Can We Worry Less About What People Think?
Social anxiety can make you extra worried about what other people think of you
Emma Kilburn shares her own experience, as well as her tried-and-tested methods for finding self-compassion
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Do you worry about what other people think of you? We all do, to a certain extent, and it would be strange never to do so. We all want to make a good impression, to be seen as professional by our work colleagues, and as supportive by our friends. But sometimes this worry can become a more serious one, even leading to debilitating anxiety. This can then have a range of consequences for the way we interact with other people, and how we lead our lives.
We may begin to limit ourselves and become increasingly risk averse. When we worry excessively about how others see us, we may seek to avoid situations in which people might see us in a bad or less flattering light.
I have a fear of social situations in which I don’t know anyone, or know very few people. I find small talk difficult, and have an anxiety about being revealed as the boring and uninspiring person I sometimes fear I am. I have cried off birthday parties, drinks receptions at work events and even weddings to avoid putting myself in a situation in which these aspects of myself might be exposed.
Similarly, I believe I am a dreadful dancer, largely due to my incredibly negative relationship with my body, which I deal with largely by ignoring it. I also deal with my self-image through an extremely controlling and obsessive – albeit, unexpectedly, positive – focus on what I wear, which gives me a sense of control.
Wedding discos, nightclubs, dance classes; these are all examples of situations in which I would be forced to cede some of that control, and lose my sense of an ability to somehow manipulate how others experience me. So I largely avoid them. With all of these choices, I am aware that I am depriving myself of potential fun, but I have always felt that this drawback is hugely outweighed by the avoidance of the risk of exposure.
Why do we care so much?
To a certain extent, developing some form of ‘mind-reading’ is a logical tendency given the complexities of our lives. We need to develop simple ways of making sense of our world. We simplify things by taking mental shortcuts, which are a quick way of weighing up and understanding a situation or an interaction, without having a lot of information.
However, if we're prone to anxiety, these short cuts can lead to what cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) calls cognitive distortions. We assume what someone else is thinking without having much information to go on, and those assumptions are generally negative, leading to more anxiety, especially social anxiety, and even depression.
Our anxiety might also encourage us to replay social situations, ruminating on our interactions, and drawing seemingly logical conclusions about their negative opinions of us. I am particularly prone to this, after even a truly glorious evening spent with friends. As I walk to the tube, I will replay the evening, scanning my memories for any moments or interactions that could be interpreted in a less than positive way. Often, by the time I have arrived at the station, I've stripped my memories of the evening of any joy. Instead, I am left with my critical voice, telling me how annoying or opinionated I was, how my friends merely tolerate me and my worst excesses, and dismantling any confidence I may have had about how I looked or how my friends perceived me.
This kind of rumination is a habitual behaviour that is often present in people who are struggling with social anxiety. It involves repetitive thinking, or dwelling on negative feelings, and their causes and consequences.
How to make a change
Luckily, there are ways in which we can disrupt these psychological tendencies, and give ourselves less of a hard time. The first step is being aware of them. The second is catching ourselves in the act, and acknowledging that our thoughts and feelings may well owe more to our anxieties than to reality.
Often, if we worry or ruminate, our anxieties are generalised, or based on shaky evidence. If we try to pin either of these down, we may see the holes in our logic, and thus be able to gain some critical distance on our negative thoughts. Often, if I have a great evening out with friends, I revisit the fun I had, the anecdotes I told, the jokes I and my friends shared, and tell myself that I was overconfident, or that people were only pretending to enjoy my company. If I try to actually find evidence of this interpretation, I will often struggle.
This relates to the second step it can be helpful to take when trying to disrupt negative and habitual thought processes. Ask yourself what you stand to gain, or lose, by accepting your negative interpretation of a situation or an interaction as reality.
Mind-reading or rumination can be a misguided strategy to protect us from a bad outcome, or from a negative surprise. If we have already assumed the worst, we are prepared for any negative outcomes or responses from other people, albeit they may never arrive.
As far as costs are concerned, these are likely to include increased anxiety, low self-esteem, and more ruminating. By trying to think things through in this logical way each time our thoughts lead us down a negative path, we may come to realise that the gains we attribute to our negative assumptions are outweighed by the benefits to our wellbeing of avoiding mind-reading or rumination. While the latter is the riskier course of action, over time we will come to understand that the risks are not as great as we once feared.
Be patient with yourself
Changing our thought processes is something that takes time. It is important not to lose hope if the path to a more positive outlook is at times a difficult one, and if there are sometimes as many steps back as forwards.
It is also important not to take real difficulties or set-backs as evidence that our mind-reading or rumination was the right course of action all along. We might annoy a friend; we might let a colleague down at work; we might choose an outfit that doesn’t really suit us, or the occasion. We might get feedback on any of these. It might be difficult to hear. But what it doesn’t mean is that we were right to assume the worst, and should continue to do so, giving ourselves the negative feedback before we give anyone else the chance to do so.
Although the path might be a rocky one, we can take small steps. I was determined to go to a 90s club night for my best friend’s birthday, as it was what she wanted to do, and I wanted to be there. So I did it! At times I found it painful and felt incredibly self-conscious, but at the same time I was happy to be there for my friend and to be on the dance floor, whereas ordinarily I would have been sitting on the sidelines, hugging my drink.
I know that I will never be the greatest dancer, but I also know that I never actually look as ludicrous in reality as I might in my mind’s eye. And the few small steps I have taken onto the dance floor have already paid off. My sister got married last year, and I would have been so upset if I hadn’t felt able to dance with her, and with the rest of my family. Inspired by that club night in Camden, I spent more of the reception dancing than not, and had a truly great evening, which I then even managed not to dissect the morning after!
Small wins like this can be so positive and exciting and can encourage us to persevere. We should also remember that thought processes, like any other habit, can be broken, broken down and reshaped, and with determined effort we can teach ourselves to worry less and live more.