How to Stop Obsessing Over Other People's Thoughts
How to stop obsessing about what’s in other people’s heads and also curb your need for validation from them. If you prefer to listen, here's the podcast version of this post.
This is for Ambika, thank you so much for writing to me! This is a great topic. :)
Has it ever happened to you – that you do something nice for someone else and they don’t respond and so part of you is worried they didn’t like it, but then you start to get mad, because you are thinking – they should have appreciated that gesture! And how could they?! So uncaring. Wow – they are really a jerk, after all. Or, maybe there’s someone in your workplace who gave you a dirty look – and you can’t figure out why, did they hear something? Do they really just dislike you? And if so, why? You didn’t do anything to them. Maybe you try to be nice and they don’t acknowledge you at all and now you just feel uncomfortable. The tension makes you feel nervous and distracted because you are nice! AND didn’t do anything wrong! If this sounds like you and you do everything in your power to talk yourself out of it, but still can’t seem to soothe the obsessive thoughts of everything from worry to hate to insecurity and self-doubt, then this is a blog for you!
Often we suffer in our relationships with others – even those who mean us well, because as humans, our filters for interpretation are totally different and see a vast array of meanings as a result. The way we interpret social cues can be literally opposite depending on how we are brought up as well as the sum of our life experiences. Where you might perceive something as completely insulting, another person might mean it as an attempt to make friends. I know what you’re thinking – if you are suffering in situations like this, you might be driven to seek the counsel of others to compare notes. Retelling the story of each person’s actions and responses, you are dying to know the truth based on the filter of others to put your feelings at ease: “Well – that’s what happened. I said this, he said this and acted like this. Is he a jerk or is it me?! Which of us is right?”
Drum roll please…. The answer to this question, in all situations (where both parties are kind and honest people) will always be…both of you. Both people always have a valid reason to think and perceive the way they do. You cannot decide that the way they view things is wrong. It just is. Perception is cultural – and it is different and nuanced for all of us. Just like we all have a different sense of humor – your nerves and eye balls are distinct to you. I am not suggesting that there aren’t people in the world who manipulate and intentionally try to hurt others, but that is not who we are talking about. For now, I am addressing the most pervasive cause of misunderstanding and hurt between well-intentioned individuals: a complete misinterpretation of social cues that stems from different filters, different communication styles, and different values and priorities. Those belong to each unto their self. You cannot judge them as wrong. They just “are.” If you do not agree with them, you don’t have to be friends with that person – but it’s definitely got nothing to do with you.
So this blog is really about how to PROTECT yourself and HELP yourself so that you don’t endure totally unnecessary pain. And the most important part – when it comes to these tools, it doesn’t matter whether the other person meant to hurt you, or not.
1. What happens when you get hurt by someone's thoughts.
When you take something someone else does personally, you’re making it about you when it’s got nothing to do with you. You are seeing things that are not really there, usually because of a question mark in your self-perception. The tendency to see a negative implication in the actions of another comes from a weak spot in your armor – you don’t have total confidence in yourself and therefore you feel exposed. Question marks from others will activate your vulnerable spots in your feelings about yourself.
When you can’t sense how vulnerable and insecure you are, but you often perceive others as attacking you or looking down on you, it’s likely due to a disconnection to yourself due to uncomfortable feelings that you have stuck deep down. Do a body scan of your personality. Are you defensive and critical of others or do you find you are very intolerant of less-than-perfect? If so, you likely have buried feelings of poor self-image hidden way deep down inside. They are often so well-hidden by our defenses, we won’t even know they exist. If this sounds like it might be true for you, there are some feelings that need to be addressed from a long time ago – likely related to childhood. It’s important to work through old pain and gut it at the root because if left unaddressed, they can wreak havoc on your personal life. It’s not about the memories themselves, it’s how they disconnect you from your body in current situations. You end up doing a lot more damage to yourself when you can’t feel the pain it’s causing, not to mention- any hidden negative feelings hold you back from a lot of future happiness and success.
To alleviate the affects of any vulnerability related to the opinions of others, you are going to take steps to A. build more confidence and trust in yourself and B. begin learning about any unaddressed painful spots in your character.
