Relax: They Aren’t Thinking About You!

It may be comforting to realise that most people, most of the time, are far too self absorbed to notice any of the myriad ways in which many of us convince ourselves that we are doing something wrong (on a long continuum from something foul and inexcusable, to something less than perfect). But in the long run it is hardly a comforting picture, everyone walking around thinking about what everyone else is thinking about them; in fact it looks like a colossal waste of time and energy.

In www.lifehack.org, Scott H Young presents four rules to understand what makes people tick. The first rule is People Mostly Care about Themselves. It seems a fairly self evident truth, but it may be hard to comprehend for the anxious (although paradoxically, they have the experience of thinking about themselves all the time!).

The author presents a pie chart in which he suggests that 60% of our thoughts are directed towards ourselves, and 30% directed towards relationships and how they affect us, leaving a meagre 10% for empathy, which the author goes on to say is probably an overestimate according to the feedback he has had!

I don’t actually know where these proportions come from, but they are probably pretty accurate. It may be comforting to realise that most people, most of the time, are far too self absorbed to notice any of the myriad ways in which many of us convince ourselves that we are doing something wrong (on a long continuum from something foul and inexcusable, to something less than perfect). But in the long run it is hardly a comforting picture, everyone walking around thinking about what everyone else is thinking about them; in fact it looks like a colossal waste of time and energy.

But there must be more to it — after all, the chart only refers to conscious thoughts. Maybe there are other ways in which we communicate, and consider each other, all the time. This model also allocates no time at all for thinking about others’ behaviour and judging it, and although this certainly happens less than those with social anxieties or low self esteem fear, we would be fooling ourselves to think that it doesn’t happen at all. Sometimes people talk about other people as a way to bond with each other. Note, their main motivation is not to put us down. And it would be a shame to overlook the occasions when people stop thinking about how the interaction affects them for long enough to actually judge us favourably!

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I say this under the influence of a lecture I gave (in Polish) yesterday in which I was more stressed than usual and fairly convinced that I was making lots of linguistic mistakes. I kept going, focusing on the topic and telling myself that the audience was also mainly concerned about the topic and not my performance. Surprise surprise, I got feedback on how relaxed I seemed and how well I spoke. I could have immediately interpreted this as those people trying to be nice and cover over my obvious deficiencies — but I didn’t.

So relax — I don’t think people go through life focusing on how well others are doing or how odd they are. But there are many ways in which we do consider each other, and that can be no bad thing.

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