Is Everyone Mad at Me, or Is It Just My Anxiety?

Jancee Dunn was adding unnecessary drama to her life by misinterpreting others' actions—here's how she stopped doing it for good.

Not long ago, I sent some texts to a friend, and never heard back. It wasn’t like her to go quiet, so I followed up with a quick email. Nothing.

A few days in, her silence began to nag at me. 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. What I should have done was pick up the phone and simply talk 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; at one point, she wrote a reply to my email, then got distracted and forgot to send it. (I’ve done that myself in the past.) She was busy. End of story. Yet for more than a week, I had tortured myself—and more important, I had automatically assumed the worst about a good friend.

Realizing the problem

The tendency to project a motive onto someone is what University of Houston research professor of social work Brené Brown, PhD, calls “the story I’m making up.” In her book Rising Strong, she describes a scene in which it’s nearing dinnertime in her house, her two kids are hungry, and her husband, Steve, opens the fridge and announces, “We have no groceries. Not even lunch meat.” She immediately shoots back that he could do the shopping, too.

Then she has a moment of clarity and confesses, “The story I’m making up is that you were blaming me for not having groceries, that I was screwing up.” Steve tells her he’d planned to shop the day before but ran out of time: “I’m not blaming you. I’m hungry.”

This passage in Brown’s book really hit home—I realized I was doing this all the time. 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 did it with my coworker when I assumed she was icing me at a meeting. (I later learned she had a migraine coming on.) 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 suckered 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 was injecting needless drama into my life and made me view my relationships as less secure than they actually were. Once I recognized the behavior, I was able to stop by reminding myself that my first reaction should not be paranoia. Relationships are full of misunderstandings and miscommunications. It’s a lot less stressful to assume that a person’s intentions are good, and go from there.

Now when my brain leaps to embroider a negative 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 whatsoever to do with you?

Then I delete the story from my mental hard drive and reach out to the person. Usually, I find a quick phone call easiest, although sometimes I have simply 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 freeing, 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 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—annoying, yes, but not evil. When I take the trouble to fact-check the story I’m making up, the real one is, inevitably, comfortingly mundane. These days, if I want drama, I’ll binge-watch some Housewives.

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