are clumsy”, “Your legs could be better”. These opinions may refer to yourself, your friends or to general rules of the world: “Faint heart never won fair lady”, “People are deceitful”, or “You can’t trust anyone.” Often repeated opinions turn into beliefs that create a network of connections allowing you to move around more effectively in your own universe.

There is a proverb, which says that you become the same as the company you keep, but this is also just an opinion. There are as many proponents of this view as there are opponents. However, the beliefs that are instilled in you determine the way you view yourself and the world and they govern the emotions you are dealing with. Growing up thinking that people are deceitful and the world is threatening, makes you fearful. It is much easier to live with beliefs that improve your own view of yourself. As American psychologists Steven C. Hayes and Spencer Smith describe in their book Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, positive beliefs have a positive impact on your self-esteem, on your faith in achieving success and in your own abilities.

Some beliefs help you to function in the world. They warn you about potential dangers or they show you how to behave in new areas of your life, while others impede your progress like a ball and chain. But how do you know which beliefs show you the way and which ones will make you chase your own tail? It might be worth considering which of these beliefs are yours, what role do they play, how often do they come true, which of them are correct and which aren’t. Is it really my fear or the fear of my mother’s, who was hurt and instilled the distrust towards others in me. Perhaps I am not quite useless in math, as someone suggested, and instead of using this an excuse that had caused me to give up at the start, I will try to verify my thinking on this subject by taking up a math challenge at the university. Perhaps not all is lost and it is worthwhile to venture outside the box, from time to time, to discover something new?

Addictive opinions

Wondering about the reasons for your low or shaky self-esteem, you absorb opinions of others. With time, you become addicted to their assessments, praise or acceptance. Someone else’s opinions become more important than your own thoughts. It is like building houses on shaky ground. In the process of developing your own identity, you paradoxically omit yourself and your feelings and instead you base your behavior on the opinions of others.

When you look at the world from your own perspective, it seems to you that everyone else is watching you, your behavior and your thoughts. If you care about the feelings and needs of others, you have a problem with saying “no” and some opinions or behaviors of others invade your boundaries often enough, you finally give up.

Following opinions of others may also provide protection for your ego. If you are afraid of making a mistake when faced with an important decision, you may prefer to follow someone else’s advice. In such a case responsibility becomes diffused: “It is not my fault. She advised me to do it!” ‒ and just like that you have an excuse.

Who expresses opinions?

If you are already full of beliefs that shape the way you think about yourself and others, it is difficult to change them. Therefore, when you hear opinions of others, you might want to think why they pay attention to these aspects, in particular, and why they said what they said. It might pay to ask why they hold this opinion. It refers not only to the positive, but also to negative opinions.

When your partner says “You look great!”, you may think that he said so, because it is expected of him (if this happens, read the paragraph about beliefs again!). But maybe he really means it. Ask him, what exactly did he like. For example, you may find out that the dress highlights your figure in a nice way. There is nothing wrong with enjoying positive opinions or looking for complements. If you agree with the nice comments, they instill in you positive beliefs about yourself and they improve your mood and self-esteem. On the other hand a friend may become irritated upon hearing about your professional success and may start saying negative things about companies similar to yours or about your profession. Instead of getting upset at his comments, you may want to think whether his career is going well. Perhaps he needs some support, but he does not know how to ask for help and his repressed emotions become the ammunition that is being shot in your direction.

So what is the recipe for maintaining a balance between beliefs and opinions of others? An ounce of empathy for those who express opinions and those who are the target of these opinions, mindfulness, balancing between your own opinions and opinions of others (which you might, but you do not have to accept), understanding and constant reshaping of your own boundaries, being aware of your unconscious, allowing yourself to be imperfect, and remembering that the saying “there are as many opinions as there are people” must have been coined for a reason. Although, come to think of it....this might merely be my opinion.

The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 1/18”.
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About the Author

258 joanna gutral

Joanna Gutral − psychologist, doctoral student at the Faculty of Psychology, at SWPS University in Warsaw. Psychotherapist in the process of certification at Szkoła Psychoterapii Poznawczo-Behawioralnej (School of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) at SWPS University. Co-founder of www.zdrowaglowa.pl, an online portal promoting psychological education, and initiator of social campaign “Mam Terapeutę” (I have a psychotherapist).