Learning to Care Less about the Disapproval of Others

Learning to Care Less about the Disapproval of Others July 8, 2014

misunderstandingFew things upset me like being misunderstood, and here lately that’s been happening a lot.  Leaving the Christian fold was an eye-opening experience in more ways than one, not least of which was in showing me how unable to think outside of their box this faith makes people.  As a Christian I was taught to believe that everyone is a God-believer at their core, but that some merely lie to themselves and/or to others about it.  Poor deluded atheists!  The Devil has blinded them to their own folly. Only a fool says in his heart that there is no God, amirite?  No wonder it always feels like my friends and family are misreading me all the time.  They’re looking at me through a lens which claims things about me that are patently false.  Seeing me the way they do requires ignoring several important things I tell them about myself, and that is no way to love someone.  If you aim to love someone, it is incumbent upon you to attempt to understand him on his own terms, and not misrepresent him.

But some cannot do this.  They just can’t.  It’s not in them.  And some who could…won’t.  They choose not to because their loyalties have already been claimed.  They’ve invested too much of their lives into a tribal identity and asking them to see you in a different light would feel to them like turning against their own team.  I know the family members of LGBT folks struggle intensely with this.  Their loved ones plead with them to understand and accept that they did not choose to be different, but many cannot accept this.  They are too committed to seeing the way they were taught to see.  They would sooner cut their own children out of their lives than betray their own tribe, which insists that sexual attraction is a choice, or at least a product of improper socialization.  Like atheism, an atypical sexual orientation will be seen as a flaw or a disorder which at best can be cured or at worst tolerated, but never completely accepted.  The guardians of orthodoxy will not allow it.  And before anyone leaps to insist that No True Christian™ would cut off family members out of loyalty to their tribe, I’ll remind you that it was Jesus who insisted that you cannot be a follower of his unless you are willing to put devotion to him above all else, including your own family.  If you want to call this non-Christian behavior, you need to be honest about the fact that you’re cherry-picking which teachings of Jesus you feel you should follow.  As I’ve said before, it is for things like this that I am not a fan of Jesus.

So like the meme above says, some people are committed to misunderstanding you.  We could go thirty rounds about how much say they have in choosing what they believe, but in the end we’re still stuck with a decision to make:

How much power over you will you allow people who do not understand you?  Are you willing to forfeit your happiness and well-being to them, knowing they will never give you their blessing?

At some point you have to come to see it this way.  People-pleasers like me have a hard time accepting this.  But until you come to realize that it’s no use begging for something you’ll never get, you’ll always be unhappy, wasting days or weeks of your life chasing a chimera.  But how does one do this?  It comes easily enough for those who are naturally oblivious to other people’s opinions, and when we’re not talking about close friends or relatives then it’s no big deal.  But what if you’re not so naturally impervious, and what if the “godly rejection” you’re facing comes from the very people who are supposed to love you most?  What can you do?

Steeling Yourself against Godly Rejection

Personally, this is a great weakness of mine because I struggle with a compulsion to take ownership of other people’s feelings.  I give others far too much power over me, and I find that certain people cannot resist using that leverage to try to manipulate people like me, coercing us to conform to the expectations of their in-group.  Some are overt and straightforward in their use of coercion.  But most people I know are more sophisticated than that, and they are too self-aware to be so blunt and obvious, although not self-aware enough to recognize that they are still trying to coerce.  Sophisticated people use passive-aggressive means of coercion.  That way they can get what they want without having to deal with the guilt that comes from knowing they bullied someone else into doing what they wanted.  Extra points if you can be so subtle and skillful at justifying your actions that you even fool yourself.

Because I’m still learning how to play these games at the adult level, I had to turn to my friends to ask them how they deal with these things.  They wrote in some pretty great advice and I’d like to share it with you.  Their words of wisdom and experience seem to fall into three broad categories:  building a new support system, establishing and maintaining firm boundaries, and adopting new perspectives on the troubled relationships.


1) When your old community pushes you out (whether overtly or more subtly so as to remain above the guilt of it) you should begin to search for like-minded people who can identify with who you are today.  You’ve probably already begun that at least in some small way.  Learn to lean on them for support and encouragement if your old family/community cannot offer you that anymore.  Build a new family, so to speak, when your old one fails you.

And incidentally, stop making excuses for your old one.  If they cannot accept you for who you are today and insist that you revert back to who they want you to be, they have become unable to function as a support network for you.  A community that only supports you as long as you do what they want is not a support network, it is just a system of control.

