Don’t Expect Others to Read Your Mind
One Cardinal Rule to follow if we want to improve healthy relating is “don’t expect your partner to read your mind”. Why? Because most of us fail at mind reading (or fail to succeed consistently) which leads to misunderstandings, disappointments, resentment, stress, and disconnections. Expecting our partner (or parent, child or friend) to meet our needs without asking, can also keep us personally unaware of our expectations and prevent important conversations about each other’s ideas, feelings, wants, needs and priorities.
How does that show up? Listen for things like, “If you really loved me, you would know…” or “I shouldn’t have to tell you…” and then finish that sentence with “what I need” or “what I want” or some variation of that. These beliefs keep the speaker unhappy and prevent a partner from being successful at pleasing.
So what’s the answer?
A Clear Request is Part of the Answer
In Imago Relationship Therapy we teach couples to see this dynamic and shift out of mind reading into clear requests that can be received or negotiated, plus adding Praise and Appreciation on a regular basis, so both partners start to feel happy and connected, instead of frustrated, powerless, unloved or unappreciated.
The topic of “asking” a partner to meet a need in therapy usually helps the couple’s history to surface where they “tried” to ask, and the partner refused to grant things. Pushing harder, or backing down occurs where the “asker” starts to shame, blame and criticise or becomes passive aggressive. The resistant partner also exhibits these tendencies and resentment builds on both sides. Later in therapy it becomes, “Why should I be the one to ask?” or “Why should I have to make a list?” The short answer might be, “Because s/he is not you, and this is something YOU want.” Plus, “is the way you are doing it now working?” or as Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”
Of course it hasn’t been working because typically both partners resist change. We resist even if we know intellectually that “growth through change is valuable”. Why? It takes effort. We want to be loved and accepted just as we are. Also we fear losing a “sense of self” if we give over to too many requests. There are many reasons couples struggle and resist each other.
But when both people learn about the right kind of effort; about how to shift the Power Struggle effectively and in a balanced way, it is win/win!
A Better Way to Mind Read
So here is where “Mind Reading” can be very helpful. There are times when we are unhappy (disappointed, angry, etc.) yet may not be fully aware of our feelings, or we don’t know why we have a feeling, or we blame someone else automatically, or we don’t know what to do to feel better. There are many variations. This is where the Eastern tradition of “Mindfulness” can be so powerful. There are many benefits to this practice, and I will highlight one.
For this Blog, I lovingly call Mindfulness “Mind Reading” because we start to be more aware of what is in our own mind, from moment to moment.
When we have greater awareness of feelings, thoughts (or “stories” we tell ourselves), and expectations, and then learn to pause, we can start to recognise our reactivity, our expectations, and our feelings of disappointment. With practice, we look at what we just noticed in our-self, begin to question it, challenge it, dispel it, decide to take action and what type of action, etc. Over time we become less helpless, less frustrated, and more empowered. With practice, we start to do see things we did not know were there. For example, “Oh my gosh, I just realised I was expecting you to read my mind just then!” or “I just realised I expect you to load the dishwasher [or feed the baby, fold the towels, or do whatever] the way I think it should be done, and that I have no tolerance for a different style.” If we start to notice these things, we might next notice how we push away the efforts of a well-meaning partner! That is just one possible scenario where a relationship can improve.
How Do We Become Mindful?
We can start by choosing a practice to try.
- Join a mindfulness meditation group. A group is a great way to learn from others in an ongoing way and get personal feedback.
- Try a mindfulness app like “Headspace”. It can send you a daily reminder to practice plus guide you and teach you in a fun and engaging way.
- Journal daily for 20 minutes or more, where you write whatever pops into your head. This is called “stream of consciousness writing”.
- Another simple practice I like to teach is to “check-in with yourself” 4 times a day. You choose (and commit) to 4 times a day where you pause briefly and intentionally notice any thoughts, feelings, body sensations, sights, sounds, tastes, and smells. It is a brief but powerful opportunity to gather info about the self.
