If you have ever been in the market for a new car, you might have noticed how, once you started thinking about what kind of car you wanted – what make, what color – you began to see that car everywhere you went. Because the car was on your mind, you were inclined to see it, more apt to see it than you would have been otherwise.
If you worry about rejection, you might well experience a similar phenomenon. When we have rejection on our minds, we also tend to see it, or at least the potential for it, everywhere. And why wouldn’t we? After all, we are trying to protect ourselves from what rejection means for us – loneliness, perhaps, or “proof” that our negative core beliefs, the declarations of our inner critic, are true. However, the threat of rejection – in the form of other people thinking negatively of us, for instance – is something that we often interpret, and even overinterpret, into situations and what other people say and do. We indulge in what cognitive-behavioral therapy calls mind reading.
In our context of social anxiety, shyness, and performance fears, we can talk about mind reading as another kind of anxious thinking (two weeks ago, we looked at personalization as our first example). When we engage in mind reading, we make anxious assumptions not only about what other people are thinking, but that they are thinking negatively of us.
Let us say, for instance, that I am aware that I begin to sweat and blush when I feel nervous. I may assume not only that others notice my physical responses, but that they view me as strange or weird as a result. In making these assumptions, I am engaging in mind reading on two counts. First, I am assuming that others can tell as clearly as I can that I am feeling nervous, which may not be true; then, I am assuming that others are judging me negatively, which may not be accurate, either. In both cases, I am very likely overestimating the probability that my fears represent what others really have on their minds. From a cognitive-behavioral perspective, probability overestimation is yet another kind of anxious thinking, one that often goes hand-in-hand with mind reading. For many of us, the idea that we overestimate the likelihood of what we fear is both a relief and difficult to believe. Don’t forget – we are trying to avoid the pain of what rejection means to us. Why wouldn’t we overestimate the danger? We think that doing so will keep us safer.
The trouble is that in being so vigilant against the threat of rejection, and seeing it everywhere, we actually set ourselves up for more frequent chances of having the very kinds of experiences that we want to avoid. For example, if we speak too softly or avoid eye contact in social situations on account of our fears, others may “reject” us not because they are actually thinking negatively of us, but because they interpret us as not interested in them.
The good news is … we do not have to believe everything that we think! Our perception of rejection, or its potential, is open to challenge. We can approach our thoughts like a purchase we have made; if one doesn’t work for us, we can take it back!
To the extent that you feel comfortable sharing, what have been your own experiences of mind reading? How do you keep yourself from believing the negative things that you imagine others are thinking about you?
I will be continuing to write about kinds of anxious thinking in the coming weeks. If you are interested in following this blog, you can do so via e-mail; please feel free to subscribe!
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