The Misses of Overthinking

Are you constantly worrying about what other people think of you? By S. Blake Lanier, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.
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Overthink too much? Are you constantly worrying about what other people think of you?

One of the critical milestones in childhood development is what psychologists call “theory of mind.” Theory of mind, which develops between four and five years of age, is the recognition that other people are mental beings capable of having their own thoughts and feelings. The ability to think about what others are thinking is an essential part of effective communication. Healthy relationships depend on our ability to think about others’ thoughts and feelings and consider others’ perspectives.

This incredible gift, however, has the potential to create problems for us. One problem is overthinking about others’ perceptions of us. 

This is particularly true if we overthink if others negatively judge us and then base our identity (“Who am I?”) on these thoughts. Spending too much time in this thought pattern can lead to difficulties like excessive worry, self-doubt, shame, anxiety and depression.

When we assume we know what other people are thinking about us, we filter our assumptions through our own thoughts, feelings, experiences and biases. We risk jumping to conclusions when we think we know what someone else is thinking about us. Overthinking about others’ perceptions of us can limit our ability to enjoy life to the fullest. At its worst, it can lead to deep emotional pain. Often, when things feel awful, it’s because we have convinced ourselves that we know for sure what others are thinking about us. In other words, our thoughts become our perceived reality.

William Ickes, a psychologist at the University of Texas, studies the phenomenon of thinking about what other people are thinking. He is specifically interested in what he calls “empathic accuracy”—how correct we are when we infer what others are thinking. His research, and that of other social scientists, found that we are bad at knowing what other people are thinking.  People who are strangers to one another are correct only 20 percent of the time. Close friends and people in committed relationships are right only 35 percent of the time. These findings suggest that when we think we know what someone else is thinking, we are usually wrong! It turns out we are not the mind-readers we thought we were. 

It’s natural to think about what other people think about us. Doing so is an essential part of healthy relationships. But to avoid the problems that can come with overthinking, try the following steps:

  • Know your own thoughts first. What do you think about who you are? Don’t rush to form an answer here; give this some dedicated thought. Try and separate your thoughts from what you think others think.
  • Know your own feelings. Once you identify your own thoughts, ask yourself how you feel about those thoughts. Does your self-perception lead you to feel good or bad? 
  • Bear in mind the possibility that you might be wrong when you assume you know what other people are thinking about you. Even in close relationships, research suggests we’ll be wrong 65 percent of the time and 80 percent of the time with people we don’t know! Hold in your mind the possibility you can’t truly know what other people are thinking, even when it feels like you do.
  • Ask, don’t think. In situations where it matters what other people think—and there are situations where it matters (e.g., job reviews or close personal relationships)—ask instead of assuming. You might say something like, “Hey, sometimes I worry I might not measure up to your expectations. It would be helpful if you would share your thoughts about this with me.” Yes (!) these are conversations that take a lot of courage but trying to have an open discussion instead of holding the fear on your own can ultimately be clarifying and freeing.
  • Get out of your head. If you are not quite ready for a direct conversation, or a discussion is not possible, do something to snap yourself out of the downward spiral of overthinking.  Telling yourself, “Just stop thinking about it!” doesn’t work for most people. Oftentimes, the most effective way to stop overthinking is to replace your thoughts with other (less troublesome) thoughts.  Exercising, helping a friend solve a problem, breathing while listening to music, working on a project that requires concentration are just a few ways to help break an overthinking trance.

S. Blake Lanier, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. is a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice. For more than 20 years, he has provided clinical services to youth, adults and family systems as well as mental health training and consultation to for-profit and non-profit organizations. Blake grew up in The Salvation Army as an officers’ child and specializes in the provision of clinical, research and consultation services for Salvation Army candidates, cadets, officers and officer families. Blake leads a team of mental health professionals that facilitate the Coaching Action Plan and Officer Support Plan programs for theCentral, Eastern, and Southern Territories.  Blake previously served as a clinical professor in the social work graduate program at Kennesaw State University, where he taught advanced clinical practiceHe is a Gottman Marriage Therapist, a Certified Birkman Consultant, and a Certified Mental Health First Aid instructor. Blake is also a master trainer for Cirque du Soleil’s Global Citizenship Division and teaches performing artists and community workers how to intervene with vulnerable populations through arts-based psychosocial programming. He and his wife, Jill, live, work and play in Atlanta, Georgia. Blake is kept adequately fueled by running, coffee, and sushi.

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