When we have a past that makes us ashamed – even if that was a parent who made you feel that way a long time ago, it can create a false self-image that we wear unconsciously, for the rest of our lives. You won’t even look at it or question it because it’s so foundational – feelings like “I’m a liar,” “I’m unreliable,” “I’m not like other people,” or even “I’ve got issues and I have a messed up family.” Though straightforward, even a truth like that can dictate to us our own opinions of self. If left un-decoded, we assume it’s part of us and will always define us regardless of what we do, moving forward. So if you have some deep-down feelings like this, do not allow them to own you – because they do not. If you don’t know where to start, I strongly recco you work with a therapist because they are misunderstandings from your youth that are better (and faster) sorted with an objective party, one educated on the subject. Regardless of your childhood dynamics, know that they aren’t “you,” they are false rationalizations you made out of a need for survival. Everyone who grew up in your situation is just like you. In fact, you haven’t met them because no one talks about it – but there are many others just like you.
For example – if you had alcoholic parents, this will manifest the feeling that you are invisible – not cared for, and not loved. Feelings like, “Why don’t they see my suffering? I’m right here – in front of them…” Soooo much pain is stuck to this experience and it affects our perception of everyone in our lives as adults. You must dispel them otherwise they will keep you tethered. So if you can’t do therapy, go to help-groups and read books on the topic.
So to recap the first part of this – you should be A. building more confidence, and B. untangling the ouchy spots in your character. If you’re looking to build confidence, a couple easy ways to start are enhance your character: try something new that intimidates you – that’s a good shortcut. Other quick routes: learn a new skill – take a class or tutorial, exercise more, better your personal grooming, feed yourself better food, enhance your intake of things considered “cool” or cultural. Focus on your activities and better those by your own standards. Also, dress better for yourself – at all times.
If you are confused about your own reactions to any particular kinds of situations, here is an answer key of sorts:
• If you are affected badly by the words or reaction of a total stranger:
When something sticks to you, real hard – it reveals a belief you hold about yourself that you think someone else has also seen. Your fear got validated and that causes an anxious amount of replaying/questioning in your mind. When it comes to strangers, how they act is totally a reflection of themselves, inside. That’s all. So to solve this, look inward to solve the feelings you are feeling are true, not to them.
If this isn’t the case, it could be just the actual injury that hurts. When someone tries to hurt you intentionally, the pain is visceral – because it’s a shock to your system. You must heal from it like any other cut. Remember, most importantly, it’s not about you. Mean people are hurting and suffering so much that they are spewing it out into the world. Think, “Poor them,” because it’s very sad. Keep your distance. Let it go.
• If are in a close relationship and you are constantly hurt by their inability to read you and meet your needs:
This is a form of denial. It begins to heal once you accept the reality. They are not like you, they don’t think like you. You are putting expectations onto them, to be you. They are not. They are who they are and they will never be able to grow the brain that you have. If you love them and know they are loving, you must remind yourself that they mean well and would never intentionally hurt you. So what comes up is a pain that lives in your past – unmet needs of your childhood. It’s all in your mind – not theirs. AND it’s not fair to the other person – the ways you are judging them, based on the terms of you.
• Constant need to couch/conditionalize:
When you offer things like, “…if you want,” or “You don’t have to” when delivering a request or comment to others. For example, “Want to go bowling tonight? We don’t have to, though. We can do something else.” When you compulsively try to explain yourself and offer conditions for others before they’ve even responded, it comes from insecurity and a need to control the outcome. Firstly, you have a preconceived notion of how they will feel and react and your need to soften and undo your own words shows a lack of trust in them and in the relationship. You are predicting they are not going to want to show up for you and/or they will be upset or annoyed – which is unfair to the other person, and also is controlling. You are attempting to control them and how they feel, which is self-protective and based on a lack of confidence in yourself.
If this sounds like you, place faith in the other person by going all in. To build trust, stop disclaiming and allow others to experience you without talking down on the bond you share. You will place value in yourself by doing so.
• Need for Validation
A need for validation is coming from a lack of confidence in how they feel about you – and also a lack of confidence in yourself. Because when you are completely sure of yourself and the good of your intentions, you can see much more easily – that however they are acting is totally about them.
