I have a vivid memory of standing in the hallway outside my 3rd-grade classroom, in tears, because I’d missed a word on my spelling test. Not that I’d misspelled it, but that I hadn’t heard the word when the teacher read it and therefore couldn’t actually write it on my paper even though I probably knew how to spell it…and now I knew I wouldn’t get 100% on the test. (Rough times—I know!)
When I burst into tears during class, my teacher pulled me into the hall and tried to console me, but I think she was a little flummoxed as to why I was so upset over missing just one word. (In my mind, she could have just been nice and told me the word so I could write it and we could all move on with our lives…)
I’d set a goal that term that I was going to score 100% on every single spelling test and was absolutely determined to do just that. And everything was going great until I let my mind wander during class and didn’t listen when she was reading the spelling words to us, missed the word, and landed us both in the hallway with me crying.
This wasn’t the only such event that happened for me that year. One day I forgot my homework and was so distraught that she let me go to the office to call my mom and have her bring it to me.
I also remember having trouble sleeping that year because I was convinced I wasn’t going to quite measure up to the demands of third grade. (Weirdly, I don’t remember any of this happening in other grades. Not sure why 3rd was so triggering for me.)
But what’s important to this story is the amount of pressure my little 8-year-old self was putting on me. Somehow, I had it in my mind that perfection was the only valid pathway and when I didn’t measure up, it was devastating.
Now, ask yourself if this is sometimes true of you.
It’s probably not about the grade you got on a spelling test or forgetting your homework, but do you ever set impossible standards for yourself to reach and then berate yourself when you fall short?
I think we all do this—though sometimes we aren’t fully aware of the ways we are doing it.
Pressure From Society (Things You “Should” Do and Be)
A lot of this pressure we feel to live up to impossible standards or to be “perfect” comes from what we believe are the expectations of the people around us or what we think we are “supposed to” do.
Here’s just one example:
Have you ever stopped to consider all the pressures put on mothers in our day? (If you’re a mom, you probably have.)
A mom should be loving and uber-capable of caring for her kids. She should never lose her cool, should always know just the thing to say, should provide a loving shoulder to cry on at all needed moments, should never get sick of being around her kids or just want to sit and watch Netflix.
She should know how to cook—and make sure they are healthy meals! And have dinner on the table at an appropriate time. And a warm, hearty breakfast would be nice. Maybe a lunch packed with little love notes or jokes for the kids.
Her house should be clean and well-decorated. The laundry will be sorted, folded, washed, put away regularly. No one will ever be left searching for clean underwear or socks.
She should know just how to stop a toddler’s tantrum before it happens (heaven forbid the kid melts down in the store in front of other people) and how to tackle teenage angst with grace (why would she ever get her feelings hurt by the mean words of a moody teen?!).
She’s got to sign her kids up for all the things that will produce an uber-intelligent, high-functioning, well-rounded, contributor to society. The best schools, the best sports teams, the best doctors. She’s got to get them all on her team. And then shuttle her kids to all those places.
A nice after-school snack and time shared talking to her kids and helping them solve all the problems of childhood would be ideal. She should have a golden teaching moment prepared at the drop of a hat. And helping with math homework will be a breeze as she patiently teaches long division (and she certainly never struggles to know HOW to do the 4th-grade math assignment).
She should probably contribute to the household income in some way, whether that’s full-time work (but shame on her for working and not being home with the kids) or working from home (but shame on her for not being fully present with her kids) or doing something part-time (but shame on her for not making enough money to contribute to the home).
And don’t forget—she needs to look really good while she does this. Perfect, nails, hair, boobs, weight, and clothes at all times. None of this messy bun or muffin top stuff.
And the list could go on. And on and on.
But you get the point, right?
There are SO many things that we tell ourselves we “should” do based on expectations that we think society or our family or our friends expect of us. (And this doesn’t just apply to being a mom—it applies to literally everything.)
You and I both know that this is completely unrealistic—we can’t be all things to all people all the time.
And we certainly can’t be perfect.
Worrying About What Other People Think
And yet, we do it, don’t we? We set these impossible standards for ourselves based on what we think are the expectations that others have for us or things we think we “should” do…instead of doing what feels good and right to us.
And we worry about what other people think.
And because we inevitably fall short of these idealistic standards, we start to hide our real selves from others so that they won’t see the ways we didn’t measure up. In fact, people who worry a lot about what other people think or by what they THINK other people think have a really hard time connecting with others.
It’s hard to want to let someone get to know you well if you don’t think you’re meeting the standards that you think they have for you.
You know what makes this extra ridiculous? (And please know that when I say ridiculous, I am absolutely including myself in this because I certainly do this too.) We are actually really bad at judging what others think about us. We believe we know what they’re thinking about us or what they expect, but we usually don’t. We are bad judges of that.
There we are trying to live our lives to meet these expectations of others… and yet those aren’t even the expectations they HAVE of us…so it’s really just a big, convoluted mess. And if you try to solve it by listening to what others tell you what to do…well, you can see the irony in that. (Though sometimes professional help can allow you to untangle the mess.)
Why Does This Matter (Other Than the Obvious)
This mess that we create by worrying so much about what others think or what we “should” do plays out in just about every aspect of our lives.
Here are some ways that happens:
If you’re in need of confirmation that you’re meeting others’ standards (or the ones you perceive they have for you), you’re also less likely to share your innermost thoughts and feelings because you worry that they won’t like what you have to say. Stifling your voice makes it hard to form emotionally intimate connections with people like your spouse, friends, or family. This can be associated with things like depression and health problems as well.
