Why would you care about what squirrels think?
Recently, a friend asked me for help with self-esteem. She told me she wished she could be skinnier, but she doesn’t think it is for health reasons because if it was truly for health reasons, she would be willing to make herself go through the suffering of restricting her diet. She feels pretty healthy actually, so it must be for vanity reasons.
I praised her for being able to be honest about her egoistical motivations. Only when we acknowledge our problem can we solve it. I told her about a quote I heard from Epictetus. I didn’t remember the exact wording, so I paraphrased it:
“If a person came and started slapping you all over your body, you’d be pretty upset right? Yet what you’re doing right now is you are taking your peace of mind, putting it outside of you, and letting others trample all over it. Don’t you think that’s absurd?”
How To Not Care About What Others Think
She sort of nodded and then said, “OK, so how do I let go of this desire to be skinnier?” I asked her to clearly explain why she wants to be skinnier. Who are you trying to impress or make jealous?
She told me, “Everybody around me. I hope other girls would be jealous. I hope men would desire me. I hope my husband would desire me more.”
I then asked her why she has this desire to make other people jealous and to be desirable by men. What in her childhood caused this to start? She said she was made fun of for her body when young, so she wants to get back at those people.
I told her, “So you were made fun of by some immature kids, and then later by some immature teens, and maybe some immature adults, and you feel the urge to prove them wrong and get back at them. If a squirrel made fun of you and said, ‘You suck! You can’t open this acorn with your teeth like I can!’ would you try to prove that squirrel wrong?”
She laughed, which showed she started to see the absurdity of her attachment to what others think.
I then told her a story:
“There was this lady who cared a lot about what others think. She ate instant noodles for a month to save up money to buy an expensive dress to impress her coworkers. When she bought the dress, she wore it the next day to work. She waited for people to praise her on her new dress, but no one did. Annoyed, she went to a coworker and started doing fashion poses.
She asked, ‘Do you notice anything different about me today?’ The coworker said, ‘Not really. Is there something different about you today?’ She was so upset, thinking she spent all that money and people didn’t even notice!”
My friend laughed at this story. I told her,
“You trying to get skinnier for other people’s praise is the exact same thing. If you want to let go of this attachment, then you need to let go of your egotistical intention and instead have an unselfish intention. For example, I care about my health not for myself, but because my parents will worry about me if I get sick or hurt. So I take care of my health not just for myself but also for my parents. Moreover, I have a big mission in life, and I need good health for that.
In the past, I used to want muscles and abs. I worked so hard to build muscle, get abs, eat lots of protein, etc. At the end of the day, barely anybody even noticed all the muscle I built, and the important people in my life just wanted me to be healthy. Now I don’t care about being muscular and having abs because it’s not related to my mission in life. By the way, do you have a mission in life?”
She told me, “Yes. My mission is to leave this world better than the way I found it.”
I replied, “OK, if your mission is to leave this world better than the way you found it, then do you need to be skinnier in order to do that?”
She said, “No.”
I said, “So you caring about being skinnier is like you caring about squirrels mocking you for not being able to open an acorn with your teeth. It’s completely irrelevant to your life goal. And why would we care about what ignorant people think? Once you see how stupid this attachment is, you naturally let go of it.
Now, I’m not trying to look down on squirrels. I respect them. I also respect those people who are obsessed about their vanity. But I am aware that their maturity level and life goals are different from mine, so I don’t care what they think. I want them to be happy, but what they think about me will not affect my peace of mind.
If a bodybuilder came up to me now and mocked me for not having muscles and abs, I would just smile and praise his muscles and abs. If I were attached, I would feel bad for not having a body like his. If I were averse, I would scold him for wasting his life on such superficial pursuits. But I am neither attached nor averse. I am detached. I am happy regardless of what he thinks. So I just let him be happy mocking me, and I would encourage him to teach others the importance of diligence and perseverance. After he leaves, I don’t give him a second thought.”
Bonus: How to Sustain A Marriage
She then asked me a related question, “So I kind of want more romance in my marriage. Is this a selfish attachment?”
I told her, “You wanting more romance to sustain the relationship is like relying on caffeine, cigarettes, and junk food to sustain your relationship. The romantic love you want is just dopamine highs. It is temporary, and your brain will get more and more resistant to dopamine, meaning you need higher and higher doses to feel that high. You cannot sustain a marriage on romance.
Now I am not saying romance is bad. You should follow The Middle Way, meaning not excessive nor deficient. You should feel like he respects you like a lady and you respect him like a gentleman. But if you’re always seeking bigger romantic highs, that’s a recipe for suffering.”
She asked, “So, if romance can’t sustain a relationship, then what can?”
I said, “Well, based on what I’ve learned from experienced people, you need to have a shared life mission and shared values. Your mission is to make the world a better place. If your husband shares that mission with you, that can sustain your relationship when the times get tough.
As for shared values, the most important one is filial piety. If they don’t even feel gratitude and love for their parents, how can they do so for you? If they treat you nice but not their parents nice, then it is only out of desire. As soon as they don’ like you anymore, they will treat you badly. Someone who can selflessly love their parents and always remember their parents’ gratitude can do so for other people as well. When both of you focus on gratitude and giving, then sustaining the relationship will be long-lasting.”
By this point, we had talked for an hour or so, and she had to go. She felt a lot happier and more free than one hour ago, and we both had a lot of fun talking about squirrels. Since her mission is to make the world a better place, I thought sharing our conversation would help with that mission. We hope you got something useful out of it!