The mind-reading trap

We live in a busy world and at times we navigate our lives using mental shortcuts. We can learn to use simple verbal or non-verbal cues to assume or work out what may be happening. At times these shortcuts can be useful but at times they distort our thinking. In cognitive behavioural therapy, we call these distorted shortcuts cognitive distortions, there are many and we engage in them all the time. A common distortion is known as mind reading.

Mind reading can be described as assuming what someone else is thinking without having much information to go on. If we rely too heavily on mind-reading we can very easily confuse or make errors around what others think of us which can obviously create a negative impact on our mood and how we feel.

Mind reading is often linked to an individual experiencing anxiety, depression or social anxiety. It is helpful to learn how to register when you engage in mind-reading and to learn to respond differently in those situations.

Here is the psychology behind why assumptions no longer serve us in today’s world. Imagine, many centuries ago (before modes of travel or communication existed) a village populated by ‘square’ people. These people essentially were born, lived and died in this village as there was no way of visiting other villages or engaging with them. The ‘squares’ lived by their own set of ‘rules’ which dictate how they live their lives- their core beliefs, morals, norms etc.

Consider the following: when a stranger knocks at the gates of the ‘squares’ they respond with “ah! This person must be lost, let’s welcome them in and help them out.” Whereas many miles to the east is another village populated by ‘circular ’ people and their response to the stranger knocking at their gate goes as follows: “We don’t know this person, we need to protect ourselves. The stranger needs time to earn our trust and only then can they integrate with our village”.

As you can see two very different responses to the same scenario. The dilemma is that living in this world, in the 21st century ‘squares’ are friends with, dating, or marrying ‘circles’. Acting on assumptions would mean that we are asking the other person to ‘mind read’. Sitting with unmet expectations resulting from mind-reading leaves us feeling disappointed, frustrated, angry or unloved.

The solution is to learn how to express needs rather than sit with expectations.

Expressing a need sounds like: ‘I have a favour to ask…’ the person can then respond by accepting the need, negotiating it or declining. When next you register a negative emotion ask yourself if you’re perhaps expecting something from someone that you’ve not overtly put on the table as a need. It takes some practice but effectively expressing needs positively impacts our mood and communication in relationships.

Hey Happy wants to encourage and motivate you to challenge yourself in expressing your needs today instead of trying to read the minds of others. It is an impossible task, it’s risky and often leads to disappointment, frustration and sadness.

written by Kerry Kirkman, Clinical psychologist.