Being oversensitive to others’ opinions can be harmful

We all want to get home as quickly and safely as possible at the end of the day. The other day — as I braked for a red light and turned my right blinker on — I not only looked to see if cars were coming from the left but also checked my rearview mirror.

In a moment of introspection, I suddenly wondered: “Why am I doing that?” What difference would it make from a safety perspective whether there were cars behind me or not? All that matters when deciding whether or not to take the right on red is whether there are cars coming from the left. I realized that I was checking my rearview mirror, not for safety’s sake, but because I was concerned that there were cars behind me that could be thinking, “Why isn’t she turning? Why is she driving so over-carefully? What’s wrong with her?”

My concern about what others might think of me — strangers that I do not know, will likely never encounter again, and should have no impact on my decision about whether to take the right — was so strong that it not only drove me to check the rearview mirror but, in the extreme, actually had the potential to modify my behavior. Potentially even in an unsafe way. Were I to take the right turn I would not have done if I was alone on the road in an attempt to allay my own fears that people behind me could be upset if I did not.

We all have an inner voice that makes us, to some degree, sensitive to the thoughts and opinions of others. In some cases, this can be a good thing. We do not live in a bubble. Major life-altering decisions that have the potential to impact not only ourselves but our loved ones often benefit significantly from discussion with those individuals. However, being oversensitive to others’ opinions can be harmful, especially when we listen too carefully to the opinions of those who are not close to us and do not have a detailed understanding of our personality and individual life situation.

I mentor a number of medical trainees, and I find that medicine is a field that often encourages overuse of the rearview mirror. Medical students and residents receive unsolicited feedback on specialty choice on an almost constant basis from peers, supervisors, and even family members: “Why don’t you do X, it is very prestigious and pays well?” “Why would you want to do Y, it is a lot of work for not much respect?” Or, most often stated to female medical trainees, “That’s a really tough specialty to balance with a family – don’t you want to have a family too?” This type of feedback is often provided by well-meaning individuals, but those who have absolutely no idea about either the life circumstances and goals of the person they are talking to nor the potential lasting impact of their words. I have mentored many trainees that did not just consider but actually pursued certain specialties and avoided others because of just this type of feedback.

This propensity for over-sensitivity to others’ opinions does not stop after training.

With everything we do, as physicians, we wonder, “Is this right? Is this what Dr. X would do? What would Dr. Y think of me if she knew that I did this? What about what Dr. Z and what he would think if he knew I turned this down?” Our sensitivity to others thoughts and opinions (or even what we perceive their thoughts and opinions might be) can wreak havoc with our self-esteem and confidence. We may feel pressured to take on projects that we are not interested in (because of the fear of upsetting a more senior colleague by saying no), avoid working on projects we are passionate about (because they are “not prestigious” or “not what someone in this specialty does”), alter our priorities based on what others tell us our priorities should be, and truly have an impact on our well-being, career satisfaction and sense of self.

What can we do to avoid excessive reliance on outside opinions? It can be very difficult, especially as many of us in medicine are extreme type-A personalities that have been using input from others as a guide for most of our lives. However, every time we must make a decision that could impact our future, I suggest considering the following three things:

1. Do I need input from others to make this decision?
2. Whom else and to what degree does my decision impact someone besides myself?
3. Do I want this input to affect my final choice?

If the answers to these questions are no, no one and no — then it is essential to avoid looking for input in the first place. If unsolicited advice/input is provided, it is essential to ignore it. Only consider advice (solicited or unsolicited) if the answer to at least one of these questions is “yes” or “it could have a significant impact on someone I care about.”

And make sure that the advice you solicit (or pay attention to) comes from an individual that has knowledge of your individual situation and is invested not only in your success but also your self-confidence and well-being.

For example, a well-meaning family member could offer advice on specialty choice, but if their advice is to choose the most “prestigious” or high-paying specialty without regard for your interests and “fit” with your personality, that advice may not reflect enough alignment with your outcome (self-confidence and well-being) to warrant serious consideration.

So, the next time you consider making a decision as you drive down the path of life, consider that impulse to check the rearview mirror carefully. Are you doing it because your decision truly affects those behind (and around) you in a direct and impactful way? Or are you doing it simply because there may be someone behind you that you think might have an unsolicited opinion of you that you will feel pressured to listen to and potentially even act on? Making that determination could be a major step towards improving your self-confidence and well-being.

Ariela L. Marshall is an oncology-hematology physician.

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