How much time do you spend on average each day wondering if or what someone is thinking about you?
You’ve likely worried about what “others” will think, where the others are nameless, faceless people you may not even know.
Has someone given you a strange or threatening look that causes you to spiral down into anxiety or even shame?
There’s probably a good reason why we have these worries. Perhaps there was a benefit to this worry that served humans when small groups or tribes were the main social structures in which people gathered and lived.
But today this worry doesn’t have much benefit. Instead, it serves at best, as a distraction from what you were doing in that moment. But worst case scenario, it can ruin an entire day, take you off course or cause you to make changes or decisions that go against your personal values, in an attempt to please someone else or make them like you.
Dr. David Sack, a board-certified psychiatrist and addiction specialist, says in his article, 8 Ways to Stop Worrying About What Other People Think, that our DNA is coded with this need to belong. This becomes problematic, however, when we care more about what others are thinking about us (or what we think they’re thinking) than how we feel and what we think about ourselves.
Diet Mentality & What Others Think
If you have recovered from disordered eating, or if you’re currently in the process of making peace with food and your body, you’ve probably experienced this concern about what others are thinking. It shows up everywhere in your life if you’re dealing with disordered eating or an eating disorder. In fact, our culture encourages girls and women to be worried about what others think.
Have you seen the “tissue test” commercial? It’s brilliant from a marketing perspective. One woman asks another if she’s used the tissue test. She pulls a tissue out of her purse, and a mirror, and tells the other woman to compare her teeth to the tissue. Of course, the woman is horrified that her teeth aren’t tissue-white and wants to know what she can do about it.
The brand has created a new beauty standard with an easy to remember gimmick that keeps women focused on how white their teeth are, so they’ll buy more teeth whitener. It’s absolutely disgusting, but it is an excellent example of how women are trained to worry about what others are thinking about them.
Side note: When I searched Google for the ’tissue test,’ I noticed the majority of first page results were for blog posts by other people that are as disgusted as I am about this commercial. Awesome!
When it comes to dieting, food obsession, body hatred, shame and all the other negative consequences of believing you must be thin to be accepted, there are plenty of examples of worrying about what others think. See if you can relate…
1. I should order a salad, they may think I’m too indulgent if I get a hamburger.
2. I can’t go to the party. I’ve gained too much weight. They will all know I failed my diet and gained all the weight back.
3. I won’t be caught dead in a bathing suit – all those people judging me? I’ll go on vacation after I lose weight. (I’ve heard this more than once!)
4. I’m not hungry, I just ate. But the people I’m meeting with will be eating, so I have to eat something, too.
5. Everyone is just going to stare at me as I walk slowly on the treadmill. I have to lose weight and get in better shape before I work out at the gym.
In case you’re wondering if I’m just being dramatic in my examples, well, no, I’m not. I wish I could say they aren’t real. But unfortunately, I’ve heard these exact statements and several variations many times. It’s heartbreaking to know someone is holding herself back because of her fear of being judged. I also understand this way of thinking because I had similar beliefs and fears of how I was being judged.
What’s interesting about the worry is that many of these thoughts fit into the diet mentality, as described by the authors of Intuitive Eating.
Diet mentality has three main components. They are:
• All-or-nothing thinking (or black & white thinking). Comment #3 and 5 represent this thinking.
• Believing willpower (or just trying harder next time) is what it will take to lose weight.
• Blaming yourself for your “failures” with dieting. Comment #2 demonstrates how we blame ourselves for not staying on a diet – but it’s the fault of the diet industry! They create the diets to fail.
Some typical comments won’t necessarily fit diet mentality thinking, but they are cognitive distortions – common ways of thinking that are generally incorrect and often have negative consequences for thinking that way. For example, comment #5 is a good example of exaggeration, along with all or nothing thinking. Comment #4 is an example of jumping to conclusions. Other types of distorted thinking show up with perfectionism and the use of “shoulds,” especially when discussing food and eating.
There are several cognitive distortions, and Dr. Sack refers to a couple more in his article.
So what’s the solution to stop this disabling worry that keeps you so stuck?
Remember This Important Truth
I share an important truth with my clients when they get caught up in worry about what others are thinking. Make sure to read and remember this:
When you’re worried about people looking at you and thinking bad thoughts about you or judging you, remember…
They are much too busy worrying about other people looking at them, thinking bad thoughts or judging them!
Everyone is so caught up in worrying about how they look, what people are thinking and how they are being judged that they have little opportunity or interest in thinking about or judging you!
Not sure if you believe me? I have proof!
I’ve worked with hundreds of women privately, in groups, and in conversations by phone, email or chat. Every single one of them has had this concern. Many have since let go of the worry of what others are thinking about them as they make peace with food and their bodies. But this doesn’t mean they now have the time to judge other people. One of my favorite things about putting an end to judging yourself is you tend to no longer judge anyone else, either.
The next time you’re in a situation where the usual worry about what people are thinking sneaks up, stop for a moment and remember that most, if not all of the people around you are doing the same. This would be a great time to feel some compassion for those still suffering from this mindset. You’ll feel good and your positive energy could have a positive impact on another person!
Create a New Mindset
There are several strategies for letting go of the worry and the constant anxiety it produces. What I’ve shared above is an effective strategy that will appeal to some. However, Dr. David Sack’s article has a total of 8 ways to work on your mindset in order to let go of your worry. Imagine the freedom you will have when you let go and can assume the best of people you’re around!
You’ll enjoy yourself more and you’ll probably discover many people are interested in getting to know you (which is what you really wanted in the first place, right?). The fear and worry usually represent that natural desire we have for people to like us. It will never be everyone, so let that go, and embrace your new freedom!
Make sure to check out Dr. Sack’s article for ideas you can start using right away:
8 Ways to Stop Worrying About What Other People Think
Let me know what strategy you try out and how it goes in the comments below!