2) Learn to recognize the mature/well-balanced among your new community and learn from their example.  Find the role models and take advantage of their wisdom and experience.  In time the approval of those you’ve come to admire will make you no longer miss the approval that your old community/family can no longer supply.


3) It shouldn’t take long to figure out which topics lead to conflict, anger, and tears.  Once those are identified and it’s clear that you cannot discuss those topics without people losing their tempers, stop talking about those things.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  Like Newhart said, “Just stop it!”  Once you’ve identified trigger topics, if you desire to maintain a good relationship with these people you will have to agree to leave those topics alone.  They don’t go anywhere positive.  They only produce strife.  So leave them alone.


Who determines which topics those are?  The one being marginalized, the one being rejected or coerced, the one who finds herself out of favor with the group, that’s who.  If you’re that person, it will ultimately fall to you to identify those boundaries and hold people to them.  If certain things cannot be discussed without you feeling threatened and condemned, you must learn to cut the discussion off and tell them to drop it.  If they cannot or will not, even after you ask them…

4) Sometimes the only way to keep people from trying to manipulate, guilt, or coerce you is to put real distance between you.  Get some space. Even geographical distance may be necessary.  You may have to disconnect from the sources of manipulation on social media.  Get a new phone number.  Whatever it takes.  You must take charge of creating that distance and you will be in control of when communication is restored.  You get to set the parameters.  If they cannot live with that, tough luck!  You’re in charge now.  It must be that way.  They have proven that they cannot have that power without using it to try to control you.  So take it out of their hands.  Move across the country if you must.  Whatever it takes to be free to be who you are without their interference.

This requires learning to recognize when people are being manipulative and controlling, and that’s a challenge because the truly skilled can do it without anyone realizing what they’re doing.  But you must learn to recognize when it is happening.  You probably already have to some degree because you can feel it in your gut; you’ve just never given yourself permission to act on it.  Well now you need to decide to change that.  No one else will do it; it will have to be you.  And maybe at this point, the aforementioned feedback and support from your new friends will help you see what needs to be done.  There’s a good chance many of them have been through those motions themselves and they know how to recognize the signs.  Lean on them for help in making and keeping these boundaries.


5) First and foremost, you must learn that you cannot control other people’s reactions to you.  You cannot assume ownership for both your actions and theirs, or for your feelings as well as theirs.  Their job is to learn to love you as you are; if they cannot, you will have to find that love somewhere else.  A friend of mine put this struggle beautifully:

I seem to just turn a switch inside. I have to. If I don’t switch it off, the part of me that cares won’t allow me to let it go. It’s not that I don’t still love them, but I have to shut off a part of my mind to them. It’s as if they are old toys I have outgrown, and have decided to box them up and put the box in the attic. I know they are there, and I still love them, but they are put away for now. I can always get the box back out if I need to.

Part of the process is coming to terms with and realizing that everything they have a problem with is *their* problem. It is entirely theirs to deal with. Not only have I done nothing wrong, but I am not responsible for their unhappiness even though they think I am. Not only is their unhappiness their own, but its origin is an IMAGINARY source, which is inside their heads. That is even more removed from me, and nothing I can do will fix that for them. The only thing I can do is remove myself from the equation, even though that is very sad for me.

They are the only ones creating all this sadness for both of us, but I can lessen the confrontation and the open wounds by distancing myself from them. I have done it before due to my father being the controlling type, but this is different. They clearly blame me. But I can only shake my head and pity them, and put them in a box in the attic of my mind until they are no longer useless broken toys with sharp rusty edges.

6) Try to realize that they’re likely afraid and seeking security themselves, and that’s why they do the things they do.  People who manipulate and control others do it because they’re needy.  Learn to recognize that neediness so that maybe you can find a way to be gracious to them even as you maintain your boundaries.  Sympathize with them, but don’t validate the control tactics they use.

7) Keep pursuing a clearer understanding of what you think about the world, about the subjectivity of the narratives we push on each other, and about how one arrives at a more reliable grasp of reality.  The veterans of this process report that in time this gets easier because as you become more well-rounded in your new understanding of the world, some of the emotional sting of your old group’s rejection fades because you see too plainly how wrong they really are.  Of course it’s always good to maintain your own sense of how easily you can be wrong about things as well, but in time the outright silliness of superstitions and unfounded religious dogma becomes too apparent to be greatly bothered by their fanatical defenders.

Another way the passage of time can help is that often the mere act of passing through these trials toughens us up.  In other words, sometimes the only thing that makes us stronger is passing through the fires of these conflicts so that the next time we come upon them, we are tougher and we can take it.

