Humans are social creatures who care what people think about us. Afterall, what people think about us can determine whether we have a second date, get that promotion, are invited to the party, or accepted by the in laws. It’s normal to want to be liked and accepted. The trouble comes in when we expect to be liked by EVERYONE ALL THE TIME. We often get so focused on what other people think about us that it overtakes how we think about ourselves. We allow other people’s opinions to determine our self-worth. And this is a dangerous slope, especially considering how terrible we are in guessing what others think about us.
Many of us believe we are excellent at mind reading and can tell right away what someone else thinks about us. We think we can pick up on subtle social cues, facial expressions, or body postures to know what someone else is really thinking. Yet we are often quite wrong. There are two major reasons we tend to get it wrong when we try to read someone else’s mind: Negativity Bias and Personalization.
Negativity bias is one of the most common errors we make in our thinking. Our minds tend to filter out the positive and focus on the negative. Think of all the times you were given feedback that included several compliments about your work, your appearance, or your efforts and you chose to hyper focus on the one piece of criticism. In fact, we often ONLY remember the one critical statement in a sea of positive statements. We can receive a series of compliments and find ourselves stewing for days over the one complaint.
In this way, we inaccurately assume the worst when it comes to our ideas about what others are thinking, especially what they’re thinking about us. We tend to amplify any furrowed brow or tone of voice from the person we’re speaking to and feel it ignite all of our insecurities.
Personalization is another error we make when it comes to mind reading. We are always assuming that the way a person is behaving has something to do with us. Since we are the center of our own worlds, we seem to think others are equally focused on us. So when we get a brusk response from a coworker we tend to assume she’s angry about something we did rather than perhaps she had a bad burrito or just got off a tough phone call or is tired.
When we combine these two thinking errors, Negative Bias and Personalization, we end up walking through the world assuming everyone else is judging and criticizing us. And this tendency is only amplified when we’re feeling insecure, anxious, or down on ourselves. We project our negative inner thoughts onto others. Perhaps we think we look like a mess today and walk around the grocery store feeling like everyone else is judging us as a hot mess too. This is often how the teenage mind works, though we’re all vulnerable to it.
So how to we stop this pattern of ineffective and unhelpful mind reading?
Check your inner thoughts. We tend to be our own worst critics. If you’re in a particularly negative frame of mind, know that you will project this same negativity onto others and overestimate negative judgments of you. Try to separate your thoughts about yourself from the real messages you’re receiving from others. Give others the benefit of the doubt and assume they have positive thoughts about you.
Follow the 80-20 rule. Assume that 80% of what other people are thinking has to do with themselves rather than you. We are all the centers of our own worlds. People are thinking about you far less than you assume. It’s much more accurate to assume a person’s snippy remark or grumpy face has to do with how he or she is feeling inside rather than anything you said or did.
Ask people what they think and believe them. It can be tough to be so direct. But it is incredibly helpful to simply ask others what they’re thinking rather than making assumptions. If you’re afraid you offended someone, check in with that person. The next tricky step is believing what they say. When the other person says she likes you, she’s not offended, then your best choice is to believe it.
Choose wisely who’s opinions matter to you. Allow yourself to focus on the people you feel safest with, the people you are most yourself with. These are the people who know you best and whose opinions carry the most value. Allow yourself to live in a world where not everyone likes you or approves of your choices. It’s freeing.
Seek professional guidance when needed. Sometimes our patterns of unhelpful thinking can become stuck after years of practice. When efforts to challenge these patterns on your own don’t work, it may be time to reach out to a trained mental health professional. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an effective approach to changing unhelpful patterns of thinking that affect your well-being.
Written by Suzanne J. Smith, Ph.D. for Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, wellness, perinatal mood, relationships, or parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment at Lakefront Psychology, LLC for a psychotherapy consultation, please call 216-870-9816.