“I bet they think I am stupid!” “I know that they don’t want to be my friend anymore.” “She is probably angry at me because I forgot to call her back.” “He didn’t say hi when we passed in the hall just now. He probably hates me and is just ignoring my existence.” Phrases like these represent the common self-talk in the minds of some anxious people. Anxiety interprets other people’s actions through our own insecurities and assigns unproven motive to those actions. False mind reading asserts that we know what other people’s thoughts are about us.
False mind-reading is a particular form of Jumping to Conclusions (see previous post). In this interpretive approach we are assuming that we know what other people are thinking and we respond to those assumed beliefs. Many of us learn, from a young age, how to read the social cues of those around us. We learn what certain tone, facial expression, and body language means. Mind-reading, however, goes beyond these sorts of observations to draw very specific and very negative conclusions about what people think of us. Anxiety’s false interpretations often assume the thoughts of others with far less compelling evidence. For example, Rebecca sat in the doctor’s office having just described her symptoms the nurse and, despite any observable data, she concluded the nurse must think she is lying. Or, consider Edward, who sat alone in the cafeteria and was sure that everyone was talking about what a loser he was. In these cases, the individuals have jumped to conclusions about the thoughts and motives in others around them.
Fighting the temptation to read other’s minds begins with acknowledging the arrogance behind such assumptions. It, of course, does not feel arrogant to be concerned that others are thinking poorly of you. In fact it feels very insecure and condemning, but there is a level of pride at play in assuming that we know more than we actually do about other people’s thoughts. The Scriptures warn us against such thinking. In 1 Corinthians chapter 2, Paul warns men about assuming they know the intentions of God. He draws a comparison, however, to show the extreme. He makes the case that we don’t even know the thoughts of other men, let alone God. So, we read:
For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 2:11)
It is arrogant to assume that we know what only another man can know of himself. It is pride that refuses to believe to the contrary what we are convinced of in our own mind. If you are convinced that your friend is upset with you, despite their best efforts to reassure you that everything is fine, it is not merely because of insecurity that you struggle. It is because of pride. No-one knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of that man!
Confronting this pride in our own hearts is a major first step towards overcoming this false interpretation. We must humble ourselves enough to recognize that we do not know what we are claiming to know. Test these thoughts and analyze the validity of what you are assuming. What is your mind-reading based on? What factual information informs your conclusions? Are you assigning motive to someone else? Are there other possible explanations for someone’s response, words, or behaviors? Am I a reliable interpreter of others? Have I ever been wrong about the motivations or thoughts of someone else? What confidence do I have that I am accurately reading this situation? Humility recognizes that we do not know the thoughts and intentions of others and we must operate within the boundaries of the actual information we have, not the fears we impose on the situation.
As we fight to resist the temptation towards false mind-reading, we want to assert the freedom to suspend judgment. You do not have to be able to explain someone else’s response, behavior, or possible thoughts. You don’t know and can therefore refuse to draw a conclusion based on insufficient information. We can always ask questions of those around us to help inform our perception, but even here we will need to trust their responses are genuine and not assume, again, that we know their underlying motives apart from their words and actions.
Furthermore, when anxiety asserts that it knows the negative thoughts of those we love we want to respond that such confidence does not believe the best about others. Paul tells us that love is “not arrogant” but “believes all things” (1 Cor. 13:4, 7). Love does not assume the negative thoughts about us in the minds of those we care for and whom we know care for us. It believes them, believes the best about them, and submits to their reassurance that all is well.
Anxiety is arrogant. It purports to know what only the spirit of an individual can know about themselves. It purports to know based upon insufficient data. We want to resist this false interpretation by reminding ourselves that we are not God, nor are we so wise as to know the thoughts and intentions of others. Exercise humility by refusing to make judgments where we cannot know and by trusting the reassurance of others. Humble ourselves before God, trust that He knows what we do not, and believe the best about others.