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Mind Reading

An Axis Course On Don’t Believe Everything You Think

The cognitive distortion of “mind reading,” as you might guess, involves assuming that we know what others are thinking without having good reasons to assume it. This distortion might appear in thoughts like, “She probably thinks I’m a loser.”

Exodus 20:16, also known as Commandment #9 of the Ten Commandments, says, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” This commandment is commonly understood to mean that we shouldn’t lie. But in his book “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality,” Peter Scazzero applies it also to the idea of making assumptions about what others are thinking—in other words, mind reading.

Scazzero writes,

Every time we make an assumption about someone who has hurt or disappointed us, without confirming it, we believe a lie about this person in our head. Because we have not checked it out with him or her, it is very possible that we are believing something untrue. It is also likely that we will pass that false assumption around to others. When we leave reality for a mental creation of our own doing (hidden assumptions), we create a counterfeit world. When we do this, it can properly be said that we exclude God from our lives because God does not exist outside of reality and truth. 

That may sound dramatic, but Scazzero’s words are intended as an encouragement to stop assuming what others are thinking. To take just one example, if someone is self-conscious and not talking to very many people, it might look like it’s because they think they’re better than everyone else. In reality, because of their shyness, they may not be talking because they’re afraid that they’re worse than everyone else. Just because we think we know what someone else is thinking doesn’t mean we actually know.

Of course, there are some people (family members, for instance) who might expect others to automatically know what they’re thinking, which excuses them from having to express themselves. This puts others in an unfair position. Relying on mind reading as a “communication style” can lead to awkward misunderstandings, as well as a nagging sense of anxiety about the status of our relationships.

God has not made our heads with windows that allow us to look in on each others’ minds, and pretending that we can or should be able to see what someone else is thinking often brings us to wrong conclusions.