8) Lastly, there are times when the dysfunctionality of a family or a support structure is so beyond repair that you must learn to view them not as your family but as merely people you know.  I know that sounds terrible at first because if we’re talking about family, that’s not how it should be.  But in the situation I’m talking about here, those family members aren’t really functioning in their proper roles anyway so you’re not likely losing what you think you’re losing.  And if you can remove yourself and your history with them from the equation, viewing these people as simply people you know—evaluating them as objectively as you would any other people—you just might come to view them and their behavior in a more accurate light.  Once you remove the emotional charge of their supposed role in your life, you can better see them for who they are and relate to them accordingly.   This can make it easier to put up and maintain those boundaries that are so necessary to your own psychological well-being.

Learn to internalize the gist of this little speech.  Let it become a template for how you relate to those who feel compelled to manipulate and coerce you into being who they want you to be:

Look, this is who I am.  I know you think it’s wrong (You’ve told me.  All of you have told me.  You don’t have to keep saying it), but it’s probably not going to change.  Now, I want a relationship with you.  So can you accept me as I am and relate to me as I am?  If not, I will find others to fill what’s lacking.  You don’t have to be okay with that.  You can choose to reject who I am.  But if you cannot accept me as I am then it is not me you love, it is some idea of what I should be.  I have no use for that.  If that is how this is going to be then I will have to go find the love that I need from somewhere else.

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  • Jackie

    I have found that people give you the respect you insist on, but you must ask without apology. State your position, ask that they respect it and leave it there. If your confidence in your stand comes across clearly, you will often get the respect you want, even if grudgingly. But that attitude is theirs to deal with.

  • Megan Ratts

    There are so many life situations to which this applies. Anytime your family is not satisfying your needs, this is true. If they cannot be supportive of who you are, there are other people in this world who can be. Social media, while not necessarily positive in all aspects, opens up new worlds for those struggling with their blood relatives to have support from elsewhere.

  • Neil, thank you for your transparency; those of us who are congenitally empathetic and sensitive have to deal with the flip side of these prosocial qualities which consists of hypersensitivity, people-pleasing and feeling rejected. You offer some practical, concrete suggestions here which I intend to read and re-read. (P.S., I love the Newhart “Just Stop It” skit! You shoulda linked it).

  • Not a bad suggestion :) Link added.

  • Thanks, you’ve made me feel much better about being the sort of person who, deep down, just doesn’t give a shit about other people’s opinions.

  • Joan Lawrence

    What an awesome article. I want to thank you for bringing together so much wisdom into one concise package. I wish every psychotherapist would read this and take it to heart. I have been advised so many times to pretend to be someone I’m not so that I don’t lose my support system. But this is damaging me at my core. At the age of 45, I don’t want to have to pretend the way I did when I was 13. Thank you again for sharing your wisdom and the wisdom of others.

  • Reblogged this on kindism and commented:
    Awesome article that can be applied to many situations!

  • I concur. I’d rather be adored than be adoring. My sister and I are polar opposites but loving each other takes precedence over our ideologies. Mutual respect…

  • “Amen” to that :)

  • Great article, but the choice of the word “Tribe” is unfortunate. As a tribal member myself, we don’t agree on LOTS of things and we don’t argue about religion as tribal members because its a personal thing. We have atheists,Christians, and traditionalists and all manner of belief systems but one thing we do is come together for ceremony and we dance together expressing Thanks. I would suggest a better word would be “CLUB”

  • Lee

    Here here! Lots of hard earned wisdom in this one. Lots of juicy nuggets (especially #7). I think I’ll refer back to this one often. Thanks for a great piece Neil!

  • Bonnie

    Thanks. I too struggle with being a pleaser. I can’t figure out if it’s the way I was raised, my genes or twenty years of Christian indoctrination.

  • I feel ya. And thank you. I’ve found some helpful friends who have been through a lot.

  • Point taken, and I see how the word “club” would work better than “tribe” since the former is ideological while the latter is ethnic. But in my culture those two things blend in ways that make the distinction less relevant. I use the word “tribe” here metaphorically, with no offense intended toward literal tribes. It’s a useful term for describing in-group vs outsider treatment, and since these things are most powerfully passed down through family structures, the concept of “tribal identity” still fits.

