Anxiety Part 4 – Mindreading and Faking It ‘Til You Make It

We’ve been talking quite a bit about anxiety in these recent blogs. In the last blog I spoke about Catastrophic Thinking and the “what ifs” that can trigger and maintain anxiety. Following on that theme I thought it would be good to talk about another type of unhelpful thinking habit that is associated with anxiety … Mindreading.

Catastrophic thinking refers to our tendency to predict a future negative outcome (e.g., “What if I embarrass myself at the party?”). Even though these outcomes haven’t yet happened (and may never happen), these thought affect our mood and lead us to feel worried or anxious.

In contrast, Mindreading refers to our tendency to assume what others are thinking (e.g., “They’ll think I’m boring at the party.”). When we engage in mindreading, we assume that others are thinking negative thoughts about us, and of course that leads us to feel worried, anxious, or even depressed.

So, a little while ago I was in Brisbane for some training and I did a couple of little experiments to debunk my own mindreading and catastrophic thoughts about filming my vlogs in public.

I filmed the first of those experiments outside in the busy Queen Street Mall in Brisbane, with people all around. I really enjoy filming outside, because I find that I concentrate better for some reason when I’m outside. But the anticipatory anxiety I feel when I’m about to film outside can be quite pronounced, especially if there are people around. I find myself thinking all sorts of silly things about what people will think of me as I’m filming (e.g., “People will think I’m crazy talking to my phone by myself”). This is mindreading, and very unhelpful. I know that, but it sneaks in anyway. But once I actually start filming, those nerves disappear and I’m fully concentrated on what I’m doing. That’s the power of distraction.

When we talk about anxiety, we’re often talking about the fear of what might happen in the future. With mindreading, we’re talking about an assumption that we know what other people are thinking, and that assumption is that other people are thinking negative things about us. I’m sure you can imagine situations where you’ve been worried about what other people are thinking about you. Our emotions react as if the assumption we’ve made, through mindreading, was a fact. And yet, the reality is we have no way of knowing what others are thinking of us (unless we ask them, but even then we might not find out what they honestly think). So we can choose to let that baseless assumption dictate our emotions, or we can choose to over-ride it.

One little trick is to “fake it ‘til we make it”.

So this is where you’re feeling anxious, you’re definitely not feeling brave, and you’re feeling that you might be judged by other people. You start to think “well maybe I could act as if I WAS brave … maybe I can fake it till I make it”. And that’s what I did when I filmed outside in Brisbane. I faked feeling confident about doing my video until I started filming – and then once I started filming I wasn’t feeling self-conscious anymore.  You can watch that video here: Day 1 of my 90 Day Vlog Challenge! Topic: What training do psychologists do?

So, for my second experiment, I decided to up the ante to debunk my own mindreading-related anxiety. I decided to not only film in public (with random people who I’d probably never see again in my life), I decided to film the journey from my room to my training session. This involved filming in front of people I know, whose opinions I care about. Big trigger!

The first challenge was when the lift arrived. I was worried there would be someone in the lift, and I worried about what they’d think of me talking to my phone in front of them. That was a catastrophic thought and a mindreading thought all in one … and neither eventuated. There was no-one in the lift!

The second challenge came when I emerged from the lift, knowing there would be people in the hotel lobby. And I was right. There were people everywhere, AND some of them were other attendees of the training I was heading to. And all my fears of judgement vanished in an instant. I was walking through the crowd, talking to my phone while I filmed, saying hello to people I knew, and nothing bad happened. Amazing. The sky didn’t fall in! Better yet, I was having fun.

So what was the purpose of the experiment? I knew I was prone to fears of being judged. And I wanted to demonstrate to myself, as much as to the viewers of my vlog, that we all get nervous sometimes about the things that we need to do and that it is actually perfectly normal to feel that way sometimes. And despite those nerves, I was able to complete my task, and nobody looked sideways. So the thing is those nerves that I might have felt about being judged were not founded. And that’s what we often find with anxiety. The things we’re anxious about often don’t happen.

So when I’m feeling nervous about something or worried about something that might happen in the future, my first port of call is to remind myself it hasn’t happened yet. And my second port of call is to say I’ll deal with that if it happens. And at the end of the day, if you’re truly worried about what others are thinking of you, you can always ask them. I bet you won’t though. Because it doesn’t really matter, does it.

Best wishes,

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Dr Tess Crawley


Tess has a passion for mentoring new psychologists. She also has a strong interest in supporting executives as they juggle the balance between leadership and new parenthood. You’ll see Tess regularly speaking on our Facebook pages and our YouTube channel. Her mission is to provide as many free resources to the community as she can, so her videos offer tips and strategies that might be helpful to you. Read Tess’s full Bio here.