One of the key failings of human nature is that we tend to believe everything we think. This is despite our unique capacity to question our own thinking.
We all have a running commentary going on inside our minds; that quiet chitty-chitty chat-chat in the background, like a radio in another room. We tune it out but on and on it goes. Some of it benign (“we need milk”), some of it positive (“what a great day!”), and some of it decidedly negative (“you left your phone at home, you idiot!”).
The interesting thing is, we also believe on some level that we have the ability to read minds.
If I ask you whether you believe in ESP, telekinesis, aliens, or psychic abilities, you’d possibly look at me with scepticism and answer with rationality and logic. “Well, no I don’t, but I suppose we don’t know the full capabilities of the human brain“, you’d say. Or, “we are yet to fully understand all the wonders of the universe“. These would be your polite, rational responses. Or you might simply say “are you nuts?”
And yet, every day you subconsciously assume your ability to read minds is without equal. You assume you have 100% accuracy when it comes to knowing someone else’s unspoken thoughts. Yes. You do.
Don’t believe me?
Standing in the queue at the supermarket, you see a work colleague in the next queue along. You smile and wave. They don’t respond. Offended, you grab your shopping and march back to your car without a backward glance.
What just happened?
- You’ve assumed they saw you.
- You’ve assumed they didn’t want to speak with you.
- You’ve assumed they deliberately snubbed you.
- You’ve assumed they have an attitude towards you.
- You’ve become offended and angry on the basis of the above.
- You’ve believed your own assumptions and let it control your mood, and possibly the rest of your day.
This is all based on what you’ve assumed to be going on in their mind. You’ve assumed without question that you knew what they were thinking, and that their thoughts were about you. You’ve assumed malicious intent in their behaviour, and on the basis of those assumptions you’ve allowed your mood and behaviour to change.
But what if you’re wrong?
What if they were a million miles away lost in thoughts of their sick child? Or what if they didn’t have their glasses on and didn’t see you? Or what if they thought you were talking to someone else? How would your interpretation of their behaviour change in these scenarios?
When we assume (a) that people are thinking about us and (b) that those thoughts are negative, we are telling ourselves a story that is unhelpful to us. And that is all it is. A story. If you truly had the ability to mindread and could see with 100% accuracy what was in the minds of others, you’d be sorely disappointed. Because the reality is that people generally aren’t thinking about you. They’re thinking about themselves and their own lives. I’m sorry to break it to you, but you rarely rate a mention. Don’t believe me? How much time did you spend thinking about the person at the supermarket before the perceived snub? Basically none, right? And yet, despite the rational understanding that mindreading isn’t a skill we actually possess, we not only believe these stories we’ve told ourselves, we hand over the power to control our subsequent moods and actions on a silver platter. Now THAT’S nuts!
Here’s a challenge for you.
Try to monitor your thoughts in situations like this. Try to catch yourself mindreading and call yourself out on it. Say to yourself “I’m mindreading, I don’t actually know what they’re thinking“. But that’s the truth. You really don’t know what is going on in the minds of others, and odds on it’s nothing to do with you at all. The only way to know is to ask, and are you really prepared to do that?
“Hey work colleague, you didn’t wave at me at the supermarket yesterday. What was that about? Don’t you like me anymore?” Sounds a bit schoolyard doesn’t it?
You’ve got an opportunity here to choose. You can choose to assume malicious intent, i.e., that the work colleague deliberately snubbed you (but why would they do that, it doesn’t seem like a logical explanation, does it). Or you can assume benign intent, i.e., there was a simple explanation for their behaviour, which is probably nothing to do with you (e.g., they’ve probably wondered off in their own thoughts and didn’t notice you waving).
I promise if you do the following, you’ll find that you feel happier and more resilient in situations like this.
- Stop thinking you’re a mindreader (you’re not);
- Stop assuming others are thinking negatively about you (odds are they’re not);
- Assume benign intent. Most people don’t go around hating on you all day.
Now, go forth and conquer your day.