Are You a Fortune Teller?

We often add to our stress by imagining the worst in our future.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

Do you believe in Fortune Tellers? Do you pay money to get your palm read or your future predicted by the cards? You may not believe that others can do it, but you may believe in your own clairvoyant abilities.

Actually, we all do it at times. We imagine some future outcome and then act as if it’s a done deal. We picture the fortune teller errorevent in our mind. We feel the emotions that we would feel if it occurred.

If the imagined future event is negative, which it often is, we experience the rapid heartbeat, quickened breathing, and muscle tension, as if it was already happening. We experience the tragedy that hasn’t happened.

We may imagine future tragedies because we mistakenly feel that it will prepare us for the worst possibilities. It seems that we will fare better if we brace ourselves for the impact. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

Imagine that you’re waiting for the results of a biopsy. The mass could be cancer or a benign tumor. You find yourself imagining that the mass is cancer. You visualize hearing the bad news, going through chemotherapy, and perhaps even dying. You imagine the worst. Your muscles tense, your heart races and your breathing quickens. You feel fear and grief.

If you later receive news that the tumor was benign, you have experienced fear, grief and pain for nothing. How many times has this happened to you? How many of the negative events of your life never actually happened?

If you get the unfortunate news that the mass is cancer, you will have to deal with it. You will experience fear, grief and pain. It won’t be lessened by the fact that you imagined the worst before you heard. You won’t be any more prepared.

The Fortune Teller Error can hurt you in other ways. Imagining failure in school may keep you from applying. Imagining rejection at a party may keep you from attending. Imagining a negative response to a question may keep you from ever asking it.

Reminds me of a story. Kevin ran out of sugar, and decided to walk next door and borrow a cup from his neighbor, Joe. He grabbed an empty cup and headed out the door. He realized it was a little late, and wondered if Joe might be in bed. He then imagined that Joe might be upset with him for bothering him. He pictured Joe chastising him for being rude. He then remembered the times he had loaned Joe things, and felt anger that Joe could possibly refuse such a simple request as a cup of sugar. As he arrived at Joe’s house, the door opened. Joe smiled and said “Hi Kevin, how are you?” Kevin shouted back, “Just keep your stupid sugar!” and marched back home.

Watch out for the Fortune Teller Error. It may rob you of more than a simple cup of sugar.

Mind Reading

Assuming that you can know others' thoughts and feelings can damage your self-esteem and your relationships.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

You do it all the time. So do I. We all do mind reading. We read other’s expressions or their tone of voice. We try to read between the lines. What did that person really mean? How do they really feel? What were they thinking?mind reading

We ask these questions, then we go on to answer them. We make assumptions about others thoughts, feelings, or intentions. Unfortunately, we believe our assumptions.

Mind reading is a cognitive distortion where we believe that we can read other’s minds. Of course, we can, and we intellectually know that. Yet, in the moment, we assume that we can. We react to our assumptions.

There is a cost to mind reading. First, mind reading thoughts maintain wounds to the self-esteem. They reinforce any negative belief we hold about ourselves.

For example, Justin was criticized harshly by his mother throughout his childhood. Because of this, he concluded that he was not good enough. He believed he was not smart enough, that he would fail at most things, and that others would be critical of him as well.

When Justin does mind reading, do you think he assumes others to be affirming or judgmental? Of course, he assumes that others see him as a failure, and his efforts as inadequate. He would never assume that others thought that he was brilliant. Even when someone compliments his work, he assumes that they are just “being nice.”

Because of his mind reading, Justin sees his life as a series of failures. A self-esteem wound, first created by his mother’s criticism, is deepened by his later perceptions.

Second, mind reading damages relationships. Emily’s father left the family when she was eight years old. He moved across country with his new girlfriend. She didn’t see him at all for several years. She watched other fathers with their daughters, and silently grieved. She concluded that she wasn’t as valuable or loveable as other girls. Her self-esteem wound was formed.

When Emily did mind reading, she concluded that others didn’t like her, or didn’t want to spend time with her. She believed herself to be boring. To avoid rejection, she withdrew from others. She never initiated social relationships, and even turned down invitations, because she assumed she would eventually be rejected. When others reached out to her, and asked her out, she said no, as she assumed they were just being nice, or felt sorry for her.

Because of her mind reading, Emily saw herself as unlovable and felt alone. The self-esteem wound first created by her father’s distance, was worsened by her later perceptions.

Truth is, you can’t read minds. You may assume how others feel, or what they think, but you will often be wrong. You won’t believe that you are wrong, but you often are.

You can reduce the mind reading tendency by introducing a bit of skepticism. Entertain the thought that your assumptions are wrong. If possible, check it out. Ask the other person what they are thinking or how they feel. Try to believe them. Watch your thinking.