15 thinking styles that lead to massive anxiety 4/15: Mind Reading

Mind Reading is a style of distorted or negative automatic thinking that is very common in social anxiety and in many other types of anxiety.

In order to protect ourselves the anxious mind guesses others motivations,  reactions to us and anticipates what others might be thinking about us.

In the case of social anxiety, we may automatically conclude that people are judging us negatively or acting such a way because of us.

It can strike anywhere, at any time, and it typically happens so frequently and quickly that we don’t even realize it or question it.

Imagine walking down a hallway and passing by someone familiar walking the other way, they don’t seem to notice and pass by without so much as a hello.

If I have social anxiety, I might automatically assume that he/she is angry with me, dislikes me, hates working with me, hates being in class with me, or something similar.

“I know she’s thinking terrible things about me”, and I think of all of the things I did wrong to have made this person hate me.

That’s mind-reading, and it makes anxiety and fear grow bigger than they already are. This is really bad for us as it creates general anxiety, social anxiety, panic attacks and may make PTSD, OCD and Phobias worse!

Other’s Motivations

When we mind read we make snap judgements about others Motivations: “He’s just acting that way because he’s jealous” … “she’s with me only for my money” … “he’s afraid to show he cares”.

There doesn’t need to be evidence (overhearing, reading, being told outright), but it just seems right or fits. In most instances, mind readers make assumptions about how other people are feeling and that leads to motivating this way of distorted thinking.

For example, we may conclude:

He visited her three times last week because he was (a) in love, (b) angry at his old girlfriend and knew she’d find out, (c) depressed and on the rebound, (d) afraid of being alone again’. We can take our pick, but acting as if any of these arbitrary conclusions are true may be disastrous.

As a mind reader, we also make assumptions about how people are reacting to things around them, particularly how they are reacting to us.

‘This close he sees how unattractive I am … she thinks I’m really immature … they’re getting ready to fire me’.

These assumptions are usually untested. They are born of intuition, hunches, vague misgivings, or one or two past experiences, but they are nevertheless believed and can lead to general anxiety.

Mind reading depends on a process where we imagine that people feel the same way we do and react to things the same way we do and this is a blind spot.

Therefore, we don’t watch or listen closely enough to notice that they are actually different. If we are insecure about how we look we think everyone notices, if we are nervous about how good our level of speaking is we think everyone is scrutinizing us.

This can lead to us avoiding people and situations all because we are taking our blurred idea of what might be motivating others.

If we feel excruciatingly sensitive to rejection, we can project that people are not getting back to us or answering our texts because they want to leave us.

If we are very particular about what we want from people and they don’t do it our way we may assume they are trying to annoy us.

Mind readers jump to conclusions that are true for them without checking whether they are true for the other person.

Thinking what others will think

The other common kind of Mind Reading is thinking that others think bad things about us.

This fear comes in the form or “what if” thinking. We think what if I do something stupid or controversial. What if I fall off the exercise bike? What if I freak out or get panicky or what if I go red and everybody notices?

The in the moment experiences are bad enough but these predictions of what others will think about us lead to a high amount of anxiety in the body.

When our brains show us scary pictures of others thinking poorly of us it creates a reaction, we squirm and wriggle in our chairs at the thought of being judged or being spoken about behind our backs.

This creates a feedback loop between our bodily symptoms (anxiety) and more thoughts.

Anxious people then tend to exit the process by avoiding or not putting themselves in situations where this might happen.

The name of this is safety behaviour and safety behaviours do three things: one good, two bad.

Firstly, as a good thing they bring down our anxiety. We don’t go for coffee with our friend, or we make an excuse and don’t go to the party. This immediately brings down our anxiety as we go, phew… close one!

However, what we have also just done is (1) reinforced the belief that something bad is likely to happen and (2) we miss out on pleasant experiences and even put distance between ourselves and others.

Changing the Pattern

Generally speaking we might actually be right that someone had thought about us or judged us.

But we will never know exactly what everyone has, is or will think about us?

It’s impossible to know what everyone thinks, we each have thousands of thoughts a day! That’s Billions of people having Zillions of thoughts a day!

But by believing the “what if” thoughts that people are thinking about us and starting to avoid situations & friends this will always make anxiety worse.

If we notice, we are doing this then we need to come up with rational comebacks to bring down the anxiety and make it easier for ourselves. It’s also good to know the following:

At the centre of this distortion is a thing called projection. When we project, we are looking at all the things that we don’t like about ourselves but imagining it in the minds of others.

Typically, this stems from a lack of confidence with ourselves.

