When it comes to being intuitive, I believe people are a lot worse at reading into things than they think. The real intuitives among us are also modest enough to know that while they are sure something is going on beneath the surface, there’s no way to be sure what it is.
And that goes for therapists too.
I used to think I was a pretty good mind reader, but I’ve come to find that I most definitely am not! I’ve become a lot more comfortable asking questions instead of reading into things and assuming I know what’s what.
There are clients that want—expect, even—for me to know it all, but most are relieved that I don’t assume to know what they are thinking and feeling. And we all know what happens when you assume, right?
When someone thinks they know something about us, when they are sure they know something about us–even when they are right–we often really, really resent it. It can lead us to suddenly feel very smothered in a relationship as well as bring up worries that this person will try to take advantage of us.
We Often Misunderstand Each Other
One thing that makes social interactions so tricky is that others don’t usually respond to situations the way we would respond.
This is really apparent with regard to grief as well as comedy.
I had an acting teacher who said that comedy was harder than drama because we all cry at the same things, but we all laugh at something different. (Of course, he was a Shakespearean clown, so he had some skin in the game there.)
But we really do find different things funny as reading the comments to any Facebook post will bear out. And when I laugh at something there is a good chance that other people won’t find it funny. And if they don’t laugh and I do, I might think there’s something wrong with them.
And grief–people express this in so many different ways it can be really difficult if their way of grieving doesn’t make sense to you.
We can catch ourselves reading into things when someone doesn’t react the way we think they should. Or how we would.
Asking is Better Than Assuming
A guy on a date may feel he’s supposed to hold in that he likes the person he’s with. And his date may be grateful that he’s not expressive–maybe they don’t want a guy who’s very expressive. But they may take it to mean that he’s just not into them. We don’t know what the guy is thinking or feeling which can lead to many anxious nights.
Or let’s move away from dating completely and look at the work place. I had someone in my office who constantly felt that he was about to be fired from his job. There was no evidence for this. Well, no evidence that made sense once we examined it. Basically, if his boss didn’t say “Hi” when she walked by his office he thought he was done.
Feeling like you’re ready to jump in and learn more about your current issue? Contact me here.
The slightest (perceived) slight meant the worst for him.
Other people have a very strong reaction when someone they are with has no reaction. Like the movie Persona (which some believe is about psychoanalysis) where Bibi Anderson just keeps chatting and chatting away reading all kinds of things into Liv Ullman’s face. All kinds of things except what Liv actually is thinking. (And it’s been a while since I watched Persona so that might just be what my memory has done to the movie!)
There’s the concern about what the person in the drug store is thinking when you buy condoms (or ED medication). (Or when you’re getting hemorrhoid cream for your iguana as James Gummer writes about.)
The thing is—we aren’t mind readers. Often we can save ourselves a lot of misery if we just ask. If you’re interested in how to clear away what gets in the way of just asking check out this post.
The trouble is, we often choose to believe the worst. And it really is a choice.
Dwelling on the Possible Positive
It’s protective, of course.
If I believe my date doesn’t like me but they do like me: bonus.
If I think they do like me, and they don’t: I’m embarrassed. I’m a loser. How could I have thought they’d like me? What’s wrong with me?
And down the rabbit hole we go…
Sadly, all we really have to say is, if they don’t like me: “I got that wrong. Wow, was I off base. Ha.”
But we get so much more out of that self-punishment, don’t we.
Some of this is set down very early on--we are taught what to expect from others as soon as we’re born. As babies, our needs are met–or they aren’t. Or they are sometimes. Maybe most times. Or maybe we really can’t predict whether our needs are going to be met or not.
Of course, we don’t “remember” this stuff. Certainly not the way we remember when we thought we were getting the signal to go in for the kiss, but instead got the pull-away. That’s indelible.
But our belief that someone will emotionally catch us if we fall is laid down very early on. It’s not simply a remembered moment, but it becomes our way of being in the world.
This doesn’t mean parents should be at the beck and call of every childish whim, but it becomes a concern when a child starts to register a pattern: “I am safe” or “I am not safe.” Or as ole Erik Erikson liked to say, it’s our sense of basic trust vs. basic mistrust.
Sadly, a blog post is not enough to liberate you from your misgivings about how you are reading into things, but my hope is that you’ll think twice next time you’re certain about something. Maybe instead you’ll take the chance and ask.
If this is the kind of stuff that makes sense to you and you’d like to go deeper in understanding your own relationships, please don’t hesitate to get in contact with me here–even if you’re afraid you won’t have anything to talk about in counseling.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be. He works with all men but has a particular focus on providing counseling for fathers (and guys hoping to become dads!)