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Why Mind Reading Is Making You Anxious

Focusing on your own thinking can help calm you down.

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My therapy clients often tell me that they spend a great deal of time and energy guessing whether others perceive them as annoying. Are they texting a romantic interest too often? Are they sending their boss too many emails? Does this friend really want to hear about this television show?

It’s human nature to guess another person’s thoughts and emotions, and then act as if they were true. It’s an evolutionary gift, but it often comes back to bite us.

Most people want to live from the inside-out—they want to be guided by their thinking and values rather than the perceived reactions of others. Being an “inside-out person” requires a willingness to acknowledge that other people’s thoughts are off-limits. Your only domain is yourself. But when you’re anxious, you can quickly turn into an octopus. Your emotional tentacles twist into the minds of others, searching for clues on how to win them over.

So often we reach for other people’s thinking because we haven’t the faintest idea what our own thinking is. You must ask yourself, what would it look like to know your own mind instead of trying to guess the minds of others? To be a mind knower instead of a mind reader? Let me give you some examples.

Mind Reader: You try to talk about subjects that your friend finds interesting.
Mind Knower: You share what’s important to you and make space for them to do the same.

Mind Reader: You assume your boss is upset with your late project, so you send an apology email.
Mind Knower: You decide how often you will update your boss on the status of a project.

Mind Reader: You stop bringing up politics because you think it makes your parents anxious.
Mind Knower: You clearly define your own beliefs and share them when relevant.

Mind Reader: You don’t talk about a subject because you assume everyone in the room knows more than you.
Mind Knower: You share your thinking but make space for questions and new information that can alter it.

Mind Reader: You worry your partner is annoyed because you forgot a chore.
Mind Knower: You define how you want to complete chores, and then follow through.

A mind reader:

  • is focused on pleasing others
  • relies on their imagination instead of the facts
  • doesn’t have clearly defined values and principles
  • trusts people’s reactions more than their own thinking

A minder knower:

  • doesn’t try to control others
  • focuses on the facts
  • has clearly defined values and principles
  • allows their best thinking to guide their actions

The Mind Knower is also self-motivated. She can be considerate, articulate, and productive, not to win over the hearts of others, but because this is the kind of person she wants to be in the world. Her definition of self exists outside of the praise and approval of others. And she can enjoy relationships more because she lets others be in charge of their own minds.

If this sounds appealing to you, start to pay attention to your mind reading habits. You can ask yourself these questions:

  • When am I trying to manage the thoughts and emotions of others instead of my own?
  • When am I borrowing people’s definitions of being a good person, or a productive employee, or an interesting friend, because I haven’t created my own definition?
  • What would it look like for me to engage in knowing my own mind?
  • How can I interrupt mind reading and direct myself back to my own thoughts and beliefs?
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