How much time do you spend worrying about what other people think?
Here are a few clues:
- You replay situations over and over in your head.
- You obsess over something you said.
- You misinterpret the delay in a returned phone call or email — tying it back to something you did.
- You need approval from others before you can feel good.
- Before you do something you play out different scenarios in your mind
- wondering how so-and-so will react.
- You hold back — editing your words and actions — to make them seem agreeable.
- You’re often exhausted by keeping all these plates spinning.
If any of these sound familiar, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Research now confirms that no one is really thinking about you very much.
The science behind it
Studies from 1997 through 2018 show scientific evidence that we mostly think about ourselves, according to neuroscientist Deb Knobelman, Ph.D.
Back in 1997, researchers Dunbar, Marriott et al. studied the content of human conversations. They found that 78 percent of conversations involved talking about our own views of the world.
As Dunbar and Marriott concluded in their study, the No. 1 function of conversation in the social domain is that it allows the speaker to convey to other individuals a lot of information about himself or herself as a person.
Harvard researchers Tamir and Mitchell found in 2013 that most people do something called “anchoring.” It’s a type of cognitive bias where people invoke their own experiences as a guide for inferring the experiences of another person.
For 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.
In 2018, researchers Meyer and Lieberman proposed a theory about why people are always thinking about themselves. There’s a certain area of the brain (MPFC/DA 10) that is sort of a “default network” area.
It gets activated when the brain is at rest and not engaged in external demands. Their imaging work confirmed it’s also the same area that lights up when we think about ourselves.
In other words, our brain’s default is to think about ourselves!
This research supports the premise that we think about ourselves more than anything else, explains neuroscientist Knobelman. We also overlay our own experiences and make assumptions about other people. And our brain is wired to think about ourselves when it’s not engaged in external demands.
Projection, your honor
Here’s an interesting twist. When you worry too much about what other people think — and you feel judged — it’s often because you’re judging yourself.
Let’s look at the evidence. You may think you did a poor job with a presentation, for example. After all, we’re our own worst critics. You have no idea what other people are thinking, though.
Chances are, they’re thinking about something related to themselves. Or wondering what you think about them. So you’re really the one making yourself miserable — since you’re likely just a blip on the radar of anyone else’s thoughts.
All this isn’t to say people will never judge you, say mean things to you or think negative thoughts about you, relays Knobelman. These judgments may not be exclusively about you, though.
Instead of internalizing it when someone makes a judgment about you, turn it around and ask yourself what it could mean about them. What negative thoughts do they have about themselves that “anchor” their belief about you?
“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,” says Knobelman. It’s a subtle thing and often hard to detect.
This is a concept that has baffled me at times. The theory is that if someone really annoys you, take a look at that behavior. It’s either a dormant characteristic you have — or one you’re afraid you’ll develop. Although I’m getting better at spotting things like this, I still have trouble sometimes.
When you realize most people’s thoughts are about themselves — and you actually internalize this concept — the freedom is incredible.
Obviously, this takes a lot of practice. With time, though, you could do your presentation and believe whatever you want about your performance. And be OK with what you wore.
It takes some pressure off replaying those situations over and over in your head. And wondering what other people think about what you said. Or making up stories about why someone hasn’t returned your phone call or email.
“The shift won’t happen overnight,” cautions Knobelman. “And it won’t exist all the time. Nothing is perfect, absolute, or black and white.”
Just remember — you have no idea what other people are actually thinking. But it’s unlikely to be about you. And more likely to be about themselves.
There’s research to prove it!