Sunday, March 26, 2017

Nobody Is Paying as Much Attention to You as You Are

Mara here. I am worrier. And I am very self-conscious. I often feel as if people are watching and judging me. And even if I’m alone, I can manage to make myself unhappy by imagining what people would think if they happened to be watching me.

Not surprisingly, because of this, I am not a spur of the moment, fly by the seat of my pants kind of person. I like to plan. I like to know what I’m getting myself into. And when I find myself in a situation that I’m not comfortable with, afterward, I tend to relive it in my mind over and over until it’s hard for me to remember what actually happened versus what I think happened. Did I accidentally hurt someone’s feelings? Did I talk too much? Did I laugh in a weird way? It’s exhausting. 

As a young adult, my worrying started to make me so self-conscious that I began to have trouble socializing. I overcompensated for my anxiety by trying to be in too much control. I would plan what I would wear, what I would do, what I would say, how I would handle every possible outcome because I didn’t want other people to think negatively about me.

Of course, all my efforts simply made me even more uncomfortable, making it impossible to enjoy things because I was always worrying that I wasn't doing what I should be doing. And, as I mentioned, the discomfort of worrying didn’t end once the interactions or events were over. I'd go back and relive my interactions. I'd rewind the events in my mind and try to identify if I had done or said things that could be interpreted differently than I'd intended. I would recreate people’s reactions to my behavior, spinning whole tales of how my behavior had somehow negatively affected them.

 Then I heard something that completely changed my perspective: “Nobody is paying attention to you as much are you are paying attention to yourself.” 

I can’t remember if it was something I heard in a movie or on TV or read in a book. But it was one of those few moments that literally changed how I viewed myself.

At first, it seemed funny and slightly off-putting. Like, really? People don’t care that much about me? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how true it was. And once I realized that, I saw how freeing it was. FREEING. Yeah, maybe my ego was a little ruffled by the notion that people didn’t notice everything I did, but it was liberating to recognize that my actions weren’t being minutely examined. 

It was as if someone had just turned a light on in a dark room and suddenly things looked clearer: I was the only one scrutinizing myself. It released me from the responsibility of making sure everything I did made other people happy. It made me realize that most people aren’t affected by what I’m saying, or what I’m doing, or what I’m wearing, or if I accidentally interrupt them, or if I laugh strangely. Nobody was noticing these things as much as I noticed them. 

Ahhhhh. Even as I sit here and write about that moment of clarity, I feel almost giddy. 

And it made so much sense because I don't analyze everything about the people around me, so what made me think they were analyzing everything about me? Yes, I sometimes notice if someone is wearing something I think is strange, but do I think about it for more than two seconds? No I don't. Am I sometimes a little annoyed by things people say or do? Yes I am. Do I let it affect my whole perception of that person? No I don't. All of us are allowed to make mistakes. And all of us are allowed to be unique. Is that part of being human? Yes. Yes!

I still worry sometimes. Ok, I still worry a lot. And I still sometimes beat myself up about things I’ve done or things I’ve said. But if I catch myself doing it, I remind myself, “Nobody cares as much you do.” And it comforts me. It takes a heavy weight of responsibility off my shoulders. And it allows me to forgive myself a little bit.

Here's how my mom answered some questions on this subject.


Is there a Buddhist practice for reminding ourselves that we are not the center of other people’s attention?

That's a tough question. I would say mindfulness. Yes, mindfulness—in or outside of meditation—you don't have to meditate to practice mindfulness. There are a couple of ways in which mindfulness can help us remember we are not the center of other people's attention. 

First, mindfulness is simply paying attention to what's going on. If you use it to pay attention to other people, you'd make an effort to become aware of what they're interested in, what they're saying, etc. If you truly do this—pay attention to other people—you'll discover that they're busy dealing with their own life with its crazy ups and down. They're not focused on yours. 

Trying to lead our own lives in a decent way is hard enough. So, if you practice mindfulness by saying, "Okay, I'm going to pay attention to other people for a bit," you'll see that they're much more interested in their own lives than yours. So that would be using mindfulness to serve as a reminder that you're not the center of other people's attention. It's even true of the people you're closest to; you might be the center of their attention now and then, but not all the time.

There's a second way mindfulness can help and it happens to be the reason I value mindfulness so highly. You can use it to watch what's going on in your own mind. And again, you don't have to be meditating to do this. If you pay attention to thoughts and emotions that arise in your mind, you'll be able to see early on whenever you're caught up in a stressful thinking or emotional pattern that has you worrying about what other people are thinking about you. 

The reason it helps to become aware of stressful thoughts and emotions as soon as possible is that you have a better chance of letting them go—of just dropping them, and this stops you from starting to spin stressful stories about whatever is bothering you, such as "She doesn't think I'm really sick" or "Everyone is thinking I should just snap out of this depression." It's amazing how we tell ourselves stories and then believe them without even questioning their validity. Almost all of those stories aren't true but they make us really unhappy nevertheless.

