No, Everyone Isn’t Mad At You
Are You Sure No One’s Mad At Me?
I recently greeted my husband when he came home from work and could instantly tell he was off. When I asked, he said, “I just feel really angry for no reason.” I panicked, assuming that his irritation must have stemmed from something I did. (It didn’t.)
I constantly jump to conclusions like these, believing that others are mad at me and leaping through hoops that aren’t there. These mental gymnastics can be triggered by anything as small as a “look” or a text with a period. It can be a coworker not responding to my Slack messages, an unprompted ask “to talk,” or worst of all, the infamous three dots typing away on iMessage.
My immediate thought is always the same: Oh no, I’ve done something wrong.
If this is your reaction too, I will let you in on a little secret I have learned, thanks to years of therapy and anxiety medication: Believing that everyone is mad at you is an irrational worry rooted more in perception than in fact.
These fears can stem from a number of experiences and predispositions. Evolutionary behaviors and psychology, gendered nuances, and internal dialogues are all at play, from the macro level right down to the individual.
From an evolutionary perspective, social relationships have been essential to our survival, explains Kristel Roper, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) with Dauntless Counseling. In earlier years, if we were “othered” by our community, this could have been the literal difference between life and death. So over time, our brains have learned to be triggered by any small slight or rejection. And the response? Anxiety and fear.
This hyper-vigilance, meant to serve us, can instead be harmful to us. We’ll look for indications that someone is upset with us, even when there aren’t any. Interpreting neutral emotions, like the poorly named “resting bitch face,” can be misperceived as anger. And for individuals like me with anxiety disorders, we’re even more likely to see fear when it’s absent. Ask my husband how many times a week I ask “if he’s sure he still loves me.” 🙄
In addition to these physiological and psychological presets, women specifically are further conditioned to notice these types of clues. Thanks to the way we’re socialized and seen as caretakers, Roper shares, “Women are more often taught it’s important to be ‘nice’ and so [they] may be more concerned with accidentally angering someone.”
Plus, women are highly in tune with verbal and nonverbal social cues, which leads to another common phenomenon: Personalization. We’ll take someone’s behaviors or actions personally, believing that we must be the reason they are upset—when we have done nothing wrong.
As if evolution and socialization weren’t enough, we have to consider our individual thinking patterns and self-esteem, too. Dr. Laura Louis, a licensed psychologist and owner of Atlanta Couple Therapy, shares that when we are insecure about ourselves, we turn to self-blame for situations out of our control. This could be a thought like, “No matter how hard I try, I can’t do anything right” or “What did I do wrong this time?”
These unrealistic and unhelpful thoughts are called cognitive distortions, and humans developed them as a way to survive and cope. So if you do have these, you’re not alone—we all experience them from time to time.
But it’s draining to constantly live this way. What can we do to combat these automatically negative assumptions?
Start by working backwards. The next time we think someone is mad at us, we can take a moment to pause, identify this reaction as “unhelpful”, and evaluate the likelihood that we are the source of one’s anger. Ask yourself: Is there actual proof to back this up? As my colleague Emily brilliantly wrote in a piece on self-judgment: “Feelings matter, but they are also excellent liars. Start with the facts instead.”
Most times when you search for that evidence, you won’t find any—but if you are doubting yourself, you can ask for clarification. Open by saying something like, “We haven’t talked in a while; I’d love to catch up!” or you can ask more pointedly, “I’m feeling like things are different between us. Are we okay?” Leave room open for interpretation versus directly asking if they’re mad at you, in case they aren’t.
If, by chance, someone actually is upset, turn this moment into a learning experience. Once the issue is resolved, you can talk about how you felt or what you assumed, and how you can both communicate the next time a disagreement arises.
Over time as you question these negative assumptions, you’ll also become kinder to yourself; you’ll learn to support yourself like you would a close friend. Rather than unleashing our hurtful inner critic, we can instead assure ourselves, “I don’t see any rational reason that I would upset [someone].”
If you find that you’re still struggling, Dr. Louis suggests therapy to identify the root causes of your insecurity. Perhaps you’ll find a fear of letting others down, so you always say yes and are afraid of saying no. Or maybe you’ve had a history of being the target of anger in childhood. Whatever the case, a therapist will gently lead you to develop newer, healthier thinking patterns more in line with your boundaries and reality.
Especially now, normal relationships and routines have been uprooted in the pandemic, and it’s common to feel anxious about our “status” with loved ones. But often, there is no real basis for our worries.
So the next time you see yourself readying to jump into another round of mental Olympics, walk off the mat, and take a second to sit and stretch instead. I’ll meet you there.
Do you often feel like you’ve upset people around you, like I have? Which thinking patterns have helped you navigate those feelings that come up? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments.
Henah Velez (she/her) is an Editor at The Good Trade. She holds a Master’s in Social Entrepreneurship and is a proud Rutgers grad. Originally from NJ, Henah’s now in Santa Barbara, CA, where she loves shopping small, hanging with her pets, or traveling. Say hi on Instagram!