For as long as I can remember, I have always been sensitive about what other people think. It causes me to think a lot before I do or say something, phrase my sentences in a particular way, and check and see if I’ve upset whomever I’m talking to. I’ll also dwell on conversations for years after I’ve had them and worry about whether I could have said something differently – even if there’s no hint that I’ve offended the person I was talking to. I partially blame my OCD for this, and blame the rest on my personality.
While I was in the hospital, quite a few of the group meetings that I went to discussed interacting with others. The therapist would always mention that we aren’t responsible for the thoughts of others. If we’re having a normal, friendly conversation or just going about our business and someone is upset or offended, that’s not our fault.
Of course, if you’re trying to offend or be mean to someone, then it is your fault and you should feel guilty and responsible for what they’re thinking.
Here’s an example that tied me up in knots for days. One evening at the hospital, one of the patients was doing some colouring. I thought that was a great idea and went to get my colouring stuff. I sat at the far end of the row of tables, opened my book, and the other patient sighed loudly, glared at me, and picked up their stuff and left.
I was at a loss. What did I do to offend the other patient? I didn’t sit nearby, I didn’t say anything, I didn’t even walk by. I started to worry that I was missing something, and I spent the next couple of days trying to figure out what I’d done wrong.
Finally, once I’d got myself all wound up, I sat down and had a chat with my nurse about it. She listened to my story and then very slowly said, “Mark, you are in a psych ward. There are very sick people here and some of them are actually paranoid. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
She was right, of course. Even so, I felt guilty about how things went and felt like I had to apologize to the other patient. So I did.
I won’t get into details but suffice it to say that it did not go well and I learned a valuable lesson.
The concept was difficult for me to accept but I have been trying hard to work on it. If I’m having a normal conversation with someone, I can just talk to them – I don’t have to feel like I’m walking a tightrope. We’re grownups here, we can talk openly and go about our business, and if we try to analyze every single action or aspect of a conversation all the time, that in itself can lead to problems. I think I’ve irritated a lot more people by saying “sorry” to them repeatedly or asking if they were okay, than I have by just talking to them.