Worrying about what other people think can also make you worry a lot about what you look like. And when that’s founded on trying to measure up to worldly standards, guess what? Again, you’re probably going to fall short. This emphasis on external beauty is going to make it harder to enjoy sex and connection because you’re more focused on external things (how do my thighs look right now?) rather than internal ones like desire and arousal.
Those are just two examples of ways that this focus on others’ expectations can impact your life. I can think of many more. Your connection with God, your performance at work, your friendships, your marriage, your parenting.
Worrying about what others think can paralyze you and prevent you from being the person you could be if you just embraced and accepted yourself.
It can prevent you from striving to improve yourself because it hurts too much to think that you’ll fall short in others’ eyes.
And it can hinder your ability to develop strong connection with others—one of the greatest beauties of life.
Do I Do This?
I’m fairly confident that we all do this at some level. Some worry less about what others think than others—there’s definitely a spectrum—but it’s something we all have to fight against.
I remember sitting through a church meeting one time with the speakers talking about this exact topic—not worrying so much about others think and loving yourself—and when it ended, my husband’s grandma, who was in her 80s at the time said, “wow did I need to hear that!”
I admit I was a little surprised because I figured by your 80s, you’d have put those feelings behind you. But I guess that’s not always true. This is something we all have to battle.
Here is a scale that scholars use to determine how much someone relies on an “externalized self-perception” (or looking to others to determine their identity and worth).
Look through these questions and ask yourself not IF you do these things but HOW you do these things.
- I tend to judge myself by how I think other people see me
- I feel dissatisfied with myself because I should be able to do all the things people are supposed to be able to do these days
- When I make decisions, other people’s thoughts and opinions influence me more than my own thoughts and opinions
- I often feel responsible for other people’s feelings
- I find it hard to know what I think and feel because I spend a lot of time thinking about how other people are feeling
Pay attention this week to some of the things you do and if the source of them might be an attempt to live up to others’ standards. (For example, people-pleasing and perfectionism both have their roots in this.)
So Why Do We Try?
Let me just be the first to admit that I fall prey to this all the time. I know better, but I still have all these ideals in my mind about what my life “should” look like, and I try to live like that…but then I fall short and internally beat myself up and get frustrated.
I struggled a little bit this past summer with trying to live up to unattainable ideals.
Being in school is a big challenge while also being a mom, so I tend to really look forward to summer break and I’m always sure that I’m going to get SO much done (without any pressing deadlines for school assignments) while also enjoying every moment with my kids and seeing friends and going on family vacations and working and researching and all the things…
This summer (like last), I had a long list (literally—it was a google doc I created) of things I dreamed of accomplishing (including launching this website MONTHS before it was anywhere near ready to launch).
But the reality of having 4 kids at home means that there’s also somebody needing something ALL the time. And frankly, those needs matter a lot to me, and I choose to make my kids my priority.
But I was beating myself up internally for not making more progress on some of the things I wanted to get done.
I had big goals and high ideals.
And guess what? I fell short.
Trying to write articles and build the website and keep the house clean and have fun pool days and shuttle my kids to activities and exercise each day and everything else that comes with being a mom of 4 kids during the summer…didn’t go all that well.
I mean, it went GREAT in some ways. I spent lots of days at the pool, lots of time in my backyard (my absolute favorite place on a summer evening), and I definitely put a lot of time and energy into my kids.
What didn’t go well was trying to reach the ideals that I had for my to-do list this summer.
Or when I had ideas of how the kids would just love to spend time with me doing all the fun things we used to do (did I mention 3 of my kids are teens who are definitely less interested in spending time with me than they used to be?) and that there would be no fighting between siblings.
It was at these times that I felt discouraged and frustrated. And then I’d have to take a step back and look at what “shoulds” or false ideals I was trying to reach and why I might be trying to reach them.
When you can stop and take a look at the things you are doing and figure out for yourself what you actually can and want to do with your time and energy, much more contentment comes.
It’s not a bad thing to strive to be your best (in fact, that’s a good thing), but it needs to be accompanied by grace, forgiveness, and self-compassion.
Take time to check where your motivation is coming from—could it be expectations that you think someone (or everyone) has for you?
Could it be because you’re worrying about what others might think of you?
Is your focus outwards (trying to live up to false standards or ideals) rather than on what matters to you?
Stop “shoulding” on yourself.
Instead, do what feels good and right to you. Do the things that you know matter to you. This still looks like doing good in the world, it’s just dictated by your heart rather than sources outside yourself. (The one exception I personally make to that is God. That’s a great source outside yourself and can help guide your choices.)
My 3rd-grade self set standards for herself that were hard (impossible) to attain and then beat herself up for when she fell short. I can now look back with compassion on her and want to give her a big hug and say, “Hey! You’re doing so great, and things will all work out! You’ll pass math, you’ll be a good speller. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t worry about what you think others think. Just do your best and keep trying. You’re amazing!”
Those are things I could say to myself today too.
And so could you.
 Price, A.A., Leavitt, C.E., Larsen Gibby A., Holmes, E. K. (manuscript in progress) How Does External Referencing Define Sense of Self and Link to Relational Well-being?
 Jaret, C., Reitzes, D. C., & Shapkina, N. (2005). Reflected appraisals and self-esteem. Sociological Perspectives, 48(3), 403-419.
 Jack, D. C. (1991). Silencing the self: Women and depression. Harvard University Press.
 Maji, S., & Dixit, S. (2019). Self-silencing and women’s health: A review. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 65(1), 3-13.
 Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of women quarterly, 21(2), 173-206.
 Jack, D. C., & Dill, D. (1992). The Silencing the Self Scale: Schemas of intimacy associated with depression in women. Psychology of women quarterly, 16(1), 97-106.