You Can't Read Other People's Minds. Really.
Remember the scene from The Princess Bride when the Man in Black and Vizzini engage in the ‘Battle of Wits?’ Vizzini says; “It’s so simple. All I have to do is devise the answer from what I know of you. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet, or his enemy’s?
Now a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet because he would know that only a great fool would reach for the goblet he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, in fact, you would have counted on it so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.”
This is a perfect example of how most of us think. We are obsessed with figuring out what others think so that we can decide how we’re going to act, what we’re going to do, and who we’re going to be. Those ‘Others’ might be friends, family, colleagues, and even strangers. In our heads, we live on the stage of our own lives, absolutely certain that a spotlight is focused on us. We shrivel inside, and just want to find somewhere safe to hide.
When we have this Vizzini-like dialogue going on in our heads, we’re paralyzed by fear of what others think. We become the "Look Police," analyzing every eye roll, lip curl, and eyebrow twitch and what this may mean. We fill up our mental space trying to figure out what other people are thinking and it’s crazy-making. We believe we know what others are thinking, and we adjust our behavior and choices according to what we think others are thinking about us.
So here’s the thing.
We don’t know what other people are thinking …even when we know them really well. We can’t do it. We’re terrible, horrible, no good and very bad at mind reading...but it doesn’t keep us from doing it anyway. Sometimes we get it right, but mostly, we’re wrong. We take clues from body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and attitude, but we can only interpret those clues through the lens of our own perspective. (Remember Vizzini? He gets it wrong and dies.) Our internal landscape filters how we perceive the words and actions of others.
In the popular Netflix series, Lie to Me, (based on the research of Paul Ekman) accurately reading micro-expressions is possible, however the interpretation of those expressions is a crap shoot. I might be able to accurately read that you’re disgusted, or angry, or sad, but if I want to know why you feel that way, I’ll have to ask. Mostly though, we don’t ask. What generally happens, is that we personalize what we see as if we’re the cause of that expression…or look…or behavior; ergo, who we are is not acceptable.
Winston Churchill once said, “When you’re 20 you care what everyone thinks, when you’re 40 you stop caring what everyone thinks, and when you’re 60 you realize that no one was ever thinking about you in the first place”. That’s the sad part in this whole deal. Spending the only life we have, making choices based on what ‘Others’ may think of us. It doesn’t work. When we won’t be ourselves, we become anyone…unhappily nothing special. What a waste of the glorious uniqueness that is within every single one of us. Every. Single. One.
Try this instead:
Make a deal with yourself that you will only respond to what ‘Others’ actually say or actually do.
When you find yourself being the ‘Look Police’, remember that you might be good at reading what the look is, but you really have no idea why. (Maybe their shoes are too tight, they just got a parking ticket, or they’re hungry!)
Start small, and make a personal, individual decision for yourself everyday. Wear, go, do, be something that reflects you…not ‘Others’ .
Refuse to personalize Others' behavior, opinions, or words…it’s about them, not you. When someone is critical it says way more about him or her than it does about you.
Remind yourself that 99.5% of ‘Others’ are not thinking about you at all. The rest are happy to see you.
Unpeople yourself. Don’t make gaining the approval of ‘Others’ more important than being You.
Dr. Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg, RPC, MPCC-S, DAAETS, ACS