I spent a lot of time thinking…mostly about what other people think of me. It was exhausting until I realised something.
I used to spend a lot of time worrying about how other people judged me.
What I wore, was it appropriate, did it fit right? Did I say too much? Did I say too little? This person must think I’m too intense. And that person must think I’m not very fun.
And the thoughts were worse at certain times. When I was presenting in a work meeting, or when I was out at a social event. It was so distracting and difficult to stay in the present moment. Because I had a whole inner monologue going on in my head. I assumed every facial expression and every comment from others meant something. And there were always specific themes and beliefs. Universal truths about myself that other people surely thought. I’d hone them and shine them like a pretty little marble and then keep them in my pocket. It was exhausting.
I still do this today, to a certain extent. Certain beliefs about ourselves are hard to break. But I am now able to recognise the pattern and reframe my inner dialogue. Because I understand the truth about most people. The truth that has been shown in research over the years:
Nobody is thinking that much about me. Because we mostly think about ourselves.
Don’t believe it? Do you still think the people around you are spending a lot of time thinking about everything you do and say? Science disagrees.
Scientific evidence that we mostly think about ourselves
There’s actually scientific evidence that we mostly think about ourselves.
Back in 1997, Dunbar, Marriott et al studied the topic and content of human conversations. They found that 78% of conversations involved talking about ourselves and our perceptions of the world. As they said in the study, the number one function of conversation in the social domain is that:
it allows the speaker to convey to other individuals a lot of information about him/herself as a person.
So the first step was understanding that people mostly talk about themselves.
In 2013, Tamir and Mitchell from Harvard showed that most people do something called “anchoring”. It is a kind of cognitive bias where:
(people) invoke their own experiences as a guide for inferring the experiences of another person.
As an example, you might feel uncomfortable in crowds. So when someone describes a big party they attended, you assume they were describing a negative experience. Even if they, personally, love big parties.
More recently (2018), Meyer and Lieberman proposed a theory about why people are always thinking about themselves. There is a certain area of the brain (MPFC/DA 10) that is sort of the “default network” area. It gets activated when the brain is at rest and not engaged in external demands. Their imaging work confirmed that it is also the same area that lights up when we think about ourselves.
In other words, our brain’s default is to think about ourselves.
So the research supports this truth. We talk about ourselves more than anything else. We use our own experiences to make assumptions about other people. And our brain is wired to think about ourselves when it’s not engaged in other external demands.
The research is pretty clear. We’re mostly thinking about ourselves.
So when you feel judged, it’s because you’re judging yourself
Let’s reframe our negative thoughts and assumptions about ourselves for a moment.
When I am worried that someone thinks I’m too intense, or that I’m not doing a good job at a presentation at work, who is actually thinking that?
Me. I’m thinking about myself and believing those thoughts. But are other people judging me in the same way?
The biggest truth is that we have no idea what other people are thinking and we never will.
But the most likely scenario is that the people around me are wondering what I think about them. Or something else related to themselves. And I’m the only one thinking all those negative thoughts about myself. Because I’m only a blip on the radar of the thoughts of anyone else.
The truth about what people think about us goes something like the quote from Bette Midler in Beaches. (Yes, I know, but the quote is good.)
Enough about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?
Sometimes people will say judgmental things, but it’s not what you think
All this isn’t to say that people will never judge you, say mean things to you, or think negative thoughts about you. That isn’t true. I mean, we’ve all been on the Internet.
But my perspective on these things is that often, these judgements aren’t actually about us. At least not only about us.
Again, the research from the Tamir and Mitchell paper (and others) says that people use their own thoughts and experiences as an “anchor” for their assumptions about other people.
What I’ve seen is that people are often the harshest and most judgmental about parts of other people that they are insecure about in themselves.
So the next time someone calls you something mean or makes a judgement about you and how you live your life, instead of internalising it and making it mean something about you, ask yourself, what does it mean about them? What negative thoughts do they have about themselves that “anchor” their belief about you?
The absolute freedom in realising that nobody is thinking about you
When you realise that most people’s thoughts are about themselves—when you actually internalise this concept—the freedom is incredible.
It means, I can do my work presentation and believe whatever I want about how I did.
It means, I can wear whatever I want and accept that I like the outfit.
The possibilities are endless.
This shift might not happen overnight. And it won’t exist all the time. Nothing is perfect, absolute, or black and white.
But the next time you find yourself feeling completely judged, the next time you are overcome with the belief that other people are thinking mean, terrible, horrible thoughts about you, remember:
You have no idea what they’re actually thinking. But it’s unlikely to be about you. And more likely to be about themselves.
So you’re free to think anything you want, good or bad, and remove the inner monologue from your mind and return to the present moment.
What a relief.
This piece was originally published on Deb Knobelman’s blog. You can find more of her work here.