I was in a meeting. It was a brief, informal meeting, a get-to-know-you meeting with an editor at a job I’d just started. He asked me a friendly question about Russia because we’d both spent time there. Before I began to answer, there was an explosion of thoughts in my head. Nothing to do with Russia. All to do with me, or more specifically what this guy would think of me as a result of this response I was yet to even formulate, let alone utter.
“You’re going to say something stupid,” I said to myself, “You’re going to humiliate yourself… he’s going to think you’re stupid… he already thinks you’re stupid… just look at the way he’s looking at you… “what’s wrong with this guy?”… he’s thinking to himself.”
It was quite a cacophony, and it only got louder as I began to speak.
Then I felt my heart racing. That’s when shit got real. That was always when shit got real, when I felt the little guy accelerate to an alarming pace.
And now we have a secondary disturbance.
I start saying to myself, “I’m so anxious… I shouldn’t be anxious… he can see I’m anxious… [has he got a heart rate monitor in his eyes??] He thinks I’m weak and weird for being anxious”.
The heart beats harder. Sweat on my back.
“Now I’ve blown it…” [what was there to blow?? It’s a friendly chat!] “He can see I’m not worthy of this job. He’s wondering how the hell I got it in the first place. They can all see I’m a nutcase. I’m going to be fired before I’ve even started.”
My heart hammered even harder, and the harder he hammered the more negative the thoughts I was projecting into this editor’s mind became. The distress was both physical and psychological. I felt an overwhelming urge to escape.
In reality, nothing much had happened. Just a conversation, maybe a little bit disjointed, but conversations often are. But after that meeting I felt despair. I felt hopeless. I had stopped using drugs for a few weeks before starting that job because it meant a lot to me and I wanted to do well.
“I thought things were supposed to get better without drugs!” I said to myself afterwards. But that excruciating anxiety and the ensuing despair lead me back to the only coping mechanism (I thought) I could rely on- drugs. I resolved to never enter that office again without enough opiates to ensure I was insulated from those experiences.
It may sound ridiculous, and the thought process is ridiculous looking back. But when you’re in it it’s powerful and it’s painful and it’s overwhelming.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy says that it’s not external events that cause our feelings, but rather our thoughts and beliefs about those events. So by changing our thoughts we can change our feelings.
The situation above is an example of mind-reading, one of a number of cognitive distortions that can warp the way we perceive things. These distortions tend to reinforce negative thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves, others and the world.
When engaging in mind-reading we jump to conclusions about what other people are thinking and feeling with little or no evidence.
Mind-reading is a dangerous cognitive distortion.
It can cause social anxiety when we take our own feelings of self-doubt and project them onto others, assuming they’re thinking the same things about us, further smashing our self-worth.
It can ruin relationships. For example, your partner is late to meet you for dinner. You think that he’s thinking he’s tired of you and you’re not worth it. You feel angry and instigate an argument. Really he was just busy at work.
It is impossible to ever truly know and fully understand what someone else is thinking. They probably don’t even really know themselves. The best we can do is interpret the imperfect signals conveyed through their words, tone and body language. This process is especially unreliable when your mind is rattled by strong emotion and the unfamiliar experience of sobriety. Mind-reading is a minefield in the early days of recovery.
So what can you do about it?
Awareness is the first step. When you’re anxious and you feel you’re being judged, or you’re angry and you feel someone’s behaviour is a personal attack, take a step back back and become aware of your thinking.
Recognising these thoughts is easier said than done. Sometimes they come so automatically and spark intense emotional reactions so rapidly that we hardly notice them mediating between the event and the emotions.
When you are able to identify your mind-reading, begin to interrogate the thoughts. How realistic are they? What’s the evidence for and against them?
When we start to see that thoughts are just guesses, they become less powerful and controlling. They yield to questioning more readily and it becomes easier to let go of the unhelpful ones.
Explore other possibilities. Say, for example, you arrive at work and you smile at your boss but he just ignores you and walks straight past. You think, “He’s pissed off with me. He thinks I’m crap at my job.” Fear and despondency set in.
But if you look at the other possibilities, “He might be stressed out with a lot on his mind,” you aren’t lumped with the same emotional consequences. You probably won’t even remember it in five minutes.
I wish I could go back and help my younger self understand mind reading and smash those irrational beliefs. It might have saved me a lot of pain, years of addiction.
So yeah, change your thoughts to change your feelings.