Do we think too much about what other people think of us?

We place an extraordinary importance on what even random strangers think of us

We wonder what our colleagues, boss, subordinates, children think about us. Photograph: iStock

"I wonder if he ever thinks about me?" The question is asked by a woman in a documentary about people who go missing in Japan (it's on YouTube as "Japan's evaporated people").

Her husband had left their retirement home after a disagreement with staff. He was lucid and wealthy and had chosen not to get back in touch with her. She would go every day to the train station where she had last seen him.

Her question, “I wonder if he ever thinks about me?” has stuck in my mind.

The importance of someone thinking about you even when they are physically absent seems to be of core importance to us humans.


Consider some of the more upsetting milestones in relationship breakdowns.Two people split up but when one of them changes their status to “single” on social media – it’s a painful milestone for the other. It’s signalling that the other person isn’t thinking about you anymore or at least not in the same way. And when they then change it to “in a relationship” with somebody who is not you it’s worse because now they’ve slammed down the shutters and they’re not thinking about you at all.

They may have moved to Alaska but it still hurts that they are not thinking about you when they are up there with their huskies.

Shaming exercises

This all seems to be linked to the extraordinary importance we give to what other people, even random strangers, think of us. The psychologist Albert Ellis used to encourage clients to do what he called "shaming" exercises – silly actions – in public to help them get over the fear of what other people think about them. An example might be standing up on the bus on a Monday morning and singing Ireland's Call to your fellow passengers. By and large they go on staring into their phones and (this is the theory, anyway) you realise that everybody isn't thinking about you all the time – though if you decide to try this it's at your own risk, dear reader.

In many respects we regulate our lives by how we think other people think, or might think, about us. You wonder what your colleagues, boss, subordinates, children think about you. If you are the last to get onto a plane that you delayed because you got lost when you went to find the loo, you worry about what all the other passengers think about you.

The irony is that you can never really know what it is that they think or that they are thinking about you at all. And of course there are people out there who are wondering if you are thinking about them, though this often doesn’t occur to us.

Or consider internet trolls. Part of their destructiveness, I would suggest, is that their targets know someone is out there thinking of them maliciously. It isn’t just the words – it’s that the words express thoughts full of ill will.

Keyboard thug

That we should care what some anonymous keyboard thug thinks about us may seem, and probably sometimes is, irrational but I think it’s hardwired into us. After all, in the human tribe other people’s opinions can sometimes determine whether you flourish or wither away.

Maybe one of the most painful aspects of the death of somebody else is that they are not thinking about you anymore (if that’s what you believe). Maybe you thinking about them is a way of keeping them alive. Maybe we only truly die when nobody is left who remembers us and thinks about us.

So that Japanese woman who asked “I wonder if he ever thinks about me?” was expressing a very profound human concern.

If he doesn’t think about me, what does our shared history count for in his mind?

If he thinks about me, mustn’t that mean he values our shared history?

That, I admit, can be cold comfort when the one you love is absent. Yet it’s comfort of a sort because when they stop thinking about you, you are lost from another human mind.

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