What you are struggling with is likely to be a type of thinking trap called ‘mind reading’. You think you know what others are thinking about you and respond accordingly. The issue is that thinking traps are making decisions with either too little or too much information. The way through them is to learn more about what thinking traps are, and then how to catch and challenge them.
Thinking traps are repetitive negative beliefs that influence your assessment of the future. Repeating negative beliefs will limit you. Noticing the pattern to your thought process is where the change begins. If you become aware that there’s a pattern, you’re more likely to be able to change it for the better. Here are some common thinking traps:
All-or-nothing thinking (or black-and-white thinking) happens when only extremely good or bad options seem possible. The idea of a “gray” or “beige” isn’t happening—nothing in-between is considered. Things are either good or bad, a success or a failure, right or wrong. For example, cheating once on your diet does not mean you have failed completely. You had a small setback, and all you need to do to correct it is get back on your diet tomorrow.
Jumping to conclusions is when you make an assumption without enough information. For example, Amy assumed being divorced would forever leave her single. These types of assumptions need to be challenged with facts, such as the fact that most people find love again after a divorce. Thinking traps are clever, and they pull in our behavior to support the illusion.
Mind-reading is when you believe you know what others are thinking or assume others know what you’re thinking. This is the one I think you are struggling with. Here are some examples of mind-reading: Nobody loves me. People think I’m stupid. She doesn’t like me. Nobody cares.
Overgeneralizing happens when we make sweeping judgments about ourselves (or others) based on minimal experience: Nobody cares. Nobody loves me. I’m a failure. I’ll never win. I’m a loser. I’m not smart enough. They take one bad experience and turn it into something that distorts our view. Words like “always” and “never” are often used in this type of trap: I’ll never be able to manage my anxiety. I always make mistakes. Mind-reading can get added on top of overgeneralizing—sometimes thinking traps work together to hold us back.
Negative brain-filtering is the ultimate form of pessimism. Everything is filtered through a negative lens. Only the negatives are noticed. You give a terrific presentation, then you notice one person out of the group looks bored and think everyone hated it. This is an ultimate form of pessimism, because no matter what happens that’s good, you’re going to focus on what went wrong, what wasn’t working, or what was a disappointment. It’s common for thinking traps to work together. You might filter the negative view of how people responded to your presentation, and then overgeneralize: I’m not good at public speaking.
Personalizing or externalizing occurs when everything is either your fault or someone else’s: By personalizing you are taking too much responsibility for the situation, and by externalizing you make everything someone else’s fault and not yours. No matter what I do things won’t change. What’s wrong with me? They never get it right.
Overestimating or catastrophizing exaggerates the likelihood something bad will happen. We imagine the worst and/or believe we won’t be able to cope with the outcome. The truth is that the worst very rarely happens and if it does we usually find a way to cope. Catastrophizing zaps us of our life force and energy: I’ll freak out. No one will help me if I screw up. I’ll make a fool of myself and will be too embarrassed. These are typical ways we convince ourselves of how bad things are going to be.
Fortune-telling is the mantras of those who believe they can see the future and it isn’t bright: I’ll faint. I’ll go crazy. I’m not strong enough. I can’t win. I’ll never become what I want to be. I’m not strong enough. I can’t do it. The truth is, these thoughts do actually make success less possible, because they limit our effort and our belief in possibility.
“Should” statements. The famous psychologist Albert Elis called people who “should” on themselves “should-a-baters” and “must-er-baters.” Constantly telling yourself how you should or must behave is a surefire way to keep yourself feeling anxious, and disappointed in yourself and others. These are easy to identify because they have the terms right in them: I should never feel worried. I must control my feelings. I should never make mistakes.
There are many more of these. If you’d like to learn about fifteen of the most common ones check here.
Thinking traps can hijack out mind if left unchecked. It is beyond the scope of this blog to give you directions on how to do this, but one of the best self-help books I’ve read on the subject is called The Resilience Factor. It can help you learn how to challenge these thinking traps and not get so side-tracked by them.