Stay Out of Other People’s Heads!

by Suzanne Manser, PhD

Some of us spend A LOT of time in other people’s heads, trying to figure out what the other person “really” thinks of us. Do they like us? Are they attracted to us? Do they think we’re smart? Do they think we’re annoying? We analyze their words, looks, intonation, and body language as clues to their thoughts about us.

Sometimes the information in their heads about us feels so necessary for us to have that we spend more time in their heads, mind-guessing, than we do in ours, living intentionally. It’s natural to wonder what others think of us, but spending more than a few seconds in their heads is usually unhelpful. Almost inevitably, when I talk with people about first dates, they spent the bulk of their time wondering what the date was thinking of them. Most seem genuinely shocked when I suggest that the more relevant information to spend time pondering is how they felt about the date.

Why do we spend so much time in other people’s heads? Insecurity, mostly. The large majority of us feel more secure when we know what the other person (our boss, our date, our neighbor, our coach, our mother-in-law, the UPS person, our friend) thinks of us.

It’s as if we think we’re playing poker: if we can see their hand, we know how to play our cards. Our actions are in reaction to what they think of us. If we know they think positively of us, we can relax – except for the lucky folks who then feel pressure to “keep it up.” If we know they think negatively about us, we may put on more armor to prepare for the arrows they might sling. If we know what they don’t like about us, we may try to change that thing to make ourselves more appealing.

I would like to suggest that, in the vast majority of instances, we are much better off staying out of people’s heads. I know it feels safer in that I-am-preparing-for-the-sharpest-arrow kind of way, but the cost is too high. We’re not playing poker. We’re living our lives, and life is more effectively steered by intention than by reaction.

The more time you spend in someone else’s head, the more you are allowing them to define your experience. If you organize yourself or this moment or this experience around what they think of you, they are defining it, not you. If you are being intentional, you are asking yourself what you want to get out of this moment or this experience. You are looking in your own head for guidance about how to proceed.

Focusing on what the other person thinks of you de facto makes that person’s opinion of you quite weighty. This only exacerbates our initial insecurities; it teaches us that other people’s opinions of us matter so much that they are worth that much time and energy. That naturally downgrades our opinions and knowledge of ourselves. It suggests that what we think of ourselves is not “enough.” That is dangerous territory, my friend.

There is also the idea that if the other person hasn’t told you their opinion of you, it is truly none of your business. Just because they may have a thought about you does not mean you have a right to know what that thought is. What would it be like if everyone encountered had a right to know every thought you had of them? Cringe-worthy, if you’re like most of us.

Finally, just from an energy expenditure perspective, it’s not worth it. This whole mind-guessing thing is A LOT of work. It takes masses of energy to do so much assessing and focusing and guessing and noticing and wondering. Imagine – close you eyes for a minute and really feel – what it would feel like to stay out of people’s heads. Imagine what it would be like to keep that energy for yourself.

It immediately gets quieter. When you stay in your own head, there are only your thoughts to contend with. When you include someone else’s potential thoughts, it gets crowded and loud.

It puts you in a position of strength to not need to know more than they have told you about how they feel about you. To not make your next move based on their potential opinion. To know that their opinion of you is not you. When you set up camp in other people’s heads, you are giving away your time, your energy, and your power.

Some folks spend so much time in others’ heads in hopes of figuring out what is true about themselves. They don’t have a solid sense of who they are, so they look to others to tell them. This is natural. However, your truth has nothing to do with what is in their heads. If you are looking for who you are, you need to spend more time in your own head.

If you want to cultivate a more solid sense of yourself and truly not need to know what they haven’t told you, take the energy you are now keeping for yourself and spend some time with yourself. Pay attention to what you like and what you don’t. Pay attention to what makes you laugh. And to what makes you cry. Pay attention to what stops you in your tracks with its beauty. Pay attention to what makes you feel loved. Pay attention to what makes you feel disrespected. Pay attention to what you want to do when you have “free” time. Pay attention to what you are doing and who you are around when you feel good. This will tell you about yourself.

Be gently warned: to do this, you will need to feel. An unwillingness to feel the painful feelings is one reason people are unfamiliar with themselves. Feelings are part of the self. All of ‘em. If this is a trouble spot for you, read Making Room for Painful Emotions and some of my other posts about acceptance and values.

In general, there is much more solid ground to be gained from hanging out in your head than hanging out in anyone else’s. If you know and accept yourself, others’ opinions are simply less relevant. You can feel relaxed at any time because arrows have lost their ability to wound. So, stay out of other people’s heads and set up a comfy chair in your own.