By Dario Martinez
Have you ever felt confusion or uncertainty about someone else’s behavior in a social situation? Perhaps you said “hi” to an acquaintance and they looked at you with a weird expression? Or maybe you tried to engage a coworker in a conversation and they refused to establish eye contact—or the tone of their voice appeared to communicate that they didn’t want to talk to you?
Life is full of these small social slights. They can be very confusing because we’re frequently left wondering: “What did I do? Was it something I said? Do they hate me?”
It’s normal to ask these kinds of questions. Non-verbal social cues such as body language, facial expression and tone of voice often create confusing and sometimes painful “holes” in our perception. A “hole” is created anytime we’re on the receiving end of a confusing social cue, and we find ourselves questioning the motivation or behavior of another person. “Did they look at me weird because they hate me? Why won’t they make eye contact with me? Do they think I’m boring or stupid?”
Anytime we find ourselves asking these kinds of questions, it’s important to recognize two things:
I want to really emphasize the importance of point two because it’s the source of so much unnecessary suffering in relationships. Anytime we’re confronted by a hole in perception, our brain is hardwired to automatically fill it with the worst-case scenario. This is our brain’s natural way of protecting us against the pain of rejection and abandonment. We automatically assume the worst in any given situation so we can prepare for it.
The assumptions that we make in response to holes in our perception are called “mind reads.” We are literally reading the minds of other people when we assume that they hate us if they don’t make eye contact. It’s imperative that we learn to pay attention to our mind reads because as a therapist who specializes in working with relationships, I’ve seen numerous couples on the verge of breaking up over incorrect assumptions that they’ve made about each other’s behavior and motivations.
Mind reads create unnecessary suffering because our brain’s natural tendency to fill holes in perception with negative self-assessments means that most of our assumptions are incorrect.
In order to work with mind reads, we must find ways to slow them down and make them less automatic. When working with clients, I frequently share the following “Mind Read Process” from Systems-Centered Therapy:
For the purposes of this exercise, I invite you to imagine that you’ve walked into a social gathering and you see an acquaintance. You make eye contact for a brief moment, but your acquaintance quickly turns away. You automatically assume that they’re angry at you.
Here is the process:
Doing this process with another person can clear up a lot of potential misunderstandings, but it's important to point out that it can be equally beneficial to do it without ever actually speaking to anyone. The main intention here is to slow down and carefully assess any mind reads that are taking place. We can do this by actually asking another person if our assumptions are correct or we can simply start to question our assumptions by noticing that there are usually a lot of other reasons why people do the things that they do.
Perhaps our acquaintance looked away because they just remembered something important; or they ate something that didn’t agree with them—or maybe they’re just tired. It’s important to begin to question our brain’s natural tendency to move toward negative assessments so we can begin to create less unnecessary suffering in social interactions.
If you have any questions about this process, please feel free to contact me here.
Copyright © 2017, Dario Martinez. All rights reserved.