Some Cognitive Restructuring Ideas for When Encountering Strangers

Strangers are REALLY easy for us to think negative and judgmental thoughts about, because, well, we don’t know them, they have no allegiance to us, and we can do what we do naturally–assume the worst intentions.

But, assuming the worst intentions leads to negative thoughts, negative thoughts lead to bad moods and stress and anxiety and discontentment. So, allowing ourselves to think these thoughts about our stranger-counter parts, in the end, only harms ourselves. Here are some cognitive restructuring exercises to use the next time YOU encounter a stranger (and feel the judgmental and negative thoughts start to boil up–suppress those immediately!):

We might be tempted to think: “YOU PEOPLE SUCK”, “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU WON’T REDUCE THE PRICE FOR ME”, “I’VE BEEN WAITING IN LINE FOR 45 MINUTES”, “MY CAN OF SODA TASTES FLAT”….and other profanities]

But, instead we could think: “They are probably just a minimum wage employee. They have no control over the policies of the company”

We’ve all been in that awkward situation in which we are waiting in line and some person in front of us gets mad about something and starts yelling at the poor customer service rep about some kind of policy, cancellation, change, etc. that the customer service rep has NO control over (actually, this happened to me just the other day in Barnes & Noble–some lady was yelling at the cashier because she wanted her book to be on the buy 2, get 1 free shelf, and as it turns out, the cashier evidently has NO control over how the barcodes scan in the system). The people who stand in front of us and take our orders or scan our items or complete out flight itineraries can’t possibly be making top dollar (unless this is Undercover Boss…), so there’s really no use in yelling and screaming at them over company policies they can’t control.

We might be tempted to think: “THAT OUTFIT HE/SHE IS WEARING IS ATROCIOUS. I DON’T KNOW HOW HE/SHE EVER LEFT THE HOUSE IN THAT. THOSE COLORS DON’T EVEN MATCH AND THOSE SHOES ARE DEFINITELY NOT PRACTICAL.” 

Instead, we could think that…..”I’m thankful all the parts are at least covered up…”

It has definitely been my situation before where I was on vacation and thought I packed an outfit that most definitely did not make it into my bag, so I had to wear whatever I brought on the airplane. Or, I was running errands post-yoga and someone invited me to do something, so I showed up wearing what I was wearing. Or, plans changed–what I thought was me, hopping into a car to go to dinner actually ended up in a two hour wait, so we decided to traverse through a park instead (and my Old Navy $1 flip flops were impractical for this setting). Maybe all of my laundry was dirty, maybe my cat peed on my jacket, maybe I’m going through a rough time and what I have to wear is what I have to wear, maybe I spent hours picking out my outfit, maybe I’m wearing those unlatching colors because my mom bought it for me–every outfit has a story behind it, and it’s not really my responsibility to be the fashion police to everyone else.

We might be tempted to think: “THOSE PEOPLE ARE SO ANNOYING. THEY ARE LAUGHING SO LOUD, DANCING OBNOXIOUSLY, RUINING MY TIME”. 

Instead, we could think: “Those people look like they are having a GREAT time”

I think it was Locke that said one of our universal human freedoms is the freedom to happiness (and the freedom to have a good time). There is something really magical in indulging in the happiness of others–whether it is watching them jam out on their guitar, watching them cross a finish line, seeing the sheer elation of joy on their faces when they dance–there is something to be gained by indulging in the happiness of others.

Unfortunately, this is not something that is necessarily innate to us. Often, when we see others having a good time, our initial reaction is to judge: “He’s totally off key–can’t they get a better player?”, “Geez, that was a really slow time”, “Those dance moves are ridiculous and annoying”. This probably stems from insecurities in ourselves–we are jealous that other people are having a better time than we are, so instead of indulging in their happiness, and perhaps rising ourselves to that level, we just judge and try to steal other’s sparkle.

We might be tempted to think that: “THAT PARENT CANNOT CONTROL THEIR CHILD. IT IS LOUD AND SCREAMING AND BEING UNRULY. BAD PARENTING, VERY BAD PARENTING.”

Instead, we might think that: ….”Hopefully that parent has wine in his/her shopping cart…”

As never-been a parent myself, I can only “try” to put myself in their shoes, but I’ve never actually been there myself, and I’m sure there is always something going on that I’m not privy to–the child was up late, screaming for Fruit Loops and is now tired, the parent just read ‘Love & Logic’ and the child is trying to adjust to new boundaries, this is actually not their child but rather an alien they picked up in the parking lot, etc.

(On a side note, I saw a little girl with her mom at Panera the other day–the little girl clearly had gotten into mom’s makeup, and mom made the little girl wear it all over her face. THAT, I thought, was great parenting!)

(This is a Colorado-specific one) We might be tempted to think: “THIS POPULATION INFLUX IS RUINING IT FOR ME. ALL THESE PEOPLE WHO DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING NEED TO JUST GO HOME AND STOP TRAMPLING ON THE TRAILS AND LITTERING AND TRYING TO HIKE 14ERS IN FLIP FLOPS”. 

Instead, we could think: “I’m really glad there are so many people who are interested in exploring my hobbies and who are not sitting behind their computer screens today but are actually getting outside and being active”. 

If you have tried to camp or hike a 14er in Colorado recently, you’ve probably been in a conversation like this. It does get really annoying that traffic is so backed up, you have to book campsites at least six months in advance, there are 60 plus people on top of the summit. But, we also live in a nation with an obesity epidemic and an addiction to our technology. So while the amount of people now engaging in your activities may be a inconvenient, is it not also encouraging that all of these people are doing something about not being obese and not being in front of their technology?

(Photo Credit: https://www.davidwolfe.com/5-kid-friendly-yoga-poses-to-help-prevent-an-epic-meltdown/) 
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