How to stop obsessing about what other people think of you |

How to stop obsessing about what other people think of you

As much as I’d love to pretend otherwise, I sometimes care a little too much about what other people think of me. Are those tourists judging the way I look while I run? Does my boss see me as a screw-up after making that mistake? Is my latest Instagram story kind of cringe?

These self-conscious moments are normal to an extent, Adia Gooden, a clinical psychologist based in Chicago and host of the Unconditionally Worthy podcast, says. “We want to be loved and accepted and feel like we’re part of a community,” Dr. Gooden says. And of course we do — we’re social creatures, so it’s only human to crave our peers’ approval.

But this hard-wired desire to belong can also go too far: “When an obsession with others’ opinions interferes with your life, relationships, and decisions and is more of a chronic, long-term issue, that’s when it becomes a problem,” Dr. Gooden says. In the extreme, people-pleasing tendencies can prevent you from setting healthy boundaries in relationships, for example. Or, you may rely on others’ approval for your self-worth — you’re not okay unless they think you are.

Constantly worrying about what people think can be exhausting, says Geoffrey Gold, a clinical psychologist specialising in self-compassion at Therapists of New York. (It’s a lot of mental work to keep coming up with “worst-case” scenarios about how no one likes you.) Not to mention, when you strive to please everyone, you’re moulding yourself to fit their expectations instead of embracing your true thoughts, feelings, and desires, Dr. Gold says.

Obviously, it’s not like you can just flip a switch and suddenly stop stressing about how you’re perceived. That said, there are small steps you can take to reel in those spiralling thoughts and reclaim some peace of mind — and we asked psychologists for the best ones.

1. Know that no one thinks about you as much as you do.

This reality check might be something you’ve already heard, but that’s because it’s legit: Research suggests that we often overestimate how much others truly care about us and our perceived failures. And as a chronic over-thinker, I can attest that keeping this fact in mind can do wonders to quiet those racing “What if they think THAT?!” thoughts.

“We are the centre of our own worlds,” Dr. Gooden says. Everyone has their personal stuff going on — which is likely what they’re focusing on. So that slip-up you’re losing sleep over? Chances are, it’s not even on anyone else’s radar, and simply remembering that most folks probably don’t give much of an F about you can give you some peace of mind, she adds.


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2. Don’t try to mind-read or guess what someone else is thinking.

“It’s really, really pointless to assume what others are thinking because the truth is, unless they tell you, you’ll never know,” Dr. Gold says. Sure, you can convince yourself that everyone at the party thinks you’re a loser because you’re still single, or that your partner’s parents don’t consider you to be “marriage material” since they weren’t particularly friendly to you at brunch. But is dwelling on these hypotheticals the best use of your time?

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Basically, ruminating isn’t going to make your worries go away — and it certainly won’t help you feel any better. “At the end of the day, you’re just using up energy that you could spend on more effective coping strategies that will make you less anxious,” Dr. Gold says. That’s why it’s important to recognise when you’re in the middle of that mental guessing game — so you can then make a conscious effort to stop contemplating the “what ifs” (What if they hate me? What if they think I’m weird? What if I’m not good enough?) and start doing things that actually help. Things like…

3. Interrupt the cycle of overwhelming thoughts by distracting yourself.

This is an especially helpful tip if you’re obsessing over something that really isn’t the end of the world — like your work crush not liking your recent Instagram post, say, or your joke that fell flat and led to awkward, uncomfortable silence.

“In the moment, your mind may have automatically decided that this little preoccupation requires all of your attention, even though it objectively doesn’t,” Dr. Gold says. (That’s what can happen when anxiety and stress start clouding your judgment, he adds.) “So one way to stop that cycle of rumination is to actively focus on something else.”

That may mean listening to Kendrick Lamar and Drake’s diss tracks instead, or contemplating what to make for dinner tonight. You can also distract yourself with physical activities — like going for a quick jog around the block or tackling the pile of laundry on your bedroom floor. The point is to give your brain something (anything) else to zero in on. “Whatever you can do to help your mind let go of the thing that’s stressing you out is a great way to prevent the [spiralling] from getting worse,” Dr. Gold says.

4. Be aware of your ‘negativity bias’—and challenge it with positivity.

Our brains are wired to dwell on the negatives (like criticism) more than the positives (compliments). This “negativity bias” (as psychology researchers call it) can explain why if someone stares at you at the gym, for instance, you might automatically conclude that they’re judging your outfit or critiquing your squat form — while completely overlooking more positive possibilities. (Maybe they’re admiring your leggings or simply spaced out for a second!)

“It’s helpful to remind yourself that your mind is often skewed to assume the worst and filter out the good,” Dr. Gooden says. That way, “you can be more deliberate about challenging these negative thoughts.” So let’s say you clicked on this article because you’re paranoid about how your colleagues see you after being ten minutes late to an important meeting. Now would be a great time to focus on your accomplishments and strengths — like the positive feedback you received on your latest project, or last year’s stellar performance review.

It’s not always easy to give yourself a pep talk in these high-stress moments, though, so if you struggle to “look on the bright side,” our next tip might be more your speed.


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5. Get out of your head and lay out the facts.

When all-consuming emotions like panic, worry, and paranoia start swirling in your head, it’s easy to get caught up in imagining all the terrible things people might be saying or thinking about you. To maintain a more objective (and realistic) perspective, both therapists recommend another way to counteract that negativity bias: With neutral facts.

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As an example, let’s say you’re spiralling because the person you’re dating, who usually texts back quickly, left your message on read for whatever reason. Now, you’re stuck in a loop of endless questions: Did I do something to tick them off? Is this a sign that they’re going to ghost me?

In situations like these, Dr. Gooden suggests first starting with the facts: They didn’t respond to your message and that’s unusual for them. Then, analyse the story you’re telling yourself from a more objective standpoint: Do you have any concrete evidence that they’re annoyed with you? Are there other reasonable explanations for why they didn’t text you — like being busy with work, say, or forgetting because they’ve been so stressed?

Going through this mental checklist can help you see your assumptions for what they are: Ideas made up in your head, not based in reality. “And if you can start to see these thoughts as a story that you’re telling yourself versus the truth of the situation, that can help you calm you down,” Dr. Gooden adds.

6. Depending on who you’re worried about, just ask them.

If you’re losing sleep over someone you’re pretty comfortable with — like your work bestie who you’re convinced is “acting different,” or your suddenly less chatty roommate who probably “secretly hates” you, the simplest solution is to straight-up ask them.

“But don’t just jump right in with, ‘I feel like you hate me,’” Dr. Gold advises. Not only is an approach like this too vague but it’s also unproductive: It puts your words in their head, which may come off as accusatory and make it harder for them to respond constructively. Instead, he recommends expressing how you feel with something like, “I’m kind of hurt that you didn’t respond to my last few messages. Can we talk about it?” Or with your roomie: “Hey, I noticed we haven’t hung out as much recently. Is something up?”

Even if you follow the above advice to a T, you’ll still care (sometimes a lot) about what other people think — it would honestly be concerning if you didn’t. But having these therapist-approved tools in your arsenal can make it easier to manage runaway thoughts about the (unlikely!) scenario that someone thinks the worst of you.

This article originally appeared on SELF.

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