Part 3: Ways to help yourself
A lot of this is a learn-by-trying process. You won't feel it until you’ve practiced it for a while. It’s all about rebuilding trust in yourself – and using the tools while immediately redirecting your thoughts. If you’re doubting yourself constantly, it will take consistently doing right by yourself to prove you are a stand-up individual- just like a friend, it takes time to rebuild trust, and with that confidence. When it comes to self-love, it’s about building a track-record: consistently being nice to yourself, standing up for yourself, treating yourself well.
1. It’s NOT ABOUT YOU.
Write this one down! Universally – this is your rule for when someone is mean or you think they’re mean or punishing you, get “you” out of it. You don’t force anyone to do anything they don’t decide to do. If you are confused by their actions, ask them. Outside of that – assume it’s nothing to do with you, by default. If a person is mean to you – ever - it’s because they are suffering. Not about you. Stop imagining yourself as a magic puppeteer that’s on the top of everyone’s mind and making them feel certain ways, like you can puppet their bodies. (Yeah, that’s weird but it’s so you can hopefully remember it better!)
If you did wrong someone intentionally, apologize and then work on letting it go. Relieve yourself the obsessive thoughts because it’s not knowledge, you are guessing and you’re likely wrong.
2. Assumptions are for Chump-shuns!
(I know. Good one, right?!)
This is a rule that will get you through everything in life related to obsessing about other people’s thoughts. You do not know what others are thinking. You cannot. It’s impossible. You believe you do – but you do not. From now on you are to make conjectures about others an ACTIONS ONLY basis. Do not do detective work by invading other people’s minds. That’s not your business, so stay out of it!
Most importantly - your best decision-making will ALWAYS come solely from your own objective information and how YOU feel about that information. It will not come from attempting to analyze the feelings and body-language of someone else and their thoughts. That’s when you make your decisions conditional on what they do and think. In other words, you hand over the keys to your brain and feelings to someone else. Not fair to you – not healthy for anyone. If you find yourself starting to decode someone’s brain, remind yourself, “I don’t know” and let it go.
If you’re wondering why you have this habit (because a lot of people don’t) it came from an age when you had to read someone else’s body language for survival. Maybe you had an erratic parent or one who was chronically depressed. You got used to reading very subtle cues so that you could better take care of them and yourself. It was for survival then, but now it’s blinding you into thinking you know what’s happening – deep down. If you want to know, assume you’re wrong and ask them. Be direct. It’s easy to write your own story and at the very least cause yourself a whole lot of unnecessary worry.
2. Love someone? Give them the subtitles.
In other words, want something? Spell it out. So no matter what it is – BE CLEAR and DIRECT with your expectations. Never assume anyone knows what you are thinking, no matter how obvious you are making your thoughts in the situation. Contrary to what you might think, this is not about them loving you enough to “get” you. This is about realizing who this person is in reality, and that they are not like you. They don’t think like you, nor should they – they should be themselves and be loved just as they are. If they don’t pick up on cues, that’s not good or bad – it just is. You cannot expect that a person will study you like you might want them to.
Let’s say you are dropping hints about something you want them to do. You might be doing what you feel are the most blatant note-passing when they do not register an ounce of it. So when it comes to someone you love, give them the subtitles to your inner monologue! Tell them exactly what you want so that they can give that to you. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s that most people don’t know to – no matter how “common” this thing is, or how much you think they “should” know better, that’s not fair to them and it’s also not going to help you get what you want from them. If it’s important to you, assume they have no idea and turn on the subtitles.
3. Got a Bruise? Bandage it up!
This is a tool for anyone who’s dealing with a current relationship and not sure they can walk into it unscathed. If you’ve been burned by someone before, don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s going to be different this time. If you want to have them in your life, before hanging out with them you’ve got to PREP and ACCEPT. What does that mean? Accept all potential outcomes ahead of time. Assume they are just as likely to disappoint you again as they are to not, and be okay with that outcome. Literally prepare yourself for it – imagine it, and decide you will be just fine when that happens. It’s who they are – you know that. Regardless of what they say they’re going to do, you can only base your judgments on actions.