The girl in the office who thinks everyone is thinking negatively about her in work may generally have no proof or evidence that they are.

But she knows that she’s embarrassed and doesn’t feel like she knows what she’s supposed to be doing.

Maybe she thinks that in life she must be perfect and so imagines that others will think she’s stupid for not knowing how to use the machine.

The man who had a “shameful” panic attack in football training and had to go home early, now feels that (1) it might happen again and (2) everyone will look at him. He feels he can’t face the game on Sunday.

But he doesn’t think about how this has happened only once in all his years on the team and has no evidence that anyone but his manager who he spoke with about going home had any knowledge about it.

Instead he projected his own shame onto the minds of others and by doing this makes himself much more panicked overall as a result.

Ask: who’s hang ups and fears are these? Others don’t think the same as us about things, but we imagine they see the worst in us, the things we fear the most.

Nobody is that special:

I’m sorry to say this but it is true: nobody is that special that everyone around them starts thinking about them if they make a mistake, say something wrong  or even have a panic attack.

If we think about ourselves: how many of the people we see every day on the bus, in public or at college do we remember? Very few I would wager!

The fact is that to other people, unless they know us, we are not that important. They are thinking about their own lives, days and activities.

A lot of people don’t even notice when something is up with intimate family and friends. They are more likely looking in their phones or thinking about dinner.

Another thing is that even if they were thinking about us, we don’t know that for a fact unless they tell us.

Acting on anything other than what we have been told to our face means we are dangerously open to projecting our insecurities into the blanks.

It’s also a little grandiose as unless we are a celebrity, not everyone is going to be thinking about us all the time.

When did the last fan ask for our autograph? Unless we can answer that one, we might have to look at our own thinking.

And if someone does think about us, then so what, let them think!

If we showed the same movie to 10 people we would get 10 completely different reactions.

Even if we do something wrong not everyone sees this the same way.

Even if judgement happens they won’t judge us the same if even at all! It’s like saying everyday next summer there will be sunshine everyday!

Or every one watching a movie is going to love it or hate it, the truth is more nuanced.

People may think we are great, bad or they may not even notice us, but ultimately, we can only guess unless they tell us.

Their thoughts and what they see can’t hurt us, but we can hurt ourselves with our own thoughts of what might they be thinking!

Get back to ourselves because it is us that define and create our own realities through thoughts. This realm is where our joys and sufferings are created.

                                                                                          Evidence for conclusion?

Mind reading is the tendency to make inferences about how people feel and think. In the long run, we are probably better off making no inferences about people at all.

Either believe what they tell us or hold no belief at all until some conclusive evidence comes our way. Treat all of our notions about people as hypotheses to be tested and checked out by asking them.

If we lack direct information from the person involved, but have other evidence, evaluate the conclusion using the three column technique from the last blog.

Here are some further tips to stop mind-reading and projecting and thus decrease anxiety.

  • Catching ourselves in the act. When we feel judged, embarrassed, and anxious, pay attention to what we were thinking. Notice if  we are mind-reading or projecting. This is all we have to do at first because we are increasing awareness of the contents of our racing thoughts.
  • Test the reality of our thoughts. Once we are able to recognize when we are mind-reading and projecting, we can begin to question these thoughts. How realistic are they? Catching them and, later, testing them begins to reduce their power.
  • Look for other possibilities. That person who passed us in the hallway without saying anything, could she have been preoccupied, lost in thought about something else?
  • Suspend judgment. That woman who passed by could have been lost in thought. She might have been sick or anxious about something. There are many different possibilities, and because mind-reading is actually impossible, there’s no way to know what she was thinking. That means she might not have been looking down on us at all. Just be in the moment without judgment.

By following these steps and challenging our negative automatic thoughts, we can stop accepting them. Mind-reading and projecting will no longer be anxiety’s minions, and our anxiety will be drastically reduced.

Mind Reading is one of 15 common types of distorted thinking. Other Distorted Thinking styles are also extremely important for how we deal with and suffer from anxiety. Distorted thinking styles include: FilteringPolarized ThinkingOver-generalizationMind ReadingCatastraphizingPersonalizationControl FallaciesThe Fallacy of FairnessEmotional ReasoningThe Fallacy of ChangeGlobal LabelingBlamingShouldsBeing Right and Heaven’s Rewards Fallacy. In our next blog we will be discussing Catastraphizing. If readers ever need help with anxiety, please do remember people can contact Anxiety Ireland to chat on the phone with one of our counselors to access the best way to get anxiety help.

If  unsure about anxious, take our anxiety quiz.

Take care,


Team Anxiety Ireland

087 063 0948


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