I know exactly what you’re thinking about me – and it’s nothing good. Yep, you’re looking at me that definitely means you and your friends are talking about me – and it’s nothing good.
This is what my brain continually tells me when I interact with or even just come near people. The mechanism behind this is a cognitive distortion called mindreading. First let me tell you about cognitive distortions.
Often described as irrational thought patterns, while they can be experienced by anyone, cognitive distortions are especially prevalent in individuals who have anxiety or depression. Crack the champagne, I check both of those boxes. Cognitive distortions can have really negative affects on our mood, and sometimes even lead to unhealthy behavior.
There is an array of different distortions, but my brain is most guilty of mind-reading. Those who mind-read assume that they know what others are thinking of them. Now a certain degree of this is helpful to us as social creatures. It is a large part of emotional intelligence – which comes in handy when we need to take cues from a person’s facial expression or body language.
SOME OF MY DISTORTIONS
Too much of this behavior can be miserable though. Let me give you a few examples of common mind-reading distortions that I have:
- Say I’m tardy for work. I think that everyone is thinking about my tardiness for the whole entire day, and that they are thinking I lack commitment or am a bad employee.
- From my other blogs, you know that I am working on body positivity. Related to that work, I am constantly thinking people are having negative thoughts about my body and how I look. I sometimes assume someone may not want to be in a relationship with me because of my body.
- I have a group of friends that I met because of an ex-boyfriend. After the break up I always thought people were thinking negatively about me. I also then would tell myself that they didn’t want me around anymore.
- If I have a mild disagreement with a friend, or have to cancel plans I think that the person doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.
Now, when I write it all out, I can see how it is irrational. But in the moment, by brain can’t distinguish that. Now you might say, “everything isn’t about you.” Believe me, I know that. For me, this distortion is more about my deep loyalty to the people in my life.
I think what compounds my distortion is the fact that I am highly emotionally intelligent, and am a total empath. I pick up on the emotions of others constantly. So sometimes it can be confusing as to whether what I am picking up on in a mind-reading situation is completely irrational or not.
DISRUPTING THE DISRUPTIONS
Here are some techniques to combat this cognitive distortion.
- First, identify what you predict the person/people are thinking
- Ask yourself what evidence you have to support that thought
- Look for other possibilities, if your friend doesn’t text back after that disagreement they could just be preoccupied or cooling down before they continue the conversation.
- Imagine that the thought is true, then ask yourself would it mean more about you or more about the other person?
- Ask yourself if it is realistic to expect everyone to like you
- Act counter to the thought
That last one can be scary. For example, with that group of friends I mentioned, I initially would leave get-togethers early because of the mind-reading I was doing. I convinced myself that I wasn’t welcome there. After awhile, and some positive reinforcement from a friend, I started to fight that urge to leave. I would stay even if my urge was to grab my purse and go.
What else can this look like? Say you’re in an unfamiliar social setting, and you’re thinking that the people there don’t like you or think you’re awkward. Instead of avoiding eye contact and babysitting the snacks, approach people and introduce yourself. Focus on the conversation and really listen to what that person is saying. It will distract you from the thoughts you were having, and also probably disprove them.
What about thinking about your body? Recognize that the majority of people have insecurities about their own bodies. And because they are focused on theirs, they don’t have the time to pay attention to yours. Also remind yourself that people don’t like you for how you look, they like you for how you make them feel. List out qualities that make you, you. Remind yourself of your value.
I will say this. Don’t just let these thoughts drift away. Distressing thoughts like these tend to recur, especially if you do live with a mental illness. By taking the time to think about them, or even write them out, you give yourself the opportunity to prove them wrong by finding the inconsistencies. Maybe you even work on a list of rational statements that you can use to reply to yourself in the future. By leaving these sorts of thoughts unresolved you are just leaving the door open for them to be disruptive again in the future.
You can also use mindfulness after you’ve taken the time to do this work. Having come out of a cognitive behavioral therapy program, I went through the above exercises to challenge my distortions. Since I’ve done that, I now use a visualization technique to keep them at bay. It’s going to sound really cheesy, but it works for me.
As the disruptive thought comes up, I imagine it spelled out in the sand. After recognizing it, I imagine a wave coming up onto the sand and erasing it. In that visualization, I acknowledge the thought, but then allow it to pass without judgement. You can generate your own visualization to do the same, but I urge you to first do the work to address and disprove your most common distortions. Take your power back, and then focus on how to maintain it.