  • I think it’s great that you’ve incorporated so many pieces of others’ experiences into your own journey. Co-dependence is the dark side of being emotionally intelligent. Rejection by those we feel the closest attachment’s to is likely the hardest thing anyone faces. That strong undying attachment and desire to be in relationship to the very person/people rejecting you is also normal. Sometimes, I miss my church community and wish I could attend as an atheist, weird, I know.

    I have worked with children and adults who have suffered all types of abuse at the hands of their primary attachments figures and all of them still have the desire to be in relationship with their abuser. While it sometimes is necessary and extremely painful to abandon dangerous relationships, it’s the ones your describing here that fall into that middle ground of “not dangerous” but “still painful”. It does seem that all of us need to differentiate between the people, as you write, who “cannot” accommodate difference, and the ones who “won’t”. With the former, we can find exonerations for, but for the latter we must deeply consider our attachment status.

    I too have experienced the rejection of family and friends for changing my mind about the way the universe is and is not. While I struggle more with the lack of influence I have on them, I also identify with being told I’m deluded, or was never really “saved” etc, etc…all things Christians say because of the story they tell themselves to make sense of their world. Even though I don’t struggle with feeling responsible for their feelings, like you express in this article, I struggle inside of these relationships. Things have fundamentally changed. It’s hard to love and be loved and differentiate perspective. It’s hard for them to hear that we believe their whole worldview is a myth, and it’s hard for us to be told we are being deceived and believe a lie. It’s difficult for any of us to criticizing ideas while respecting those who hold them. No relationship is immune from suffering with those kinds of dichotomies. But the most important thing is to remember that in relationships, the map is not in fact the territory, and learning to accept this is what healthy relationships thrive on.

    Great article.

  • Thinker1121

    Moral empathy – having empathy for those whose moral world view differs from yours – is one of the most difficult things to acquire. In my experience, most people have no desire whatsoever to empathize with people who disagree with their version of morality. (For example, try telling the average Obama supporter that the Tea Party is made up of normal people who aren’t crazy or deluded or stupid and see what happens.)

    It’s usually easier to just find a support group that agrees with your morality, even if many of those people agree with you for the wrong reasons. Weird as it sounds, the atheists I know who came to their atheism for (in my opinion) stupid and un-scientific reasons tick me off less than the Christians I know who came their religion for (in my opinion) good reasons. I’m just predisposed to liking people more when their world view agrees with mine, even if they came to it for (in my opinion) bad reasons.

  • David W

    Good advice throughout.

    You said: “Learn to recognize that neediness so that maybe you can find a way to be gracious to them even as you maintain your boundaries. Sympathize with them, but don’t validate the control tactics they use.”

    I would like to share something that I have just recently learned in regard to “…validating the control tactics they use.”

    My go-to has always been to try to have a rational conversation with someone whom I disagree with, or with someone whom I think is trying to use a control tactic; I now think that any attempt at a rational conversation with them validates their tactic, and results in them winning.

    Now, just recently, what I have been trying, and with amazing success I might add, is simply saying “No,” and refusing to get drawn into their frame.

    I have found that when someone tries to use a control tactic, it is almost always a tactic that relies upon deep emotion, something that I am not very good at. If I try to have a rational conversation with them, I end up losing as I am outclassed by their emotional cunning.

    On the other hand, if I simply say “no” or something VERY similarly short, and then add something sympathetic and loving, like, “I can’t argue with you about this, but I love/care about you,” and then, (and this is the hard part for me), remain calm and do not budge ONE inch, all the while staying in my frame, and refusing to allow myself to be drawn into their emotional trap, I find that in the end I am coming out much better than if I had tried to reason with them. And most encouragingly, I think that I am seeing less and less of this emotional control tactic used as it become obvious to them that it is not effective.

    I hope I made sense here, and maybe this idea will help someone :)

  • David W

    “But the most important thing is to remember that in relationships, the map is not in fact the territory, and learning to accept this is what healthy relationships thrive on.”

    I looked this up and found “Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that “the map is not the territory”, encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. Korzybski held that many people do confuse maps with territories, that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself.”

    I am not clear on how accepting this would play out in a relationship, would you elaborate please?

  • I do believe all of the ideas you’ve presented in your post.

    They’re really convincing and will certainly work.

    Nonetheless, the posts are very brief for starters.

    May you please lengthen them a little from next time? Thanks for the post.

