Worrying about what other people think: 3 tips to deal with this common problem

Worry, Worry, Worry

Worrying about what other people think or feel toward us is common. In small doses this worry can be helpful. After all, being mindful of others is a trait that enables us to work successfully in groups. However, for those of us who worry excessively about other people’s perceptions it may be less helpful. Those who worry excessively about other people’s perceptions often describe themselves as people pleasers, socially anxious, or conflict avoiders.

Excessive worry about how other people think or feel may drive a range of unhelpful behaviours. For example, we may remain quiet in social situations to avoid embarrassing ourselves. We may choose to avoid conflict or spend excessive amounts of time planning conversations as we are worried about how the other person may respond. We attempt to manage (or control) how other people perceive and respond to us. The fact is, how someone else thinks, feels or acts is out of our direct control; and focusing on things which are outside of our control, may increase how anxious we feel. 

What to focus on

Rather than worrying about something which is outside of our control (i.e., how someone else thinks, feels or acts), it may be more helpful for us to shift our focus onto those things which are within our direct control. Largely, those things which are within our direct control are our own actions. So in a conflict situation, the actions within our control are things like; the timing of the conversation, whether we communicate in an empathetic manner, or how we frame what we want and need from the other person. A subtle shift in focus from other focused (i.e., on their thoughts, feelings or actions) to self focused (i.e., on our own actions or behaviours) may help to reduce feelings of anxiety. When we focus on those things which are within our direct control, we may be able to respond in a more confident, calm and relaxed way. 

What about influence?

Accepting that we don’t have any direct control over a situation, does not mean that we have no influence over the situation. Our actions may help to influence the result we are hoping to achieve. However, we need to appreciate and accept the limitations of our influence. 

As an example, imagine that our partner has come home in a bad mood after a hard day at work. They seem distant and disengaged. As a loving partner, we may decide to do some things to help lift their mood. We may offer to cook dinner, opt to watch their favourite TV shows with them, or have their favourite dessert delivered. All of these things may influence how our partner feels. However, none of these actions (or any others) can guarantee that our partner’s mood will lift or that they will become more present. With our actions we may (or may not) be able to influence someone else’s thoughts, feelings or actions. It is important to remember that our influence has limits and we have no direct control over these things.

3 tips to help you focus on what matters

How someone else thinks, feels or acts is out of our direct control; and worrying about these may increase our feelings of anxiety. Below are three tips to help you shift your focus onto the things you can control.

1. Decide whether this is a situation you can control or one that you can influence

When we find ourselves excessively worrying about how someone else thinks it may be helpful to pause and reflect. Can I control how the other person thinks? Or can I only influence how they may think? Accepting that we have no direct control and the limitations of our influence may be a helpful way to shift our mindset. This in turn, may support us to engage in more helpful behaviours.

2. Map out what is in, and out of your direct control

It may be helpful to spend some time mapping out all of the factors that are within your direct control, and those which are outside of your control. For example, those things which are within your control may include: the timing of a conversation, how honest you choose to be, and whether you respond in an empathetic manner. Those things which are outside of your control may include: whether the other person becomes angry, or if they become defensive.

3. Shift your focus from others’ perceptions to your own actions

Our attention and our thoughts may be focused on how the other person will respond, what they might think about us, or how they might feel. All of these are outside of our direct control and focusing on them may lead to feelings of anxiety. Instead, shifting your attention to your own actions may help you to feel more confident and in control.

Breaking free of the worry we experience about other people’s perceptions can take time, patience and practice. Some people may need additional support to manage the underlying anxiety associated with this worry. If you’d like additional support to overcome worry about other people’s perceptions, contact Uplift Psychology to find out how we can help.

References

  • Resource provided by PositivePsychology.com titled “Spheres of Personal Control”
  • Resource provided by cci.health.wa.gov.au titled “The Vicious Cycle of Anxiety”

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