If you don’t think you can detach enough to be happy with both, you are not capable of interacting in this way in the relationship yet. It’s too dangerous and you are not ready to be around them without getting hurt, so don’t set this up. Because you’re setting yourself up to get hurt, and setting up the other person to fail all over again.
People are flawed. Some waaay more than others. Just because this person is majorly flawed and not who they should be to you, doesn’t mean you can’t have them in your life. It all comes down to what YOU want for yourself. If you want some semblance of a relationship with this person, you will have to first accept and mourn the fact that they are not who you want them to be. Once you can do that, you can begin to get to know them (in a safe way) as the person they are in reality. It won’t be exactly what you wish but it can be wonderful just to have them in your life at all. Only you can decide what’s best – and then prepare accordingly when you are ready.
4. 1000 Lb. Expectations
This is a visualization for anyone beginning to set themselves and others they love, up for a painful outcome by letting their expectations build up.
Picture your expectations as a giant heavy weight you toss to someone else when they are looking the other direction. Picture that person’s reaction – they might say, “Get your expectations off of me!” Because you’re making them carry them on top of whatever else they might be attempting. For example, let’s say you are picturing something grand for a Valentines Day surprise – the person who loves you has been tossed a giant weight to carry in addition to planning something nice. They are not coming from a blank slate of, “I expect nothing” so they can surprise and delight you. Nope. They have a massive task ahead of them and they are already behind: they have to first meet you at “amazing surprise” and then surpass it. It’s a discouraging challenge to say the least because they start out feeling defeated.
Your expectations represent a weight because you are making your feelings conditional on THEM and their actions, like you’re saying, “Carry me! Make me happy!” So not fair to the relationship. You can and should be happy outside of what anyone else does or doesn’t do. You’re handing power over your feelings, to them, which is not their job or responsibility – and wow, what an amazing amount of pressure! It has the affect of making people not want to pick up the phone because they are already fearful of disappointing you. Not fun for you or them, and likely not your intention in the first place. Setting up people’s expectations also disregards the individual and their right to be exactly who they are, and still be accepted and loved as just that. Because who they are is enough.
5. Assume Opposite
If you are spinning in circles of misinterpretation and can’t seem to stop analyzing, this is a great way to soothe that pain. Quite simply, imagine and assume the exact opposite is true – picture yourself laughing at yourself in the future for having misunderstood this situation so severely. You are thinking the absolute opposite of what they are likely thinking, right now. Remember that you cannot “know” their thoughts – make peace with that and embrace it. Love yourself for being a kind and thoughtful person with a heart squarely in the right place, and let it go.
6. Deduce the Best
This is a tool for if you are suffering from feeling a person you care about intentionally tried to hurt you. Maybe you have had a misunderstanding and you can’t talk to them or maybe you don’t want to create a fight that is unnecessary, this is a tool for you to use in lieu of confronting that person.
First, stop. Calm down, chemically. Once rational, Deduce the Best. You know this person and know that they are kind and loving, therefore you know they would never intentionally hurt you. Embrace that fact! This person loves you. They completely did not mean to hurt you, and you are fully capable of letting this go – if you decide to. If it’s not worth it to make a stink over, don’t! You get to choose what you want to focus on in your life. Choose to let this go based on the truth of this individual. Some miscommunications are so stupid they don’t deserve either party’s attention. You can man up to this fact right now and just remind yourself of the truth. Their heart is loving and therefore you can Deduce the Best.
A lot of this blog is all about letting go of your obsessive thoughts and being aware, in the moment, that you are completely capable of that. No matter how strong they are, you can choose to redirect your attention and let them go. If you can’t, that’s from an overactive mind – something you will want to address. Here’s another podcast to help you train your mind to redirect your most obsessive thoughts.
7. Remind yourself of your heart.
This is a mantra more than anything else. I find it helps for when you are worried about how you are perceived by others – specifically if someone has been offended and it was completely not your fault. When people have severe feelings of low self-worth, they will often feel attacked and wounded by anything and everything. It’s just how they see interactions: as a reflection of how lame and stupid they are. So if this is happening to you, there might be times when you can’t do anything to make someone feel better about a situation. Which is fine – and your job is to remain loving to them – but also to yourself enough to step back. If you didn’t do anything wrong, you didn’t do anything wrong and there’s nothing you should be feeling bad about or focusing on. This person has to go through what they’re going through and hopefully they will come back around, when they’re ready.
