Mindreading: The Sneaky Habit Making Your Anxiety Worse

Do you struggle with anxiety?  Do you worry about what other people think? Or do you replay interactions in your head, long after they’re over?  If so, then I guarantee you’re doing this!  Today, I’m talking about mindreading, the sneaky little habit making your anxiety so much worse.

First, tell me if any of these situations sound familiar:

You’re at a party, when you’re introduced to someone new.  You have a nice conversation and then as soon as you leave, you start replaying the conversation in your head. “Why did I say that.  She probably thought I sounded like an idiot!  I could tell she didn’t really like me.”

Maybe you texted a friend earlier in the week, but they haven’t gotten back to you.  It’s two days later, and you’re certain they’re mad at you.

Or maybe you’re talking with your boss, when she gets a look on her face.  All of a sudden, you realize you’re not making sense.  She’s probably wondering what the heck you’re talking about and that you’re not really qualified for the job.

Do these sound familiar?  Well it turns out, there’s a name for this pattern of thinking.  It’s called mindreading.

Mindreading is the belief that you know what another person is thinking, even though there’s no proof or evidence to support it.  Mindreading is your anxiety at work.  It tries to convince you that it knows everything, even before it’s happened. 

Mindreading often feels like the truth.  But unless you’ve got some sort of secret superpower, you can’t actually read minds.  You don’t really know what people are thinking. 

Mindreading is the belief that you know what another person is thinking, even though there’s no proof or evidence to support it. 

Your coworkers weren’t overly enthusiastic about your idea in the meeting.  So you think people thought it was dumb.  Your post didn’t get as many likes as you thought it would, so you assume everyone thinks you’re lame.  The guy you’ve been dating hasn’t responded to your last text, and you’re certain he’s losing interest.

This is mindreading.  And it’s gasoline for your anxiety.

So, if mindreading is so awful for our anxiety, why do we do it?  Well, as humans we want to make sense of things.  We predict, look for patterns, and draw conclusions.  That’s how we’re wired.  It’s our attempt to organize the world around us. It’s our strategy to avoid pain.  This worked great during cavepeople days.  But today, in our complex and emotional world, this habit has gotten out of control. 

In the video, I share a story about how mindreading got me in trouble in a work meeting. I was convinced people thought my idea was dumb.  That no one got it.  And that everyone was wondering what the heck I was talking about.  My anxiety shot up, and I quickly started ruminating about how dumb I had sounded.  Hello mindreading!

Turns out, my idea wasn’t dumb at all.  People liked it.  In fact, they were a bit stunned why our team hadn’t thought of it sooner.  Their slow reaction was because they were still processing what I’d said, not because they didn’t like it. This is mindreading at work.  Your brain thinks it knows the truth, but in reality, it’s making a ton of assumptions.  And these assumptions are fuel for your anxiety.

So how do you stop mindreading?  How do you change this habit?  First, you have to notice it.  If you want to change a habit, you have to realize that you’re doing it in the first place.  Then, acknowledge the impact it’s having on your anxiety.  Pay attention to how much your anxiety increases, the more you mindread.  Third, remind yourself that you can’t possibly know what someone else is thinking.  Mindreading is not your superpower!  Then, take a mindful breath and refocus your attention on what you’re doing.

These assumptions are fuel for your anxiety.

It might sound something like this.  “I’m mindreading.  And that’s not helpful.  I have no idea what the other person is thinking.  I can’t read minds.  They could be thinking a million things, and I can’t possibly know what those are.”  Then you’re going to need to take a breath and refocus on what you’re doing.

And if you’re thinking, “Dr. Allison, that’s way easier said than done!” Of course it is!  Self-talk doesn’t always work the first time.  You’ve got to use it over and over, helping the logical stuff become more believable to your brain.  That takes effort, work, and lots of repetition.  But guess what?  It makes a difference!

You can’t always control your anxious thoughts.  But you can control how you respond when you notice them.  So next time you notice yourself mindreading, stop, take a breath, and remind yourself, “I don’t have a superpower, and I can’t possibly know what the other person is thinking.” It takes some work, but it’s absolutely worth it.

PS: Looking for another easy to way to reduce your anxiety?  Check out this video to learn how brainstorming can dramatically reduce your anxiety!

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