Why Do I Always Think People Are Mad at Me?

How to stop misinterpreting other people's actions.

I sent some texts to a friend not long ago and never heard back.  A few days in, her silence began to nag at me. It wasn't like her to go quiet, so I followed up with a quick email. Nothing.  I started obsessing over possible offenses. She's mad because I didn't go to that cocktail party with her. No, she's upset that I said she was too attached to her dog. Jeez, I was kidding! She knows I love Barkley. I should have picked up the phone and simply talked to her—but by then, my mind had conjured up such an elaborate story about why she was mad at me that I just couldn't do it.

Nine days later—not that I was counting—I received a flurry of apologetic texts. She had been buried in a work project. She wrote a reply to my email at one point, then got distracted and forgot to send it. Even I've done that in the past. 

She was busy. End of story. Yet for more than a week, I had tortured myself—and more importantly, I had automatically assumed the worst about a good friend.

Realizing the Problem

The tendency to project a motive onto someone is what Brené Brown, PhD, research professor of social work at the University of Houston in Texas, called "the story I'm making up." 

In her book Rising Strong, Dr. Brown described a scene in which it was nearing dinnertime in her house, and her two kids were hungry. Her husband, Steve, opened the fridge and announced, "We have no groceries. Not even lunch meat." 

Dr. Brown recalled that she immediately shot back that he could do the shopping, too. Then. she had a moment of clarity and confessed, "The story I'm making up is that you were blaming me for not having groceries, that I was screwing up." 

Steve told her he'd planned to shop the day before but ran out of time. "I'm not blaming you. I'm hungry," he said.

This anecdote in Dr. Brown's book hit home. When my mom was frowning at me on our lunch date, I put a thought bubble over her head: "What the hell are you wearing?" I realized I was doing this all the time.

I did it with my coworker when I assumed she was icing me at a meeting, only to later learned she was suffering from a migraine. I did it to my husband, Tom, one night when I was cleaning up and he was lounging on the couch. I imagined him thinking, "I tricked my wife into doing all the work around here! Feels good!" I may have even thrown in an evil laugh.

Changing the Narrative

This insidious, self-sabotaging habit made me view my relationships as less secure than they actually were. Once I recognized the behavior, I could stop by reminding myself that my first reaction should not be paranoia. 

Relationships are full of misunderstandings and miscommunications. It's much less stressful to assume that a person's intentions are good and go from there.

When my brain leaps to embroider an adverse scenario, I do a quick reality check and ask myself a series of questions: Is what you're thinking true, or is it an assumption? What evidence is there to support your story? So no evidence, then? Could it be possible that the person's behavior has nothing to do with you?

Then, I delete the scenario from my mental hard drive and reach out to the person. Usually, I find a quick phone call most accessible. However, sometimes I have written a message in the email subject line such as "Are you OK? Just checking in. Write yes or no."

And it can be funny and liberating to share the story you are making up—especially when you see how off-base you often are. It may even bring you both closer together. When I confessed to my mother that I thought she was unhappy with my outfit at lunch, she was astonished. 

"Hello, I was frowning because we were sitting outside, and the sun was in my eyes," she said, shaking her head. "Will you give me a little credit? I thought that dress was cute."

When I take the trouble to fact-check the story I'm making up, the real one is, inevitably, comfortingly mundane. When I told my husband that I thought he was gloating as I dusted and vacuumed, he laughed and said he was absorbed in a game of chess on his phone. 

So, if I want drama these days, I'll binge-watch some Housewives.

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