It’s a beautiful, sunny day and you’re taking a stroll. A group of girls approaches. As they pass you, they burst into a fit of giggles.
“They’re laughing at me” is your immediate thought, as grey clouds descend in your mind.
You’re having a meal at your favourite restaurant. You look up mid-mouthful and catch the eye of a fellow diner who’s frowning.
The food instantly turns bitter in your mouth, preceded by the thought: “He thinks I shouldn’t be eating this because I’m fat”.
At a party, you’re chatting to a stylish, attractive woman you’ve just met. At one point, she glances down at your outfit.
“She disapproves of what I’m wearing”, you think without hesitation, as you wish the floor would swallow you up.
Most of us have had experiences where we’ve known exactly what the other person is thinking about us, which just goes to prove we can read minds.
Except we can’t.
Rather than being able to read minds, we have the ability to project negative judgements about ourselves onto other people.
Of course, sometimes we may be right. The group of girls may be laughing at us, the man may be judging us, the woman may be criticising us.
I was so convinced I knew when other people were thinking negatively of me I considered it a personal skill.
But we can’t know for sure.
Unless someone chooses to share their thoughts with us, we can’t be sure what they’re thinking.
If we constantly assume people are thinking badly of us, we’re going to feel pretty awful about ourselves most of the time. We’re also far more likely to mistrust others, keep ourselves isolated and turn to food as consolation.
Shortly after I qualified as a psychotherapist, I was hired to teach counselling courses. One day, I was discussing a group session with my personal supervisor. At one stage, I casually mentioned I was “very good at picking up negative vibes in the room” directed at me.
“How do you know?”, he interrupted.
“Er, I just know”, was my response.
“I don’t know, I just know”, I said, slightly annoyed.
“Ah, no you don’t”, he said, “you just think you do”.
It was then I realised something as profound as it was aggravating. He was right.
I was so convinced I knew when people were thinking negatively of me I considered it a personal skill. In reality, a self-critical part of me was interpreting facial expressions and projecting negative judgements. Although I had no idea what others were thinking – I felt as if I did.
We owe it to ourselves to challenge thinking that keeps us entrenched in shame.
It was an important piece of learning for me. And since then, I’ve endeavoured to notice and correct myself when I assume people are thinking the worst about me. I’m not able to do it every time, but that’s OK, it doesn’t have to be perfect. What’s important is it’s an improvement and I feel a lot better as a result.
We have a choice when we’re projecting our negative self-beliefs onto others. We can run with the idea they’re judging us and feel rotten about ourselves. Or we can be mindful of our thoughts, remind ourselves we’re not telepathic and rectify our assumptions.
And it’s our responsibility to do so because we do other people a disservice when we ascribe our own negative thoughts to them and then think badly of them when they’ve done nothing wrong. We also owe it to ourselves to challenge thinking that keeps us entrenched in shame about our bodies, our eating behaviour and our very selves.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent far too much of my life worrying about what other people think of me. Nowadays, I’d much rather spend that energy developing a solid sense of self so I’m more able to weather whatever storm might come my way. I’d also prefer to relate to others on an authentic level, with as little interference from my inner critic as possible.
I’m currently on holiday and writing this post sitting in one of my favourite cafés in Berlin. I’ve just glanced up from my laptop and caught the eye of a woman sitting near me who’s also working at a keyboard. As she looks at me she could be thinking “wow, that blonde woman sure is ugly” or she might be thinking “I really hope there’ll be a third season of ‘Fleabag’” (isn’t that what we’re all thinking?).
But I don’t know. I don’t know what she’s thinking.
I choose to think it’s not something negative about me. I choose to think well of her and of myself.
Instead I just smile.
And she smiles back.