When I was in high school, I remember learning the literary term “tragic flaw” as part of our study of Shakespeare. The hero’s tragic flaw is the trait that ultimately leads to his downfall.
I mention this because it ties in with a huge eye-opener I’ve had as part of this whole process. Like I’m talking “HOLY SHIT HOW DID I NOT SEE THIS BEFORE” huge.
For years and years, I’ve thought I had this unique superpower where I could tell what people were thinking or feeling based on how they were acting, what they were saying, or even just their “energy.” I felt like I could read a room.
I thought of myself as highly empathic, totally in tune with the inner worlds of other people, able to feel what they are feeling.
And then I learned that one of the major cognitive distortions (aka unhealthy thought patterns) associated with social anxiety is… mind reading.
MIND READING. “Assuming or inferring another person’s thoughts or expecting the worst possible scenario without actually confirming with the person or having solid evidence. E.g. My friend did not wave back at me when I waved at her from across the street. She must be angry with me right now.”
(Source: Mood Tools app).
How can this be true? This changes my whole conception of my own identity as someone SO supremely in tune with other people’s emotions that she can feel what they are feeling or thinking but not expressing.
All this time, I haven’t been feeling THEIR feelings. I have been feeling MY OWN social anxiety and projecting it onto them.
This isn’t to say that all mind reading is unhealthy or wrong. Sometimes it really is pretty obvious what a person is thinking based on context and behaviour. But when you start to do things like assume that your child’s daycare teacher secretly thinks you’re a flakey mess of a mom because you forgot that today was Sprinkler Day and you didn’t pack towels… that’s a distortion. Stop that.
More examples of my superpower trying to take me down:
- The car behind is driving too close to me. The driver obviously thinks I’m slow and inconsiderate. [It’s important to challenge the distortions. In this case I need to tell myself: Self, you have literally no way of knowing what the driver is thinking. You cannot even see their face.]
- My neighbour has told me repeatedly that I should help myself to the parsley she’s growing, but I’m anxious about going onto her property. She must be annoyed that I won’t just do it. [Challenge: Again, I have no idea how she feels.]
- I had to pay for a coffee with my credit card, because I didn’t have cash on hand. The cashier must think it’s ridiculous to use your credit card for such a small amount of money. [Challenge: Other people probably do the same thing.]
I’m still coming to terms with having to reframe what I thought was my social superpower as being the product of my social anxiety, and perhaps one of the main things that have caused me untold distress and pain for the past… two decades.
There’s also the fact that it’s a little arrogant to think you can read everyone’s mind. It’s not arrogant if you’re RIGHT, which I thought I was. But if you’re wrong? Ugh, let’s not overthink in that direction.
If you’re interested in mind reading and how to overcome it, this article has some good tips.
Okay, so please tell me I’m not the only who does this. Does anyone else read minds? Does it get in the way of social pleasure for you?