This story is part of My Therapist Says, a column about advice from therapy that stuck.
When I was laid off for the third time, I allowed the setback to swallow me into a pit of pervasive depression and anxiety. I was having an early thirties existential crisis: Where did I go wrong? How will I fix it? Am I too old to fix it?
And mostly: What will they all think?
Don’t ask me who “they” are. I have no idea. Sometimes I would obsessively scroll through my Instagram followers, pondering how each person would interpret my bad news. Thanks to the platform’s selective algorithms, most of those people had no idea what I was doing anyway. But no one could convince me otherwise. Not my friends. Not my partner. Not the decades of parental figure and PSA advice: Don’t care about what other people think of you! I had nightly visions of ill-willed former colleagues cackling over cocktails as they saw my life fall apart via social media. Distant friends and casual followers watching in real time as my veneer of togetherness melted away. Twice-removed family gossiping over Thanksgiving dinner, saying, “Oh did you see? Rachel lost her job and life direction — again.”
I fell into a severe depression shortly after the layoff. Compounded with other bad news, I had completely burnt out. I wasn’t able to process simple tasks. I would forget information mid-conversation and find myself in rooms without remembering how I got there. I told myself I was fortunate not to have thoughts of suicide, but I still allowed myself to think: Wouldn’t it be nice if I just didn’t have to exist?
Externally, I turned into a one-woman self-help machine, spouting sage advice for surviving a layoff on social media (I was an expert now!) and advising my fellow laid-off colleagues on finding jobs and benefits (“But really, how are you?”). I was fine. Really. No need to worry about me! Nothing to see here!
I always had big hopes, big dreams. Bigger than the suburban Connecticut town where I grew up. I couldn’t wait to be in a place where I was finally understood and fit in. Then I would be a big success with a big job in a big city with a big bank account. This is great fuel to push through unexciting entry-level jobs and shoebox-size New York City apartments, but it created a strict binary measure of success: Anything less than big would be a failure.
The fear of the people who saw me when I believed in any of those big dreams kept me up at night. To me, I had failed — and they all knew about it.
“People will be like, ‘But she had so much promise!’” I moaned tearfully to my therapist.
“I’m going to tell you a story,” my therapist said. Years ago, before my therapist met with her very first client, she had a meltdown. She worried she would ruin this client’s life. She would give bad advice that would cause them to do something drastic or hate her or hate themselves.
“No one cares,” she told me. “Those people you think care so much about what you’re doing and where you are in life — they don’t.”
Her advisor replied: “No matter what you say, it’s not going to change their life today. They’re going to do what they want anyway. They do not care about you.”
She was taken aback. “They do not care about you” felt so harsh and finite. But it was also freeing. It cut the pressure that she, personally, would be the driving force to cause this client to fall into a pit of despair or rage.
(Full disclosure: I’m not a therapist, and I’m not sure if I fully accept this mantra to approach the practice. But in the context of my circumstance, it brought clarity.)
“No one cares,” my therapist now told me. “Those people you think care so much about what you’re doing and where you are in life — they don’t. People have their own things going on. Unless you are a massive part of their personal life, they do not give you and your troubles and triumphs more than a second thought.”
Fuzzy, random details of other people’s recent life changes, good and bad, shuffled through my mind. Our constant update culture is an endless data dump. Some news felt important or interesting or sad for a moment. But just a moment or two. Sure, a lot of the time I cared. But permanent, recurring space in my brain was reserved for those irrevocably intertwined into my life. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the angst and pleasure of my community. I just had too many of my own things to care about.
Why did I believe their experience with me was any different?
Don’t get me wrong: It’s not incorrect to assume everyone is gossiping about each other all the time. Research says nearly 80% of social interaction is made up of gossip. Gossip is fundamental to the way we bond and share information — a survival skill critical to our evolution.
But there are layers and layers of cognitive distortions — catastrophizing, fortune-telling, pick your poison! — that gets us from “people gossip all the time” to “people gossip all the time about me.”
Ending a lifelong belief that your worth is determined by your community’s perception of you is a difficult thing to do. It’s a very difficult thing to do. I’m still working on it. I give myself a daily, counterintuitive pep talk: No one cares!
Sure it’s cringeworthy to realize your #MeatlessMonday and third job loss are weighed the same in the eyes of your peers. But other people’s problems and news are just that. They belong to other people.
A big part of accepting that people don’t care is not caring about whether or not they do. It gives way to space to remember that you have control over the person whose care should matter the most. A hint from my therapist: It’s yourself.