I think it’s safe to say that at one point or another, we have all struggled to ignore the “haters” — those faceless, largely imagined enemies who are determined to bring us down. Aside from the truly famous, most of us only have one or two regular critics, but sometimes we exaggerate their negative comments in our minds until it feels like the whole world is against us.

According to a 2012 column in the New York Times piece, focusing on the negative is common because negative emotions require more processing than positive ones, causing us to ruminate about them more frequently. I have often found myself ruminating about comments people have made about me, letting the words circle endlessly in my mind until I can no longer think straight. Ceasing to concern myself with how others see me has been difficult, but definitely worth the effort.

I spent most of the first two decades of my life letting my perception of how others perceived me drag me down. I already had low self-esteem, and I used every negative comment as proof that I was, in fact, unloved. By the time I entered college, my confirmation bias had reached such an extreme that I no longer needed to hear negative comments to feel that others disliked me — I simply assumed they did.

Believing I was unloved became exhausting, but it seemed like a safer bet than the alternative. What if I were to convince myself that everyone cared about me, only to find out one day that they didn’t? Such a realization would be heartbreaking. I might as well come to terms with “reality” before I got hurt.

I began to question my need for a realistic self-image after taking a social psychology class my sophomore year. We learned about the theory of depressive realism, which states that people with depression have a far more realistic perception of their skills and abilities compared to non-depressed people. I realized that maintaining a realistic perception of my relationships was pointless if it led to unhappiness. Either I could continue to be sad and focus on all the signs indicating that people didn’t enjoy my company, or I could put on the same rose-colored glasses as everyone else and tell myself that I was loved.  

Adjusting my attitude proved difficult because I had spent so many years thinking negatively. It wasn’t until I fell into an actual depression last winter that I knew I needed to change. A lot of things in my life spiraled out of control that semester, but I realized the one factor I could control was how I responded. Since I yearned for authentic connections with other people, I decided to stop worrying about what others thought of me and spend time with people whose company I enjoyed. Instead of facing disdain from others, I experienced an outpouring of love. This semester alone, I have formed more genuine friendships than I did in all three previous years of college combined.

Though I’m still aware that I could get hurt if these connections dissolve, I no longer actively think about this possibility. For one thing, now that I’m less paranoid about people leaving me, I’m less inclined to accidentally push them away. For another, if people are hell-bent on walking out of my life, they’ll do it regardless of whether I see it coming. I might as well enjoy the connections while they last and move on when the time comes. After all, if one friendship expires, there are 7 billion more people in the world with whom I can connect.

Now that I have a healthier perception of how others see me, the faceless “haters” have all but disappeared in my mind. David Foster Wallace once said, “You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.” I’ve noticed recently that people are so caught up in their own problems that they hardly have time to scrutinize me.

The truth is that everyone from my past who I assumed disliked me probably felt indifferent toward me. Now that the imaginary haters have vanished, I have space in my heart to let in the love from those who truly care. Yes, I’ll always have one or two critics who will hold grudges against me no matter what. But I have control over how I perceive everyone else’s perceptions of me. I choose to believe that I am loved.

Annie Humphrey can be reached at annieah@umich.edu.

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