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?
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.