Sometimes I snooze my alarm in the morning.
When the alarm goes off again I'll wonder if anyone else I know snoozed their alarm. I hope they did. Then I'll wonder if someone I know thinks I'm the kind of guy who lacks the discipline to get out of bed at the first alarm.
Then I'll start worrying what the people in my first meeting are thinking about me because I haven't yet finished that thing I'm supposed to finish for the meeting. Or maybe I have but didn't put in enough effort, so I wonder if they're thinking about how much of a slacker I am. They're definitely thinking about my effectiveness as a professional while they’re in their home trying to get their kids ready for school and realizing they’re out of dog food.
Then I make it to the shower and practice a couple conversations I might potentially maybe have with people who are probably silently judging me - just in case. I get really good at the quips I'm going to use, and I imagine whatever people are imagining about me right now will be different after I tell them what I rehearsed.
And the day proceeds thusly.
Do you ever have a crazy person thought trail like that?
It’s sadly funny when we read an account of someone else's mental escapades, but I've found most of us - yes, most of us - listen to the voices in our head telling us everyone out there is thinking about us, measuring us, and judging us. As a result, our internal wellbeing, our acceptance of ourselves, our ability to do our best work and live our most fulfilling lives is hindered, because we’ve disconnected ourselves from reality and overestimated our own importance.
Our brains are designed to keep us alive, they aren’t designed to keep us sane. When we began to develop self-awareness and higher-order thinking, even though our brains were becoming more powerful, there remained programming rooted in fear, caution, suspicion and concern. Though we’ve got an upgraded model inside our craniums, the brain is still primarily concerned with survival.
Which makes navigating a world of non life-threatening, nuanced challenges a little tricky.
You know the old adage - if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together? Back in the day we knew our survival was dependent on our ability to maintain good standing within the group. Were we to make some sort of social mistake and get kicked off the island, a painful and lonely death was inevitable. So just as our brains were becoming capable of having more complex thoughts, the present reality was fertile ground for the beginnings of anxiety. Fast forward to today and concerns like, "Will I still be accepted if I write this blog post?”, plague our brains with equal force as the more dire concern: “Do they like me enough to let me eat some of the kangaroo they just killed?" .
Unfortunately this is where we find ourselves these days: Wanting deeply to belong because of our survival instinct, but confused about what is really necessary for survival, and misguided as to where and how we must belong.
When we feel like we don’t belong to a certain group or if we’ve done something to put others off, it doesn’t matter if it's not really a big deal - it doesn’t even matter if it’s imagined - it feels like reality. Let me repeat - it doesn’t matter if it’s imagined. If our brain thinks the danger is real, our instincts take over and we can’t focus, we feel weird things in our extremities, and we worry.
This malady is so common there's a psychological term for this. It's called the Spotlight Effect. Wikipedia tells us:
The spotlight effect is the phenomenon in which people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are. Being that one is constantly in the center of one's own world, an accurate evaluation of how much one is noticed by others is uncommon. The reason behind the spotlight effect comes from the innate tendency to forget that although one is the center of one's own world, one is not the center of everyone else's.
Have you ever wondered if you're on the Truman Show? Be honest. I know I have. I think everyone must know everything about me and they’re definitely thinking about me all the time. My particular brand of crazy looks like this:
When I’m performing at my worst and just can’t get it together, everyone knows it
Everyone knows about all my ambitions and they’re laughing because I think I’m capable of such accomplishments
People definitely remember mistakes I’ve made - forever - even if it was a mistake made with good intentions
On days I decide to take time for myself or do something differently people have a sixth sense and intuitively know I’m wasting my potential
If I’m inexperienced at something, everyone is definitely paying close attention to my missteps and regularly thinks about whether or not I have what it takes
I think one day I’ll be able to understand what everyone expects of me, and learn all the rules, and then I’ll do everything right and will avoid any and all criticism
I’m certain all the people in my life convene on a regular basis around a conference room table to discuss how unimpressive, emotional, and misguided I am
For me and many folks I’ve worked with, what this really comes down to is our deep desire to do life right and be accepted, because we're so terrified of doing things wrong and being ousted. But the reality today is that very few negative experiences, and no amount of judgement from others, will bring us real harm.
Even though we know this cognitively we still get trapped in these vicious thought cycles from time to time. Here's the challenge about noticing this tendency in oneself: It’s not affecting anyone else, so there might not seem to be a real sense of urgency to change. After all, it's only you who's going to have to deal with this in your spirit. As a result, many of us deal with the discomfort, stay with these thought patterns, and never give ourselves the gift of freedom and peace.
We must change our behaviors and our beliefs to make real and tangible advancements toward freedom.
The reason you believe everyone else is thinking about your inadequacies is because you believe you are inadequate. Were you to begin to believe you have what it takes, and even when you fail, that your worth is more than that moment - slowly your fears are not projected on everyone you encounter in life.
A few questions you can ask yourself to grow:
I see these anxious thoughts I have about what others are thinking about me - do I sit around and think these things about people around me?
Is it realistic for me to be thinking this?
Is it kind of me to assume others are engaged in such immature activity?
What am I hiding from by spending so much time thinking about what others are thinking about me?
What do I need to address in my life. in my head. in my heart. that I’m avoiding by spinning up these falsities?
How am I hedging - not fully committing - by spending my time thinking about what others will think about work I dream of doing, but haven’t even done yet?
Why am I afraid of believing I’m OK?
Why this is going to be hard:
Because we love our problems - they give us something to do, they give us identity.
When we grow we will always have to leave things behind. And the imaginary voices in our heads do not like to be left behind.
The more free you try to be, the greater the forces of worry and anxiety will work against you.
This, like all necessary work, is an inside job.
We make assumptions about the judgement we receive from others because we constantly judge ourselves. We must constantly remember peace on the outside comes from peace on the inside and acceptance on the outside comes from acceptance on the inside.
To close on a positive note - in the extreme chance there is someone out there who is constantly thinking about you and what you’re doing, you can rest assured it’s most likely your mother. And most likely she’s quite proud of you.
Here’s to the good work.