Mental Health

Most People Don’t Have the Mental Bandwidth to Judge You

Part 2 of 3 techniques to reduce social anxiety and improve mental health

Photo of author with a slightly more awkward barista

Most people think more about their morning coffee than about you, and that’s fine.

That’s because everyone is the central character of their own story, with people around them being various levels of NPC — non-playable characters.

Since you’re the main character in your story, you may have a tendency to think people are judging you all the time. You may think a cab driver finds your outfit weird, or that a server at a restaurant hates you because you didn’t tip enough, or your friend avoids you because you didn’t text them.

This is especially true if you struggle with social anxiety. It feels like EVERYONE is looking at you, judging you, thinking poorly of you, all the time. That can be an extremely overwhelming feeling.

However, most of that may not be the case, simply because you’re not at the forefront of everybody’s mind. Not even close.

People are lost in the mire of their daily lives. You are one person in a web of hundreds of people they may know, and as such you occupy a fraction of their thoughts.

Very few people will make it their life mission to hound you (unless they’re stalkers… or family).

And that’s a good thing. If you can internalize the idea that most people don’t care enough about you to seriously judge you, you should be able to create some mental space and breathe.

An important aside about gender

As a man, I must acknowledge that this is much easier for cis-men. Women and female-presenting nonbinary people seem to have hundreds of people in their DMs, their workplaces and in their families, who are constantly telling them how to live their lives.With my limited experience of this as a cis-man, I’ve done my best to make this essay about recurring anxiety and battling imagined judgment.The harassment that women and female-presenting people face is a real problem that requires big social changes over time.Even if someone is only making off-hand comments and isn’t seriously invested in their criticism of a woman, the fact that several people are doing it ends up having the same effect — making someone feel like they’re constantly judged (and for anxious people, like they’re in danger).

Corollary: Remind yourself that you are more than the sum of what other people think of you

I’ve been coloring my hair for four years. Even today, if I hear someone laughing, my first thought is that they’re laughing at me. That’s an instinct. My second thought, which is more under my control, is “No they’re not.”

My third thought though, is “Even if they are laughing at me, who cares?”

Remember that you are more than the sum of others’ opinions. How your friends and family perceive you is only one part of who you are. Your history, principles, skills, and interests are your own — for you to share or keep private.

Accepting criticism is a good thing. It keeps you humble, helps you become a better person, and is generally valuable feedback. However, if you have social anxiety, that judgment probably causes a lot of strain for you, and you probably take too much of that criticism to heart.

It doesn’t help that we seem to be neurologically hardwired towards negativity because to our brain, it represents critical information for our safety.

Conquering the instinct to internalize criticism is an intense and hard journey. But it is well worth it so that you can reduce your anxiety, feel more confident, and live a better life.

Here’s a beginner exercise that helps reduce the intensity of feeling judged.

Technique: note and reframe

This is something my therapist asked me to do, and it’s super helpful. To do this, you need to be able to stop for a second and notice if you’re having a negative thought about someone judging you. This is called noting, where you are aware that you’re feeling something negative.

Recognizing that is half the battle. The next half is to reframe that thought. Ask yourself, “what if instead of that, it is this?” and come up with a more positive explanation.

For example, if you hear someone on the street suddenly laugh and think they’re laughing at you, try reframing it to “maybe they’ve watched a funny TikTok or something.”

If someone misinterprets your action at work, especially if the criticism has come out of nowhere, try reframing it to “maybe they’re projecting their own problem on me.”

It’s hard at first, but gets easier as you do it more often. This technique is useful for social anxiety where you’re not in direct conversation with people. It can also help you stop overanalyzing body language or facial expressions of people you are talking to, and focus more on what they’re saying.

You might also want to explore this radical idea below. This blog post guides you through a meditative exercise where you separate yourself from your thoughts and try to observe them.

Remember that criticism is an important tool for you to learn from and be objective, but one that can easily get out of control. Judgment is to be held in your palm, not in your heart.

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Vaibhav Gupta

Vaibhav Gupta

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Professional technical writer, 2x Distinguished Toastmaster. I write about mental health and self-awareness. Also see https://medium.com/thorough-and-unkempt