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The Perils of Mind Reading

Mind reading occurs when we place onto others what we think they are thinking or feeling. Without their telling us, we believe we know what people are feeling and why they are acting the way they do.

Mind reading relies upon a process called projection. Mind readers jump to conclusions that are true for themselves yet are not necessarily true for others. When we mind read we make quick judgments and assumptions about how people are reacting, particularly with how they are reacting to us.

However, our perception is not always reality. If our partner is reading a book for hours or a friend has not replied to our emails, we can neurotically go to that place of “What have I done?” or “He must be mad at me.”  He or she might very well be, or not. We might use such passive silent treatment with others when we are upset, but others may merely be preoccupied with an activity.

This chronic mind reading, worrying about others and even self-blaming behaviour leaves us vulnerable to depression and anxiety. It can also cause us to behave in certain ways in order to change what we believe the other person is thinking or feeling. We act based upon a false assumption of what someone is thinking.

Mind reading shows up in most dysfunctional or co-dependent relationships. For example, one person may be tired and the other person interprets this as disinterest, reacts with anger, and an argument ensues.

Emailing and texting fosters mind reading because these communications lack body language, tone and often content information/details. These gaps are then filled by the reader’s own feelings and thoughts. There’s the projection again.

Mind readers jump to conclusions that are true for them without checking whether they are true for the other person. “He’s just doing that because he’s jealous.” “She must really be feeling horribly.” Well, maybe yes, and, maybe no. What we do know is that you must be feeling horribly because you projected your feelings around the situation onto that person.

The easiest way to avoid mind reading is to ask if what we are thinking or feeling is truly real. For example, we might start to worry that we have done something to upset our partner (who is stomping around the house). So, test that feeling by asking your partner, “Might you be upset at something I’ve done?” or use an open-ended question, “How’s the day going for you?” We then (hopefully) get a response that verifies or nullifies our hunch, and moves us out of the mind reading mode.

An even better way is to stop the projection in the first place, as most mind reading is actually negative, false and focusses on others rather than ourselves. Using the above example, we could simply (that’s where the work begins!) detach from our partner’s stomping, let them sort it out, and we go on with our day.

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.