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The Minimalists
The Minimalists are Emmy-nominated Netflix stars and New York Times–bestselling authors Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Alongside their podcast cohost, T.K. Coleman, this simple-living trio helps millions of people eliminate clutter and live meaningfully with less. Learn More.

Overcoming Self-Doubt

There used to be this side of me that questioned every action I took, every word I spoke, every thought I had. I believed everything that occurred in—and around—my life was because of my actions, especially when it came to how other people felt about me. I thought I was in total control of other people’s emotions—my words and actions determined if they were happy, sad, angry, or discontent. I eventually realized I was not in control of how others felt—not 100% in control, anyway.

But how could I tell the difference between when I did and I didn’t have control over how others felt toward me?

Let’s examine two extreme examples. Imagine I meet someone and give him a hug. This expression of kindness and love typically translates to just that: kindness and love. Now imagine I meet someone else and say, “Man, those skinny jeans make your butt look big.” I wouldn’t ever say that, but this action translates, without a doubt, into something completely different. Let’s assume in the latter example my intentions were somehow good: perhaps I was attempting, inarticulately, to tell the person those jeans were simply not flattering. Irrespective of my intentions with either action, each one will draw a different response.

The trouble I run into is when my actions are filled with good intentions, but the person interprets my actions in a different way. When this happens, I often sit and ask self-loathing, degrading questions—What did I do wrong? How did they misunderstand me? Why am I such a moron?—and I blame myself for being misunderstood.

Here’s where I really confuse myself: sometimes I lay in bed at night recounting my day, and I suddenly recognize I could have approached a situation differently. Other times, I lay in bed and realize I couldn’t have possibly been any clearer, kinder, or more considerate, which leads to even more negative self-talk: People just don’t understand you. You’re weird and people don’t get you no matter how hard you try. If you acted differently, maybe that person would like you.

We all care about how others view us—sometimes too much. It used to be one of the only things that mattered to me, but I have been able to break this habit. I have been able to feel confident no matter how people treat me. I have been able to stop giving a damn about what people who don’t like me think.

This is how I did it:

First, I had to recognize the language I use—the way I talk to myself—is crucial. When I experience negative emotions, it’s easy to beat the hell out of myself with my words and perpetuate negative thoughts. This never does any good: negative self-talk is demoralizing and destructive. So I found new questions to ask myself—I found new ways to talk to myself.

I came up with different questions. Instead of disempowering questions, I now ask myself five clarifying questions:

Did I have good intentions?
Did I do my best to communicate the message?
Was I as genuine as possible?
Was I honest in the message I was communicating?
Did I consider the other person’s feelings before I spoke?

These questions help me determine, in a non-destructive way, if I need to rethink my approach. If I can answer yes to those five questions, then I needn’t feel remorse or confusion about why the other person did not understand my intentions. If I cannot answer yes, I explore new ways to communicate my message differently.

Second, I had to tame my cynical side. Instead of destructive language, I now say things like, Ryan, not everyone is judging you. Sometimes people have a hard time accepting the truth, good or bad. Their misunderstandings do not make them or me wrong or bad—it was just a misunderstanding. Maybe the next time you see that person they will be in a different mood and see things in a new light. You can’t make everyone see your point of view or where you’re coming from.

When I don’t agree with someone or when someone doesn’t agree with me, it doesn’t make them wrong or bad: it makes them who they are. It doesn’t make me crazy or a moron: it makes me who I am. As much as I’d like to find a connection with everyone, it isn’t realistic. Ultimately, the only person’s expectations I must meet are mine.

Read this essay and 150 others in our new book, Essential.