So, in the context of this topic, if I were to notice that I'm worrying because I'm focused on what other people might be thinking of me, once I become aware of it—that's the mindfulness part—then instead of inventing scenarios that are pretty certain not to be true, I can help myself out with a few reflections. 

First, I can reflect that have no idea what other people are thinking." This is the value of becoming aware of what's going on in your mind—once you see what you're doing, you can reflect on what the real truth is. And the truth is you have no idea what other people are thinking! 

Second, I can see that this focus on what others are thinking of me is a tremendous drain on my energy. This is especially hard for me because I'm chronically ill. And people who are depressed often don't have a lot of energy either. I think of energy as a precious commodity, and I don't want to use it up worrying about what other people might be thinking about me. 

Lastly, when we start to spin—and believe—those stressful stories about what other people are thinking about us, we're likely to get down on ourselves. We might even start questioning ourselves. That's our inner critic and we definitely don't want to give it an opening to come visit! When we're worried about what other people are thinking about us, that worry can boomerang back and lead us to be down on ourselves. And that does not feel good. 

As I said, it's amazing the stories we can spin that make us miserable. So the sooner we can become aware that we're starting to worry in that way, we can stop those stories. This is a practice that's consistent with mindfulness but comes from the work of Byron Katie—a wonderful teacher who's not a Buddhist. She has a technique for learning how to questions the validity of our stressful thoughts. I write about it in both my first and third books because it's been so tremendously helpful to me.

While I usually find comfort in this notion that other people are more wrapped up in themselves than they are in me, because of your illness, have there been times when you felt as if you wished people would notice what you were going through more?

I've been chronically ill for almost 16 years now, and for the first few years I did want people to acknowledge that was sick. I interpreted someone's lack of that acknowledgement as proof that they didn't believe I was sick or that they didn't care about me. 

As far as not caring about me, I learned I was always wrong. It's just that a lot of people don't know how to behave around illness. Until I became chronically ill, I didn't realize how many people I knew had a chronic illness (which includes chronic pain) but looked just fine. Most people who are chronically ill do look fine. So that was another example of using up precious energy spinning stories about why people weren't acknowledging I was sick. 

I finally reached the point when I stopped doing that. I said to myself, "I know I'm sick, My family and close friends know I'm sick." Because, if you're around me a lot, you see the illness. My husband knows how I'll be feeling on any given day based on how I look in the morning. My good friend Dawn can tell how I'm doing whenever she visits. I don't have to tell her. And really, what does it matter if someone doesn't believe I'm sick? I don't need everyone to believe me.

That said, there are times when I do wish people would notice my limitations. It's when I have to miss out on something really special. I think I mentioned in our social media posting from last week the family trip to Disneyland. Your brother's family, your family, my husband—everyone was there except me. 

That was an event where I have to admit it would feel great to have someone acknowledge how hard it is to have to miss something like that. Just an "I'm so sorry" would do. I don't actually remember if anyone did acknowledge it in that way, but it's an example of when it helps to have people notice the huge effects this illness has had on my life. 

It would help because it would make me feel understood. Feeling understood is what we all want whether we're healthy as can be or struggling with our health. Everyone wants to feel understood.



  1. Mara, I felt like you were writing about me when I was young. Back when we wrote checks to buy things, I remember thinking people were watching me write checks. I imagined I was writing too slow. Often, I would write too fast and then mess up the check. Having to write a second check was terribly embarrassing.

    Social situations have never been altogether comfortable for me, because I'm an introvert. When I started practicing mindfulness, I noticed a lot of people were just as nervous as me. I focused on them more, because I already know me. It helped.

    Age helps too. I think we naturally become more comfortable in our own skin as we age. I even enjoy doing a little public speaking now.

    My most embarrassing moment happened when I was an Air Traffic Controller. I accidentally filled the tower with helium we used for weather balloons. When I had to call approach control, my voice came out like Minnie Mouse. It took a few years to live that one down. I was mortified when people would tell that story about me. Somehow I lived and grew to love to tell the story myself.

    Peace to you both, Nancy

    1. Nancy-thank you so much for sharing your story! Yes, I completely agree that age helps with feeling self-conscious a lot. I definitely have learned to not care as much about what other people think. And I also use the tactic of focusing my social interactions with other people on them so we don't have to talk about me -- sounds like we have a lot in common! I forgot to include one of my favorite Wayne Dyer quotes in the blog, "What you think about me is none of my business." Thank you so much for reading the blog! xo-M

  2. thank U for sharing such Wisdom .. its hard earned but very imp aspect to remember and practice...