You know when you feel sure that other people are talking about you? You notice them whispering, or looking at you, or studiously not looking at you, and you think, what are they saying about me?
Psychologists call those feelings “ideas of reference.” (If you alter your behavior because of the supposed scrutiny, they’re known as “delusions of reference.”) Ideas of reference are often associated with paranoia. However, if you ask clinically depressed or bipolar people, you will find that many of them have them as well.
I know I have. It’s hard not to. You already feel that you’re not really normal (whatever that means) and you’re afraid that it shows. If people can see that you’re not like everyone else, they’re bound to be talking about it. Never mind that your difference is a mental one; you’re sure that everyone can tell just by looking at you that you’re crazy.
In actual fact, the people you think are talking about you usually aren’t – until you go over to them and defensively berate them or accuse them of doing so. Then you can be sure they will be talking about you after you leave.
Except perhaps in junior high school, most people in everyday life do not spend their time discussing how odd the people around them are. (Except for those people who take pictures of others at Walmart and then post them on the internet.) But the average person is too involved in his or her own daily life to give more than a passing glance to a stranger. The people you see whispering behind their hands are most likely developing their own secrets or gossiping about someone you don’t even know.
Even if the people are talking about you, ask yourself – so what? Do their opinions really matter? I know that you want to say yes, they do. But in the larger scheme of things, they don’t. Your life will not change in the slightest if they are saying they don’t like your haircut or that they heard you bite your nails. Malicious gossip and social bullying are separate matters. But again, you don’t really know that these people are saying anything that’s actually harmful.
Perhaps you feel it’s more significant if the people you think are talking about you are family members, coworkers, or friends. They may really be talking about you. The point is, even if they are, you have no idea what they’re saying. Most of the time they speak in low tones so as not to upset you, never realizing that that upsets you more. Tell yourself they could be planning a surprise party or talking about Aunt Edna’s affair with a younger man. Not everything is about you.
Ideas of reference may be a factor in imposter syndrome – the feeling that you are not really successful, competent, or talented, but are just faking it, and that everyone around you can tell. Or perhaps your ideas of reference are like intrusive thoughts – sudden, distressing notions that pop into your head, seemingly without cause or warning. These can be anything at all, from “I wonder if my passport has expired” to “Who would miss me if I died?” to “Those people are talking about me.”
What can you do if you have ideas of reference? Resist the urge to ask if the people are really talking about you. That will only make things awkward and worse. Ignore them if you can. (This is not the same as the bad old non-advice about ignoring bullies. You know when a bully targets you. With ideas of reference, you never really know if your fears are true.) Since you didn’t actually hear what the people said, you can realistically assume they were talking about someone or something else entirely. Imagine that one is telling the other that her slip is showing. (Do people still wear slips? I know they don’t wear pantyhose anymore.)
If you feel you must react, use a minimal response such as the good ol’ side-eye, which is sufficiently ambiguous that the person (who may also have ideas of reference) can assume it’s directed at someone else.
Another suggestion I’ve heard is to work with your therapist on issues of self-esteem and self-concept, or to try cognitive behavioral therapy. Some medications may help too. Still, if you feel you can manage it, I think the best idea is to tell yourself “So what?” and move on.
Comments always welcome!