There’s an old psychology term that’s being used in a new way recently: “Insinuation Anxiety”

Insinuation Anxiety: noun
A worry that not agreeing with someone’s choices implies criticism
of how they are managing pandemic life.
— Counseling Today (November 2020)

There are a few additional definitions available, explaining various versions of the same trend- the fear that by wearing a mask or socially distancing, you could be misunderstood. This fear is based on the fact that the other person involved might think you’re implying that they’re unsafe, a danger to be around, or worse yet–have poor discussion making skills or lack intelligence.

You’ve probably seen this anxiety or perhaps even had bouts of it yourself. If you’re not familiar with the fear, just take a look at some of the conversations out on Facebook and you’ll quickly recognize it lurking there.

But this topic intrigued me for another reason too.

Lately, I’ve noticed an increase in people’s stress and anxiety in general when someone else disagrees with them or has thoughts different from their own.  This isn’t just about the pandemic, although it could be a side effect of it. We humans have a natural propensity to feel threatened when people disagree with us. Why is that?

Emotional (Or Physical) Danger

There’s a theory that says that because humans were once heavily dependent on one another for survival, our brains are wired to sense fear when we’re at risk of being “on the outs” with society. Centuries ago, it was a literal threat to be ostracized from the tribe.  Being banished from the group meant we’d be on our own and vulnerable to attack by predators, and less successful at hunting the food we’d need to survive. While it’s unlikely that being disapproved of by your friends or family would result in death today, this theory says we were created with an internal warning system that hasn’t evolved along with the rest of our brain and thinking, so we continue to be overly sensitive to the approval of others.

We Were Made For Relationship

I’m not so sure that humans just “evolved” in order to survive as a species, but I do believe that our Creator made us with brains that are capable of adapting as the universe evolves. And I for sure believe that we were created for relationship. After all, not only did God create us to be in relationship with Him, but He also made it clear that He wants us to be in relation with others.  Genesis says He thought the world was “very good”…until he saw Adam all alone.  Nope. “No good,” He said, and went back to work to remedy the dilemma. We were made to relate to and connect with each other. Whether we like it or not, it does matter to us what others think.

So how do we hold this in check so it doesn’t become unhealthy? If we spend our lives focussing on what others think of us, and worrying about how to change their opinions of us, we’ll likely feel emotionally exhausted in addition to feeling threatened! When others think you’re wrong or question your judgement, you can see how easy it would be to begin living for others in an unhealthy way.

Assessing What Matters

As usual, the answer is found by assessing our thoughts and feelings. Often times, physiological sensations in the body are our first clue that something is wrong with our thinking. Check in with your body. What are you feeling? What do you notice? For many people, a sensation of heat or tightness in their shoulders and chest signifies nervousness, fear, or anxiety. Others notice a “knot” in their stomach or nausea. The better you are at recognizing and labeling the feeling, the faster you’ll be able to get to the thought that’s causing it.

Here are some key questions you can ask yourself to help you to stand in confidence rather than fear.

  • What am I really afraid of here?
  • What’s at stake? How does what they think impact me?
  • Do I value this person’s opinion?
  • Do I value his/her values? Do their values match mine?
  • Are there areas of my life where it’s okay to not see eye-to-eye with this person?
  • Can I give this person the grace and freedom to think differently than me?

As I said, it’s highly unlikely that your well-being is at risk if another person disagrees with you or has a perspective that is different than yours. Reminding yourself of this at the time can support your parasympathetic nervous system in calming you down. It can also be helpful to remind yourself that you have options. You can:

  • Agree to disagree
  • Explain your thought process or how you arrived at your decision/conclusion
  • Decline to explain your reasoning
  • Ask to change the conversation to a different topic
  • End the conversation completely
  • Create distance (either temporarily or permanently)
  • “Let them” be wrong about you

It’s okay to let people be wrong about you.

One of my favorite freeing thoughts is this: “It’s okay for people to be wrong about me.” While I can say this with confidence now, it took quite some time before I fully believed it. I had to build up to the thought with “smaller” thoughts like, “Maybe someday I’ll be able to let people be wrong about me” and “I’m working on allowing others to be wrong about me.”

While we can certainly influence what others think of us by how we behave, we can never control their thoughts. In fact, what someone else thinks about you or your decisions often says far more about them than it does about you! As I frequently remind clients, “What others think about you is really none of your business.” 🙂

Whether we’re talking about the pandemic, or a completely random topic, I’m willing to bet you’re doing just fine.  I’ll assume you’re doing the best you can, with what you know….but then again, those are just my thoughts about you! 😉

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