“How do you know that people are thinking that about you?”
“I just know, by the way they look at me.”
“Have you got any evidence to tell you what they’re thinking?”
This is a conversation I have frequently with my CBT therapist. Whenever I meet friends that I haven’t seen in a while, or even when I pop to the shop, I am bewildered by thoughts of what the people around me must be thinking. “She looks horrible.” “She needs to look in the mirror and sort her hair out.” “She looks cheap.” “What on Earth is that girl wearing!” “She smells bad.” These are just a few of the thoughts I have whenever I see someone looking or I catch somebody’s eye.
This, my therapist told me, is mind reading.
The trouble is, we all do care a little what people think of us. I would love to be one of those people who truly couldn’t care less because they are so happy and confident in themselves. I’m not one of those people, I truly don’t think I ever will be.
I can remember events when I was a teenager where my anxiety about what people thought of me was quite intense. It was never something I thought about until more recently, as I thought it was just a new thing in my life. But when I sat down and really thought about it, I remember being very paranoid that my friends were talking about me behind my back, or that I had annoyed them in some way.
When I was 13 or 14 years old, I hung around with a large group of girls at school and was generally quite close with a select few. However, I remember always worrying that they didn’t want me around, or that they were being quiet with me. I would text them in the evening asking them if they were okay with me, which at first was responded with “Don’t be silly, of course not!” but then after a while, they got sick of me asking. They did push me away then. This happened again in sixth form, where a group of girls pushed me out of the group for some unknown reason. They’d talk about me behind my back, then be really nice to my face. They eventually didn’t make it a secret and stopped inviting me to parties. I know now, on reflection, that these girls shaped my self-esteem and confidence in myself. At the time, I made new friends and just got on with it. Looking back, they are probably the reason I seek reassurance constantly that I am still wanted around.
I went to university and made some very good friends, and my self-esteem drastically improved because they were great at boosting my confidence. They made me feel worthy and gave me good advice on what to wear and what make-up to buy. This all stopped, though, when I moved home after graduation. I still seek reassurance from these girls today; whenever I buy something new or get my hair done, I have to see what they think first. I know they wouldn’t say anything horrible to me but I knew they’d probably be honest. Without their opinion, I can’t feel confident that I look good.
Now, that’s my background on the development of my anxiety and low self-esteem, which has really helped me understand why I feel this way and can start to fix it. The first thing to fix is the mind-reading!
My therapist told me, if someone has not commented and told you that you look bad, or that you smell, or that you’re annoying, then you cannot possibly know that is what they’re thinking. I told her that just because they haven’t said it, it doesn’t mean that they weren’t thinking it. She said that it doesn’t matter, really, what anyone else thinks. It only matters what I think of myself. That is, ultimately, all that really matters. Can we really spend our entire lives being someone that we are not, just in order to please other people? Can we really be told to change the way that we look just because someone else doesn’t approve? Why can’t you accept who you are, and what you look like, and be happy at that? Who tells you that you shouldn’t be?
This is still a daily struggle for me.
A family friend once said to me, “be bold, be brave and be kind, and you can never go wrong.”
I hope she is right.