The topic of discussion in my office at Grove Psychology with my clients this week has been about how they think others will perceive them. It's something I've heard a lot over the years that I've been working as a psychologist. For some people, they become very concerned that they may have done something wrong or offended their friends, or that if they voice their own opinions, that they will lose their friends. They may spend hours laying in bed replaying in their head conversations with friends to check if they have been misunderstood or could have insulted their friend by mistake. Depending on what the anxiety is about, there are a set of behaviours that people typically employ to avoid the anxiety and they fall into a few common categories - checking behaviours, or avoidant type behaviours. I'll explain those categories in more detail below as well as provide a few tips on how to manage this type of anxiety.
"What do you want to do?"
"I don't mind, whatever you want to do"
Maybe you've met someone like this. You call up your friend to make plans to catch up and they give you nothing. You reflect back and realise you're always the one coming up with ideas. You like your friend, but maybe you're doubting whether they like you - they never seem to offer any suggestions.
Or on the flip side, this is you! You don't give any suggestions lest your friend hates the idea and therefore thinks you're an idiot for suggesting it. You go ahead with what your friend wants to do, even if you don't enjoy it, because you think it will be worse if you don't. You think that all your ideas are boring and so therefore everyone else must think that they are boring and the fact that you suggested such a boring idea must mean that you are not worth having as a friend. The mental process that goes on sounds exhausting, and I can only imagine how it must feel. Not suggesting ideas falls into the avoidant strategy of coping with anxiety. The underlying anxiety is that you'll be rejected by your friends, and the underlying core belief (which is an unconscious belief) is that you are not likeable, and so the only way to cope with that is not put yourself in a position to be criticised or judged. Does this sound like you? If so, read on because I have a few tips below that you can try.
Have you ever met someone who says sorry all the time? In fact they often say sorry for things that are not their fault. Maybe you've even said to your friend, "stop saying sorry" and they respond with...."sorry". Again, maybe you are this person? This could be classified as a 'checking' behaviour - making sure that you haven't offended anyone, so you take all the blame. Or perhaps you message your friends after spending time with them, to make sure everything is ok because you worry the joke you made upset them. If you message a friend and don't get a prompt reply, do you follow it up with messages asking your friend if they are ok or if you did anything to upset them, or perhaps you tire yourself out thinking about what you've done to upset your friend? As in the previous example, this behaviour is about avoiding anxiety and the fear of being rejected and having the core belief of not being likeable proved.
Ok, this sounds like me, what can I do?
Unfortunately, the coping strategies of not making a suggestion or checking (saying sorry) can lead to actually driving away our friends. As I mentioned earlier, often people see the world through their own eyes and they may start to question your friendship (the opposite of what you want to happen) because you never make any suggestions to meet up. Or, your friends become tired of reassuring you that you've done nothing wrong.
So the top tip I have is about taking a risk and sitting with the uncomfortable feeling that you have and either - make a suggestion (or say no, and suggest something else) OR don't message your friend to check if you've done anything to upset them when logically you know you haven't done anything. More than likely, there will be an increase in anxiety. However, what we are looking for is a change in behaviour - your friend positively responds to your suggestion or gets back to your earlier message - that can challenge the belief that you are not likeable.
Now, for some people, this tip will be a bridge too far, and that is likely because the core belief (not being likeable) is too strong and the anxiety is too high to try this tip. If that sounds like you, then you might need more in depth support to address your anxiety. If you'd like to speak to one of our experienced psychologists please click on the 'book now' button to make an appointment.