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More PsychNotes: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

March 10, 2017       

Don't Assume You Know What Others Are Thinking and Feeling
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Each One Of Us Sees In Others What We Carry In Our Own Hearts Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is hard not to project your thoughts and feelings on to other people. I find myself doing it even with my cats: “Beef doesn't seem appetizing to me in the morning so I'm going to feed you the chicken.” What does how I feel about what I eat have to do with my cats' food? Nothing. But, if you buy food for a pet, have you noticed all the choices? Cats are carnivores so why do they create food with carrots and rice in it? Because it sounds good to the human: “'White chicken with carrots in gravy'—oh, yum, a nice chicken stew, I think my cats would enjoy that.”

Or, how about mothers instructing their children “Put on a coat” because the mother feels cold and assumes the child will be cold, too? “Don't argue with me! Just put on a coat.”

Certainly, these instances may be fairly benign but the problem is that we tend to make assumptions about how other people feel and think based upon how we feel and think. And in some situations we are not merely wrong but we can be destructive.

In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) this tendency is referred to as a mind-reading error which is the belief that you know what someone else thinks or feels. When you act upon that assumption and it is wrong, problems can occur in the relationship. For instance, people may make accusations based on their assumptions: “I know you think my idea is stupid—you're such a critical person!” or “You would rather be with her than with me.”

Often what a person sees in others is their own thoughts and feelings reflected back at them. If they are self-critical, they believe others are critical of them. If they are insecure, they believe others couldn't possibly like them or consider them competent.

An important part of training to be a psychologist is to base analysis of clients on evidence, not on personal internal experience. I had to learn to recognize when I was making an assumption based upon my personal biases and, instead, listen to what clients told me about their experiences.

The same can be applied to personal relationships. The more you understand yourself, especially your shortcomings or weaknesses, the more you can understand other people as they truly are rather than through inaccurate assumptions.

** A note about the accompanying photo: Jimsonweed, a member of the nightshade family of plants, can be beautiful with its showy flowers that open only at night or fatal if ingested.

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