Mind Reading: They Should Know How I Feel
Some of us expect our loved ones to read our minds. Rationally, we know they cannot do it, but we expect them to do it just the same. This expectation sets us up for a lifetime of frustration and disappointment.
Monica and Bill had been married for 10 years, but have been fighting over many small things over the last few months. The day before their session, they had another argument.
Monica said to him, “You’re making the coffee too strong. You will get indigestion.” Bill defended his right make the coffee as he liked, but his pleases were ignored. The war was on.
My first question for them was, “What angered you the most?”
Bill replied that Monica was trying to control him and he resented it. He rebelled against her attempt to change him.
Monica was only trying to help Bill and he did not appreciate her concern for his health. She felt good for nothing. She was angry at him and angry at herself for even trying to make his life better.
Again I asked, “What angered you the most?”
Bill didn’t hesitate for a second, “She should have known that I was angry, but she kept going on and on.”
Therapist: “The issue is not coffee, is it? The issue is that you were angry at her for not giving you freedom to make choices or yourself. Monica was forcing her help on you without your permission. What does that mean, ‘She should have known I was angry’?”
Bill: “It means she should have stopped doing what she was doing. She should have seen that I was angry at her.”
Therapist: “But she didn’t. She had her own agenda. She was not attuned to yours. Where does that come from, this expectation that Monica should know you are angry and respond accordingly?”
Bill: “I don’t know.”
Therapist: “We learn math and science in school. Most of us are good at logical and rational thinking. We learn about feelings and relationships from our family. So I’m curious if this reminds you of anything from your childhood?”
Bill: “My dad was a waiter in a bar. Mother hated it. They fought about it all the time. She was jealous of the attention he got from any female customers; he said he needed the money. I remember one time they were screaming and swearing at each other in the living room. I was in the kitchen.”
Therapist: “How were you feeling?”
Bill: “Frightened and helpless. I couldn’t make it stop. I felt insignificant. I remember thinking that if they only knew what they were doing to me, they would stop fighting.”
Therapist: “Did they ever find out what they were doing to you?”
Bill: “No, of course not.”
Therapist: “You never told them, did you? On what day did you stop hoping that people would read your mind and stop hurting you without having to tell them?”
Bill: “I guess I never stopped feeling that way.”
Therapist: “This morning, you were angry at Monica for failing to read your mind and stop nagging you about your taste in coffee.”
Bill: “Yes, I was. It all came back to me, feeling powerless and helpless to make her stop. After all these years, I’m still unable to tell people how I feel or what I want them to do.”
Therapist: “What do you think you might do about it the next time Monica makes you angry with her helpful suggestions?”
Bill: “I don’t know.”
Therapist: “That’s part of the problem. It is foreign to your upbringing. You have never seen two mature adults expressing their anger appropriately and solving problems in a context of respect. It’s no wonder you feel inadequately prepared to solve your anger problems with Monica.”
Bill: “I blame her for starting it, but underneath I know it shouldn’t get me so angry.”
Therapist: “Does ‘shoulding’ on yourself help? It is not a matter of fault or blame. It is a matter of human imperfection.”
Bill: “All right. What can I do instead next time?”
Therapist: “The first step is to identify your feeling. You cannot express your feeling if you do not know what it is. You are not ‘stressed,’ you are angry.”
Bill: “I was angry, alright.”
Therapist: “The next step is to catch yourself expecting Monica to know how you feel without telling her. That is not her job. She has her own problems. She is not a mind-reader. You have to read your own mind.”
Bill: “I can do that if I can remember to catch myself in time.”
Therapist: “The third step is to express your anger appropriately. You can choose to say, ‘Monica, it makes me angry when you tell me what to do.’ Is that the truth?”
Bill: “Yes, that’s the truth. Is it alright to tell her I’m angry?”
Therapist: “Monica is it all right if he says he’s angry?”
Monica: “Of course it is. I would understand and calm down. I would know where you were coming from.”
Bill: “I thought it would make you angry It’s good to know I can use my words to tell you how I feel.”
Family fight image available from Shutterstock.
Karmin, A. (2014). Mind Reading: They Should Know How I Feel. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 27, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/anger/2014/05/mind-reading-they-should-know-how-i-feel/