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It starts off small. It always does. I might be on my way to a party and a small thought pops into my head. What if there is nobody there to talk to? This small thought grows and grows. It takes root and multiplies. Pretty soon, my head is spinning with all manner of insecure thoughts. Nobody will want to talk to you because they think you’re boring. Your friends don’t really like you, they just tolerate you. You may as well turn around and go home now. This party isn’t for you. 

“It’s happened like this a number of times. It’s gotten so bad now that when the thoughts start, I tend to avoid going to the party. There is no point in going if I’m thinking like that.”

Thoughts are problematic. They are unique to us and are an entirely subjective experience. They happen in our heads and, for the most part, we don’t share them with other people. The way we think about something is very often entirely different to the way that another person will think. We think all the time and it can be very difficult to control what we think about. For example, try not to think about a monkey driving a red sports car. Now that thought has been planted in your head, the very act of trying not to think of the monkey makes it harder to stop thinking about it. You might try to focus your thoughts on something else, but that monkey will often drive right into the middle of the thought. 

Thoughts and feelings are inextricably linked to one another. We feel the way that we think and we think the way that we feel. If we’re feeling upset or anxious, it is virtually guaranteed that our thoughts are going to be focusing on the things that upset us or make us feel anxious. The thoughts only serve to reinforce the feelings: by thinking about what is making us feel anxious, we feel more anxious. This is known as a negative feedback loop and understanding the links between how we feel and how we think can be an aid to breaking free from this vicious cycle. 

As much as we might think that we can tell what other people are thinking, we can’t. I don’t believe that people are capable of reading the mind of another person any more than they are capable of flapping their arms and taking off in flight. When we engage in ‘mind-reading’, we are actually just guessing what the other person is thinking. Very often, these guesses are based on our own personal worries and anxieties. When the person at the start of this article is thinking “Nobody will talk to you because they think you’re boring”, they are actually expressing their own concerns about themselves. An analogy I often use when exploring this with clients is: “When you point a finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you.”

By avoiding going to the parties and social occasions because of their negative thoughts, the person at the start of this article is actually making their problem worse. By not facing up to the thought that worries them, the individual is unable to gather evidence to the contrary. If they had gone to the party and found people to talk to, these negative thoughts would be easier to dismiss. However, by not going to the party, they have no evidence to challenge such thoughts. Herein lies another important lesson. Just because you think something, that doesn’t make it real. Remember that your thoughts are subjective, they belong to you and you alone. They might feel very real to you but they are not necessarily an accurate representation of the real world. A good illustration of this is what I call ‘the elephant test’. Picture a close friend. Think really hard about what they look like. Now use your imagination to give them big floppy grey ears, a pair of tusks and a long trunk. When you do this, ask yourself “Is my friend actually an elephant?” No, of course they’re not! But you thought of them as one. Our thoughts about what other people think or what they might be doing or how they might respond to us are just like this. They rely on our imagination and, as such, should not be taken as the ‘truth’. 

Uh oh, here comes that monkey again...

Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy

Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

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