Do you often interpret other people’s behaviours as signs they’re upset or angry with you? You could be falling victim to a “cognitive distortion” psychologists call ‘mind-reading’ – here’s how to get it under control.
I have always been someone who needs other people to like me. It’s one of my biggest personality flaws – whether you’re a close friend, complete stranger or somewhere in the middle, I’ve probably spent a solid amount of time worrying about whether or not you like me and completing a mental checklist of all the times I could have said or done something wrong.
Alongside this need to have other people like me, I also possess an unhealthy fear of people disliking me. It’s a fear which, often without me realising it, pervades many of my day-to-day interactions with people both online and in real life.
It doesn’t take much to send me into a miniature spiral – maybe you put a full-stop at the end of your WhatsApp message or brushed over a point I made during conversation – but before long I’ll be convincing myself that you’re fed up with my presence and annoyed at me for god knows how many reasons.
Of course, I know all of this seems a bit petty. I’m aware of how silly it sounds when it’s written down, and I know I’m probably coming across as a massive drama queen. But no matter how aware I am that it’s happening and no matter what evidence I have to the contrary, there’s always a little part of my brain that assumes that everyone secretly thinks I’m a massive twat.
It was only once I started talking more about my mental health and all the weird and wonderful things that go on in my brain that I realised I’m not the only one who thinks like this. Through conversations with my therapist and heartfelt chats with friends, I’ve come to realise that a lot of people – especially women – deal with this problem on a daily basis. But why?
To find out more, I reached out to Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist on behalf of Healthspan. And according to her, there’s one common “cognitive distortion” which is causing this problem, and it’s called ‘mind-reading’.
Arroll explains that, when we’re worried about what other people think of us and fear that we might be disliked, we tend to read between the lines and make assumptions about what other people might be thinking, as if we have the ability to mind read.
“The world is complex and full of far too much information for us to take in and evaluate simultaneously – therefore, we use many mental shortcuts every day to help us navigate our surroundings, including our social environment,” Arroll says.
“Many of these cognitive processes are adaptive, meaning they allow us to function and thrive, but sometimes the mechanisms underlying these processes go slightly awry leading to distorted assumptions. Mind-reading is one such maladaptive thought pattern where we use non-verbal and verbal behaviours, as well as punctuation in our modern world of email and text communication, to quickly come to a conclusion about what someone else is thinking, which is almost always negative.”
Arroll continues: “Females do tend to experience this more often than men – in a recent Healthspan survey more than twice the proportion of women than men stated that they worried about what others were thinking of them (15% of women compared to just 6% of men) – which is in part due to evolutionary psychology.
“For females, the way to ensure inclusion of social groups has been (and some would argue still is) via social means, known as ‘tend-and-befriend’, whereas for men status is maintained through more external channels (quite literally ‘bringing home the bacon’ in our early ancestors’ times). This need to be accepted in a social group is hardwired which is why cognitive distortions can be so pervasive.”
The problem with this impulse to ‘mind-read’ and build assumptions about what other people think of us based on very little, if any, evidence, is that often our behaviour towards that other person might change without us even realising it, which in turn may put strain on our relationships.
Because I’m quite aware that I have a tendency to mind-read and read between the lines of other people’s actions (thanks to therapy), most of the time I’m now able to remind myself that it’s my anxiety talking, and ensure my behaviour doesn’t change as a result.
But before I realised this was something my brain tended to do, I know I’ve definitely changed my behaviour towards people because I feared they hated me, either by a) going out of my way to try and make them like me or b) staying quiet to avoid making them hate me more.
As Arroll explains, this kind of behaviour can actually damage our relationships, a result which, in turn, confirms our assumptions and leads us to trust our ‘mind-reading’ instincts in the future.
“Here’s an example: you see a colleague outside the workplace at the weekend and she doesn’t wave to say hi so you assume she mustn’t actually like you at all and is only nice at work because, well, it’s work,” she says. “On Monday, you feel awkward and uncomfortable with this new insight, so you avoid her. Over time, what was once a pretty nice work relationship fizzles and you become convinced that yes, you were right and she can’t stand you.
“OK, now let’s try this another way but with some evidence – how often has she ignored you in the past as a percentage? It’s probably quite low. Is there a chance that there’s another reason she might not have waved? Could she simply not have seen you as you’re in a different environment?”
She continues: “Now it’s time for a behavioural experiment – instead of avoiding this colleague, behave as you would have previously to the encounter and see the result. Chances are, she was so busy thinking about where she needed to be – maybe she just had a fight with her partner, for example – that she didn’t notice you. She could even be wondering why you are avoiding her now!
“So we see how one small misinterpretation can have more significant ramifications not only for our relationships, but our mental health also. Those of us that have developed cognitive distortions have higher rates of anxiety and depression and often struggle with self-esteem and confidence, which can impact all areas of our lives.”
It’s clear that what might at first seem like an insignificant behavioural quirk can actually have much bigger ramifications in the long run.
After all, when you begin to assume that people dislike you, you’re probably going to start thinking about all the reasons why someone might not like you, rather than focusing on the things you like about yourself – a series of behaviours which, in the long-run, is unsurprisingly going to take its toll on your self-esteem. So how can we stop ourselves from ‘mind-reading’ in the future?
“The first step to stop mind-reading is to be aware that you’re doing it,” Arroll says. “Then, a cost-benefit analysis of this thought pattern is useful as it uncovers whether it’s a useful strategy, or alternately, if it has unintended consequences such as social isolation.
“Finally, do carry out behavioural experiments if you suspect you’re caught in a cycle of mind-reading to test your assumptions – in other words, act against your thought to see if it is accurate. You might be surprised what you find out!”
Although the term ‘mind-reading’ may make the whole thing sound a bit light-hearted, it’s important that we try to get this impulse under control by making ourselves aware of the times when we might be making assumptions about what other people think of us.
Now more than ever, being kind to ourselves is important –by refusing to let our own insecurities and desire to be liked feed into the way we interpret real-world events, we might begin to appreciate some of the good things people see in us, too.