As much as I hate to admit it, I have always cared about what other people think of me. I crave approval and I am highly motivated by rewards. At my very core, I am a people pleaser. I truly enjoy making people happy and I want people to like me. For many of us this sounds like normal behavior. Most of us care about how we are perceived. But what if this isn’t the best way to go about our lives? What if our reliance on external sources of approval and happiness is interfering with our innate desires? Perhaps the secret to true happiness lies in our ability to stop worrying about what other people think and start living by our own rules instead.
We all know people who are not concerned with what others think of them. These people go about their lives according to their own agenda and are not burdened by social expectations. They make decisions based on what they want. They do not succumb to pressure from their co-workers, friends or spouses. These individuals have what I refer to as an “internal compass.” Admittedly, my internal compass has never been strong. My preoccupation with everyone else’s opinion of me has been known to leave me paralyzed in the decision making process. I was so often worried about how my actions were perceived that I started to have trouble identifying what it was I truly wanted. I wasn’t doing things because I wanted to do them, I was doing them because I felt like I was supposed to do them. Almost all of my motivation stemmed from external sources and it had started to take a toll. My emotions were volatile because my personal satisfaction was solely dependent on external situations and people. As I realized that this trait was a roadblock to success, I committed myself to making a change.
In order to develop my own internal compass I needed to get in touch with what I truly wanted out of life. I had to become confident in my decisions and act according to my own beliefs without being clouded by the expectations of those around me. This all sounds great in theory, but how do we actually go about this? The solution is to change our source of motivation. Psychological research differentiates between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is closely aligned with our identity. When acting under intrinsic motivation, we are motivated to do something because we find it satisfying, not because we find the perceived results satisfying. Extrinsic motivation on the other hand, is more reactionary. When we are extrinsically motivated, we do things based on situations and other people. In these cases, we feel pressured to act according social norms instead of aligning with our true interests. The people pleasers of the world (my former self included) fall into the latter category.
Research demonstrates that those individuals who are intrinsically motivated have a stronger sense of self worth and have higher self esteem. When we are intrinsically motivated, we act according to our personal goals and interests. We know what we want and we know it is good for us. With extrinsic motivation on the other hand, we question our self worth and our self esteem decreases. Our self esteem is delicate under extrinsic motivation because it is dependent on our performance and the potential rewards we may receive.
Once I was able to identify the source of motivation for my actions, it was easier to start living according to my own internal compass. As I started to act under intrinsic motivation, I was no longer plagued by public perception. I was free to make my own decisions and I no longer worried about what other people thought of me — I was too focused on my own personal satisfaction to notice. Once we give up our reliance on outside accolades, we can discover inner joy and be at peace with ourselves. The result? Happiness.
The ability to free ourselves of social expectations can also make us more successful. In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell makes a strong case for breaking with social norms. Gladwell uses a psychological dimension known as agreeableness to present his argument. Agreeableness is one of several dimensions that psychologists use to measure personality. We all land at varying places on the agreeableness scale. The most agreeable individuals are highly cooperative, while the most disagreeable people act in ways that fray from social norms. This is not to say that disagreeable people are offensive, they simply do things that the rest of us are unwilling to do. These same people also do not care what other people think of them. They are intrinsically motivated.
At first blush it seems like agreeable is the way to go. However, Gladwell explains that many successful people actually score on the disagreeable side of the agreeableness scale. Most successful people have taken risks in order arrive where they are today. They were not slowed down by what other people thought of them. A now famous musician is disagreeable because he decided to defer higher education in pursuit of his passion. A disagreeable individual is willing to tell a job interviewer that she is familiar with something she has never heard of — she will learn it when he gets the job. Disagreeable people also question the status quo. We can thank many of our innovators for their disagreeable ways of life. When you are disagreeable, your internal compass is strong and your progress is not slowed by worrying about what other people think of you. Acting under your internal compass can open so many doors. They all lead to happiness and a few may lead to massive success.
By cultivating an awareness of my source of motivation, I was able to strengthen my internal compass. For me, my preoccupation with public perception was rooted in insecurity. I did not have the confidence to act according to my own beliefs and thus sought praise from those around me. However, this dependency on external sources of happiness is risky. There is no way to guarantee that a situation or a person will deliver the results you want. Conversely, internal sources of happiness have a 100% success rate. When my actions stem from internal motivation, they always make me happy because I do not depend on a situation or a person for resultant joy or approval.
The decision to be my best self, not anyone else’s version of my best self, is one of the most positive changes I have ever made. I am now more in touch with my own desires, wants and dreams. I am happier and I am not nearly as afraid to take risks. Life became just a little bit easier and a lot more enjoyable. Now join me on this and find your internal compass too. I assure you, it will direct you to happiness.
Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants. Little, Brown, 2013.
Panahi, Gholam Hasan. “The Relationship Between Motivation and Self-Esteem with Emphasis on the Mediating Role of Happiness.” The Social Sciences 11.9 (2016): 2189–2193
Originally published at medium.com