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Do You Expect People to Read Your Mind?


Most of us think of mind readers as entertainers who insist they know what you’re thinking and go to great lengths to make you think so. That is not the kind of mind reader I’m writing about here. This blog is about a family dynamic in which members are supposed to be able to read each other’s minds and are chastised for not doing so.

For instance, my client Jay-Lynn’s mother asked her to pick up a gift for her own father’s birthday. “You know the kinds of books he likes, sports and stuff,” her mother told her. Jay-Lynn wasn’t sure exactly what to get him, but she squeezed out some time from her busy schedule to pop into Barnes and Noble to search for something that seemed appropriate. She was excited when she arrived home to show her mother her purchase. When she held up the book her mother said, “Baseball, you know Dad doesn’t watch baseball. Why didn’t you get him a book about hockey or football?” 

Jay-Lynn was dismayed at her mother’s outburst and found it sadly typical. Mom would expect her to read her mind no matter what the activity—picking a restaurant, food shopping, making travel plans. And when Jay-Lynn wasn’t able to do so, Mom would get upset. Inevitably but unfortunately, Jay-Lynn picked up the habit which would surface occasionally in therapy when she felt I didn’t understand her when she hadn’t really explained herself.

Many dysfunctional families function this way, as in “I just assumed he’d know what I meant; I thought she’d understand how I felt; after all this time, wouldn’t you think he’d know me better; a stranger would know what I like and don’t like better than she would.”

When we’re infants and toddlers, it’s a parent’s or care-taker’s job to read our minds through our sounds, words, body language and behaviors. At an appropriate age, children are expected to explain what they want so that it’s clear to others. Sometimes problems arise when parents work too hard and don’t encourage children to speak up. Other times, parents leave children floundering without enough mirroring, validating and help in expressing themselves verbally. In the first case, children might grow up to feel there’s no need to share their desires. In the second, children might enter adulthood still yearning for the mirroring and help they deserved but didn’t receive.

Do you expect people to read your mind, then feel disappointed or angry when they don’t? If so, you might look to a mind-reading dynamic in your family. If you’re around people who expect you to read their minds, don’t fall for this trick. If you expect people to read yours, give up the game and start clearly give voice to your needs.





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