If a person I’m acquainted with seems irritable, avoidant or generally ‘off,’ my anxiety automatically decides that it must be my fault.
“It’s you, you’ve done something to annoy her,” my anxiety would hiss at me. “How could it possibly be anything else?”
I would then spend the rest of the day obsessing about it and how best to discover what I’ve done without straight up asking.
When I worked in an office, these feelings meant I became a connoisseur of both facial expressions and tone-of-voice. It was an addiction, one that I couldn’t help but feed. Scanning people for signs of disapproval was just part of the daily grind. Did people think I was stupid, boring, or worst of all, a loser who they should avoid like the plague?
If my manager was short with me, I’d worry that I’d done something terrible… and boy, then the floodgates would really open.
“She hates you. Everybody hates you,” I’d think. “You’re going to get fired.”
By the end of that day I’d be job hunting online and drafting my leaving speech, just in case!
LOTS of therapy and personal development later, I no longer think this way. And it’s not because of that (not so) golden piece of advice people usually offer up:
“They have better things to do then focus on you!”
This is, by the way, literally the most infuriating thing you can say to someone with anxiety. Rationally speaking, yes, we know we’re not the centre of the universe. However, this doesn’t stop the negative thoughts from circulating.
The CBT explanation
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy terms, this behaviour is often referred to as ‘personalising’. According to Trevor J. Powell’s The Mental Health Handbook, ‘personalising’ is when a person assumes responsibility for a negative event when there is no basis for doing so. The person arbitrarily concludes what happened was their fault or reflects their inadequacy.
Basically, the whole thing is a reflection of how ‘bad’ that person thinks they are.
Personalising still trips me up on occasion, particularly with friends. If I haven’t heard back from someone on WhatsApp, even when I know they’ve seen my message (thank you very much double blue tick), my mind immediately goes back our last interaction. Did I say something offensive? Was I rude? Should I send them an apology just in case?
Social media is also a huge culprit when it comes to triggering these kinds of intrusive thoughts. If a person doesn’t respond to the tweet that you tagged them in, or if they don’t like your latest photo, are they trying to tell you something?
Do they still think you’re cool?
Are you actually cool?
HAVE THEY WORKED OUT THAT YOU’RE A NUTTER?