  • Cjoint

    Sure. All of have subjective realities about the world. These are a shaped by familial, cultural and personal experiences. We spend a lot of wasted time (in relationships) arguing over whose view represents the true geography (reality). We spend a lot of wasted time trying to convince others that we posses the truest map, that our model is indeed the map. While this may be helpful in a debate between atheism and Christianity, it is not very helpful in relationships, where people must learn to accept each other’s models, be inquisitive about how each came to see the world that way. Doing this takes both empathy and humility. It doesn’t take agreement or relinquishing my own perspective. It takes love. Of course, I am always going to think that my perspective is indeed a better model of reality, especially since I a convinced that my atheism is grounded in objective evidences. But I must realize that it is still my perspective and the “other” thinks their model is equally valid. In building relationships, all perspectives are indeed equal and permitted first. This allows for possible influence later. But approaching each other without respecting the role perspective plays simply leads to relationship deterioration.

  • Courtney

    There’s some great advice in this post. Growing up, my stepmother was emotionally abusive, and one of her daughters (my stepsister) was extremely manipulative and volatile. I spent years trying to save those drowning ships! As an adult, I’m still polite when I see them at family functions, but I no longer emotionally invest in them or take our conversations beyond small talk. My life and its goings-on are valuable, and being able to share in those is a privilege, not a right.

    I think part of the problem is that the the word “family” gets conflated with other ideas like “unconditional love,” “blood is thicker than water,” etc. It took some time for me to realize that I don’t have to love (or even like!) someone simply because I’m related to them, but it was life-changing when I did. Now, I’m much better at recognizing when a relationship is one-sided (i.e. I’m investing, but the other person isn’t) and I don’t feel the least bit guilty in letting it go. I’m MUCH happier for it!

  • I had to struggle with this as well. It’s very hard to tell people no, especially people who are supposed to love you. And as for my old Christian friends, well, I lost every single mother’s child of them when I deconverted. If I was unwilling to toe the line, then I’d be punished by shunning. I seriously think some of them thought that if I got lonely enough, I’d come slinking back to church. Manipulation and coercion are about all the language that some of these Christians know.

  • I reblogged this at RecoveringAgency and talked about how those steps apply to exmormons. Good stuff!

  • dboudov

    “If you aim to love someone, it is incumbent upon you to attempt to understand him on his own terms, and not misrepresent him.” Beautifully said. Replace the word incumbent with something a 5th grader can understand and you got yourself a viral meme.

  • Cool! Thanks for passing it along.

  • :-P

    Make it so.

  • Thank you for writing this. I went through this process (and continue to go through it). One of the hardest things for me was that my loss of a support system was invisible to everyone but me and my husband. My family is still there, saying that they love me, doing lots of good things, but none of them *support* me in any way that is actually helpful. They certainly treat me differently. So now I have all these relationships that I value because I care about these people, but I get absolutely nothing helpful or affirming from them at all. I haven’t been disowned, but honestly sometimes I think that would have been easier. At least it would have been apparent to the world what happened. Instead, I am “loved” but not accepted. I no longer consider that love and I am trying to figure out what to do with these relationships now. My parents and I communicate maybe once a month, with my siblings it’s even less. I don’t miss them at all.

    Sorry that this is so rambling. It’s so frustrating to me that much of this emotional trauma is invisible to the world because christians like this are so good at looking like loving, kind people even when all their actions say differently.

  • Being shunned by my two adult daughters and excluded from my four granddaughter’s lives presents a pain and sorrow that just won’t quite go away. I know it is incumbent upon me to build a new life and support system, and I am attempting to do so…but the pain ever lurks in the shadows. Their shunning is an effort to control and manipulate- I know that. They genuinely believe that my soul is in eternal danger and they truly believe that cutting me out is the loving thing to do- so that, as Captain said, the pain of loss would “drive me back to the cross” (so to speak). Knowing the reality of their thought process; and understanding how twisted it is…doesn’t dull the pain of loss. One can build new support systems and close the door to abusive and controlling family members, but how do you replace your children?

  • A little story about my husband who was born Jewish, converted to Catholicism, then became non-religious. When my husband married his second wife (first marriage was annulled) his parents were furious and, in Jewish tradition, declared him “dead” to them because he converted. They even sat Shiva, (a week-long mourning period in Judaism for first-degree relatives) as if they had had a funeral for him. But he wouldn’t believe they were without heart so he kept writing letters and trying to contact them. When his first child was born, he sent pictures to his mom. Eventually, they came around but it took many years. I am his fourth wife and I had an absolutely wonderful relationship with his mom till the day she died. She affectionately called me her little shiksa (a female who isn’t Jewish) daughter. I don’t know the resolve of your daughters beliefs nor do I want to give you false hope, but keep in contact any way you can, and hope. After all, that is the only thing you can do.