Ouch. Those words simultaneously bruised my ego and released me from the pressures of self-consciousness, which is not an easy task when you are a sixteen-year-old girl. When my dad threw those harsh (but true) words of advice out there, in the midst of a drama-laden moment from his teenage daughter, I don’t think he realized what a tremendous impact they would have on my life. The moment was, if you’ll excuse the cliché, paradigm shifting. But the truth of those words stuck with me over the years. Live your life the way you want to live your life. Do what you want to do and be what you want to be. Don’t worry about what others will think, because they are too busy living their own lives to worry about yours. Basically, the world doesn’t revolve around you kid.
My dad’s advice, once I got over the initial sting, was tremendously liberating. Have you ever been self-conscious out on the dance floor? Guess what…so is everybody else out there. The good news is that they are more concerned about how they look busting a move than about how you look shaking your groove thing. If you want to get on the fast track to conquering your fear of dancing in public, just attend a Zumba class. Most of the women poppin’ and lockin’ were probably once wallflowers too, before they realized that nobody really cares how you look when you dance—only that you showed up to join the party. I can tell you from experience that I am completely oblivious to the movements of my fellow dancers because I am way too intent on following the steps myself (and noticing my “club face” in the mirror during the latest Pit Bull song). I received further evidence to support this theory when one of the instructors recently yelled out, “There are no wrong moves….just accidental solos!” So, dance like no one is watching because, really, no one is.
You can imagine how helpful this piece of advice—that people are too busy living their own lives to worry so much about my daily decisions—can also be for students who are nervous to deliver a speech in front of a classroom full of their peers. Glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking (thanks Wikipedia!), is a widely shared condition and one that can be difficult to overcome. My conversation with students who suffer from this phobia usually goes something like this:
Student: “Mrs. Carlin, I’m just too nervous to talk in front of people. I think I’ll take the point deduction on my grade and just skip the speech part of the assignment.”
Me: “Oh, you’re nervous to talk in front of the class. I totally get that. You should volunteer to go first.”
Student: “What?! Didn’t you just hear what I said…I am terrified of public speaking. Why would you tell me to go first?”
Me: “Because, if you go first, the only person who is really going to be listening to you is me. Everyone else is going to be too busy thinking about what they are going to say when it’s their turn. They will be polite and quiet when you are speaking, but they won’t really be listening….they will be practicing their own speeches in their own heads. So, basically, you will just be talking to me.”
Student: “Really? Nobody cares about what I have to say?”
Me: “It’s not that they don’t care….they just care about what they are going to say more. And the students that aren’t stressing about their upcoming turns at the podium will be too busy subversively texting to pay attention to your two minute lesson on the Mongols.”
Student: “Oh….okay then.”
Bubble burst. But, with truth comes confidence. And overcoming a fear of public speaking in front of their own peer group, a crowd of self-consumed 17-year-olds, will hopefully make other obstacles in their lives seem less scary.
These guiding words can be applied to other areas of life as well. Worried about how you look in that dress? Don’t be. Every other girl in the room is thinking about how she looks in her own dress to be much concerned about yours. Stressing over changing your major in college? You shouldn’t. You’re the one who has to take the tests and work in that field; others have their own jobs to trudge to on Monday mornings. Concerned about what other runners will think about your split time for that last mile? Hate to break it to you, but they were too busy looking at their own watches to notice. You know what does matter though? That you put on the dress, that you value education, that you laced up your kicks and got off the couch.
It’s easy to get wrapped up into the dueling evils of peer pressure and groupthink. We are bombarded with images of “perfection” every day and encouraged to keep up with the Kardashians. Our society breeds self-doubt and self-consciousness. I know that my own kids will soon enter that dreaded phase of considering others’ opinions when making decisions that will only impact themselves. But I hope to buck that trend entirely, or at least keep it at bay for as long as I can. I intend to foster an environment that will encourage my son to bust out his best dance moves to a medley of One Direction songs every year at the elementary school talent show, regardless of the potential for embarrassment. Because what you do becomes who you are. If he repeatedly takes on challenges and isn’t afraid to put himself out there, he will grow up to be a man with integrity, a leader who follows his own code of ethics instead of the crowd.
A friend on my newsfeed this morning posted the following words of advice and I found them both comforting and inspiring: “Focus on who you are instead of who you aren't. Be you - it's easier.” I couldn’t agree more. Sounds much easier to live a life of your own choosing. Sounds more fun too.
So make bold choices. Live confidently. Sit in the front row. Dance in public. Take a chance. Go for it, always. Because, as the saying goes, the people who mind don’t matter, and the people who matter don’t mind.