I have done all of these practices and find they all have value. After 15+ years of practising I am much more mindful throughout my day, and notice if my body is “off” or my thinking is blaming, for example, and I can also notice when I need to offer up compassion for myself.
Whatever approach you choose, I encourage you to try it 5 times or more, as anything new is awkward, and it takes time to get used to a new practice and find value in it. Do it with curiosity and a sense of adventure whenever possible. And “read your mind” without judgement. If what you notice about yourself leads to judgement, you simply notice that too! Over time you are going to become adept at “Mind Reading”! With that increased self-awareness it can benefit how you feel and how you connect in your relationships.
Awareness in Action: A Personal Example
I recently went to my home town to visit family. My mother likes to have lunch out each day while I am there. I have an awareness that when I first see my mother, I feel very generous about where we go out to eat. She likes to go to the same places, like Perkins or Ruby Tuesdays. So I offer to go there and she is content. After a few days, I like to expand to new places with healthy creative food or interesting atmospheres. Since I think of my time there as a “holiday”, I want to try new places, as Minneapolis is a city with a plethora of fabulous restaurants. So then after eating at a few places my mother likes, and she suggests McDonald’s, I start to feel annoyed.
Knowing this about the pattern we have been running for decades, before I arrived this last time, I asked my mom to think of some new places we could go for lunch to prevent my boredom and frustration. I thought that if I asked ahead of time, that she would put effort into variety for me. She didn’t. So as usual, I felt like I was forcing her to go to new places she didn’t like so I could have a good salad. Two slightly cranky lunch partners!
Because I did not get a need met, even one I asked for, instead of allowing myself to react in a negative way, I decided to get curious inside myself.
As I did my “Mind Reading”, I became aware of my thoughts and feelings around this dynamic. What came up for me is the contrast between how my mother enjoys herself and shows love versus how my father used to enjoy himself and show love. I realised that part of my personal happiness and excitement about restaurants, food, travel, and leisure activities is from when I would see my dad a few times a year and he would consistently take me to a new restaurant and sometimes to a live show (ballet) or a movie, boating, tennis, or even a ski trip! That was how he planned our visits. (Now they weren’t perfect, because sometimes I was left alone to my own devices in a strange ski lodge, but that is a whole different subject!) For the most part, I really enjoyed those outings for the novelty and things we shared. I think I felt special or valued by my dad in those times. Now in contrast, my mother was the one who raised us and showed her love by being consistent, going to work each day, supporting us financially, taking us to meet grandma at the mall each week. That was certainly another love language that I internalised. Yet when I travel I want novelty, so of course I want to explore some of the many Minneapolis restaurants!
Having my mindfulness practice enabled me to see these two opposite influences at a deeper level, and own inside myself that I value them both. During my visit I could temper feeling let down with Mom, accept how different we are, and then I could remain an adult, and stay in connection with her, versus allow my inner child to act up, get cranky, sullen, and contribute to a less fulfilling visit.
When I carry that dynamic with my dad, forward to my adult partnership, I can make another connection. My partner calls Friday night “Date Night”, and to me date night should be special. Therefore, I can see clearly, why, if my partner pushes me to choose where we eat, or if he chooses the same places each week, I will feel like I am not special. The element of novelty, planning for me/us, or surprising me, is missing. Next, if I can share with my partner what I learned growing up from spending time with my parents, in a calm, vulnerable way, so he can really hear me and have empathy for me, he will be more likely to stretch and make sure he surprises me or gifts me occasionally. He won’t have to wonder why what he calls “Date Night” fell flat. Since we live in a very small city, with few dining options, I can offer a few restaurant options that he knows will make me happy. He can choose from those, make the reservation, pick me up, etc. And when I notice and appreciate that effort (even if not perfect), he feels successful and motivated to do it again. Win/win!
So even after all these years of practising Mindfulness/Mind Reading, I continue to have new realisations and make personal connections that contribute to my healthy relating. “Mind Reading” is exciting! I hope you decide to give it a try and devote yourself to the practice.
Stacy Bremner, Citizen of the World