What are people thinking, anyway?

A friend recently brought a study to my attention:


It reminds me of something a salesman I met had on one of his business cards. I don’t remember the saying exactly after all this time, but it was something to the effect that “We’d all worry less what people are thinking about us if we’d just realize that they’re not thinking about us.”

It has actually been known for some time that people who are suffering from certain types of mental illnesses misinterpret facial expressions, with neutral expressions being seen as negative or hostile. You can see how that would create a self-fulfilling prophecy of bad things happening for someone. But the study in the link above was interesting in that it trained the adolescents to see faces differently.

Do you remember Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, practicing his attitude in front of the mirror? “Are you looking at me, man?” “Are you looking at me, man?” “Are you looking at me, man?” He was just burning to get into it with someone. If you don’t remember the movie or never saw it, it’s worth a look or a re-look. The point is, he was really ready to see people as hostile. And the character was a violently sick puppy. But it wasn’t really about other people, was it? It was about himself and his fantasies.

People of a certain age, or fondness for retro music will remember Jim Morrison of the Doors singing “people are ugly when you’re a stranger.” So the idea has been around before it started getting airplay with the psychology community.

So what’s my point in all this, as far as my wellness or your wellness might be concerned? Simply this: Check yourself when people start to look strange, or ugly, or hostile. Unless you’re suddenly very aware of having wandered  into the wrong neighborhood, it’s not them, it’s likely to be you. They’re not thinking about you– because mostly they’re like you– thinking about themselves. In fact, something of this has been enshrined in what someone once outlined to me as the “three asshole rule.” If you meet someone in your day who is acting like an asshole, they may well be one. If you meet two, don’t be so sure. If you encounter three, it’s not them– it’s you.  It’s a rough guide, but one to keep in mind. So what to do about it? That’s a topic for a different day. copyright James Matter 2013


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
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