“Be yourself because everyone else is already taken.” These words were on the poster that stared back at me every day in my seventh-grade math class. This quote was also a favorite of my overzealous guidance counselor, who relentlessly tried to convince socially anxious middle-schoolers not to care about other people’s opinions. Cool, right? Conveniently, she failed to mention how we should go about dismissing the harsh gaze of our unforgiving classmates—a Herculean task for me, considering I was a four-foot-something 12-year-old with the pastiest of skin, freckles galore and hair so red and bushy it would put Little Orphan Annie to shame. I was hardly blending into any crowds unless, of course, it was a crowd of clowns.
People love to tell us to “just be yourself” when we feel insecure, believing it’s life-changing advice, but nobody ever tells us how to “just be yourself.” That’s because the “how” is hard to figure out. Everyone struggles with insecurity. It’s hard to keep ourselves from wondering why that person unfollowed us on Instagram or didn’t smile at us this morning. It’s challenging not to internalize these situations as questioning our core characteristics.
The fact is that we learn how to be confident, but nobody learns how to be insecure. Our insecurities are inherently part of who we are. Sure, different situations in our life awaken us to our insecurities. However, we do not have to actively seek out our flaws to know they are there; instead, we need to actively nurture our sense of self in order to build confidence.
It’s human nature to want to be liked. Evolutionarily, it was extremely advantageous to “fit in”; the caveman who strayed from the group got eaten by prehistoric beasts. Survival of the fittest taught us that it was really survival of the most well-liked; when people like us, they help us, and vice versa. All this science means that you currently seek out those Instagram likes as a manifestation of this primordial instinct to survive, and there is nothing wrong with wanting our friends and others to like us. But, often, we judge how well-liked we are through avenues like social media—even though how many likes you get won’t help you survive—, and therein lies the disconnect. While our brains tell us that we need to fit in to survive, we continually judge how successfully we fit in based on arbitrary things.
This column isn’t going to be a trite anecdote filled with self-righteous grandiloquence about how the opinions of others don’t matter as long as you’re happy—we both know that sentiment won’t stop you from worrying about what others think. So go ahead and worry if you must. Just make sure you’re worrying about the right people. Imagine, it is the first day of the semester, and you walk into your first class. Who are the people you would be excited to see in class with you? Or, think about the last time you laughed uncontrollably. When was the last time something was so funny that it is now an inside joke? Did it make you smile to think about that? Who shares the inside joke with you? While I’m giving you a pass on the whole “worrying about what others think” thing, try and limit yourself to only worrying about what these people think—the people with whom you have the inside jokes; who you are excited to see in your classes. These are the people who would make sure you didn’t get eaten by the prehistoric beasts, and therefore, these are the people who are advantageous in your survival.
Just because you got 300 likes on an Instagram post does not mean that 300 people would make you soup if you were sick. It doesn’t mean that 300 people would ask you how your day is going. It doesn’t mean that you have memories that make you smile with 300 different people, and that’s okay. As long as you have some people who make you smile when you think about your time with them or people whose presence makes you happy, you’re doing something right. Sometimes, all it takes is one person that makes you smile. All it took was another caveman asking, “where did Jimmy go?” to make the group search and save you from a man-eating lion. The people who make you smile, ask about your day and go the extra mile to say hello are whose opinion you should value. You don’t need @becky_likes_cats343’s validation.
Furthermore, because our anxiety and drive to seek external validation stems from a judgment of our survival potential, we may also compare ourselves to others as another way to judge how successfully we are “surviving.” Yet again, the 100 comments of heart emojis and compliments on someone else’s post doesn’t mean that those 100 people would be there for them on a rough day. At best, it means that 100 people are too scared to form their own personalities, so they latch onto someone else whose personality is big enough for the both of them.
You can never know what is going on inside someone’s head, and sometimes the loneliest people exude the most confidence to mask their insecurities. When we feel anxious because someone else is more popular on social media, we project our insecurities onto them. While we might only get five comments on our posts, those comments are from our closest friends. We might assume that the person receiving hundreds of comments are from the abundance of close friends, but in reality, nobody has 100 genuine friends.
Look, I have 3,415 followers on Instagram. I don’t know 3,415 people. Of those 3,415 followers, I only consider 30 of them to be my good friends. Of those 30, about 15 have not posted anything on Instagram in upwards of a year. If I were to judge how well I fit in by how many of my actual friends comment on my Instagram, I would consistently miss half the people in my life who love and support me.
Again, I’m not going to tell you not to worry; just make sure you’re worrying about the right things and people.