For the moments when you’re suffering with the pain of guilt and powerlessness, hold your hand over your heart and really focus on the love you have inside you. Remind yourself of your pure and good intentions. That’s all that matters. Repeat to yourself, “I did my best – I came from love.” Focus on letting go. You are good and loving and this is out of your hands. Allow others to process things in their own time without needing to hurry them or change their minds. Continue to act as the person you are – which is kind and loving. Know that this is a truth inside you that cannot be removed – it has not been tarnished. You are still that person, because you can feel that your intentions are good, down to your core. That makes it true regardless of what anyone else sees. Do not discount that, or feel badly about yourself. Practice letting go.
8. Cut the Ribbons!
This is a tool for anyone who has a habit of giving people gifts and expecting validation or thanks in return. And maybe you do things because you secretly want praise in return. Well this is a visualization you can attach to all gifts you give – material and otherwise.
Before you do anything kind or give anyone a gift, don't forget to cut the ribbons! Imagine you are handing a gift to someone with a big bow on top. They begin to walk away with it but you didn’t cut the ribbons and now they’re attached to a large spool you’re still holding. In other words, it’s not theirs at all. You’re still holding onto it. If you are giving with the expectation of receiving praise, that is not a gift at all – to you or to that person. That is a 1000 lb. expectation with a bow on top. You’re almost giving them a job: to make you feel good about yourself.
A true gift’s value exists wholly in the act itself, and that value is immense! Whatever it is, think of it as a gesture of love that has no corresponding response. It exists unto itself and retains its value whether or not it is appreciated by the receiver. Because the gift is for you to express your inner person and feel kind and good about who that is. It’s an act of beauty that shows who you are – and once you’ve given it, it’s done! Like a firework! What a brilliant show. Savor that moment because that’s the greatest value it brings to you, regardless of what they think or do with it.
I know it’s hard to let go of wanting a grand reaction, so as a way to practice, try giving people things without ever saying a word to a soul. Perform acts of kindness for strangers, give gifts in secret – and try to focus on what that gesture feels like – to you. That’s what’s most wonderful. A warm glow of goodness, deep down.
•••••• And those, dear friends, are the tools!
All of this is not easy – I know. A lot of the time you won’t realize you are creating a story in your head until the bubble pops and you have to process the reality and the fact that it has been a fantasy all along. To give you a simple frame by which to view this, look at the people in your life as very different but all very loving in their own way. Some are in pain, some are foggy and slow, some are stuck – but all of them are trying their best to be loving.
It’s important to stay connected to the reality of others so that you don’t endure unnecessary suffering. When you can step back from the minds of others, you can better tend to your own feelings and needs and act based on what’s best for you – without getting lost in interpretations. Because when you can take others at face value, you can let go of what is out of your control and that’s when you can savor relationships in a wholly new way.
Sometimes you will have to accept the truth that others are not who you want them to be – and once you mourn that fact, you can choose how to have a relationship with that person that keeps you safe. Meaning, one that allows you to not get your feelings hurt because your hopes were up. We can love people in our own way – even if it means from a distance, or only in certain situations (meaning we’ve prepped). It all comes down to managing your own connection to happiness and balance, regardless of the outcome. So if you can’t be close with someone because you’re not able to do that just yet, that’s okay. You can work toward it – and make it a goal for one day down the road. Know you are loving and take care of yourself.
If you are struggling to love someone from a distance, I highly recco the forgiveness practice compliments of Marci Shimoff. It’s for the relationships that prevent you from having contact with the other person, to send them love and also get closure when you have to cut them out of your life. Quite simply, close your eyes, picture this person and hold your hand over your heart. Say aloud, “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.” Breathe deeply. Make peace with yourself. Know where your heart lies and let the rest go.
I hope you enjoyed this and I send you my love! Smile lovely friends!! xox Sarah-May B. Umbika – thank you for writing me and I hope this helps you. xox