Mind-reading is one of those abilities that most people would love to have in romantic relationships. Being able to read our partner’s mind would spare us from so many fights, arguments and disappointment. We all rationally know that it’s impossible to really know what goes through people’s mind, yet we stubbornly make assumptions as to what they are thinking and what the intentions behind their behaviours are. This applies very often to people who have been in a relationship for quite some time. But it also affects people who are embarking on a new relationship with a significant other.
Successfully guessing what another person is thinking, especially by analysing what they do, is a vital skill that enables us to deal with uncertainty and unpredictable events. For example, picture yourself walking on a pavement and about to cross the road. The little green man on the traffic light is giving you the go-ahead. However, as you look on your left-hand side, you see a car approaching at high speed and the driver has what seems a defiant look on their face. What do you do? Most probably you slow down and be safer than sorry. This is what we usually do to keep ourselves protected: we assess people’s behaviours, decide on what their intentions are, and act accordingly. When it comes to cause and effect situations like the one just described, the outcome is often straightforward. However, when emotions are at stake, the results are never so neat and they tend to complicate things.
Suppose you and your partner have been together for two long years. You can confidently state that you know them very well. You know what they like, dislike, love, hate, turns them on, etc. This is great, because it allows you to anticipate their needs, and to avoid or de-escalate situations that could upset them. Now, suppose you prepared a lovely evening for your partner. They call and say that they are stuck at work and have to cancel the date. This has already happened two months ago. And in previous relationships your partners have often been unavailable and unappreciative of your efforts. Think about the car approaching fast as you are about to cross the road: you read the driver’s mind and slow down because you want to keep safe. Now go back to the example with your partner and think about your past and sensitivity towards significant others not being appreciative. How are you going to read your partner’s mind? Chances are that you will make assumptions, which are coloured with your own fears, beliefs, expectations, and standards. So perhaps you will jump to the conclusion that ‘my partner doesn’t care about me’. This could make you very upset and angry and have a go at them. They are legitimate emotions that make sense given the context and your background. But have you asked your partner what they think? Have you explained what your thought process was when they told you that they had to cancel on you? Probably not, because you are now 100% convinced that you have successfully read their mind. The more upset you are about the situation, the more restricted your repertoire of interpretations will be.
Here is some advice to prevent you from (mis)reading your partner’s mind:
- Step back from the situation
- Identify what your initial negative feeling was: maybe sadness or anxiety masked with anger?
- Delay your reaction and take some time (maybe you can listen to your favourite music, or take a walk… or go shout in your panic room!)
- Once you cool down, approach your partner, tell them how you feel and be transparent with them by sharing your original feeling (i.e.: sadness rather anger). You will be surprised at how considerate and apologetic they will be with you. Or maybe this will simply spark a very meaningful conversation where you can share your feelings with each other and work towards a more open communication style.
This is not an exhaustive list of strategies that you could use, as it very much depends on your background, beliefs about yourself and others, and your partner’s history. If you feel that your emotions are too strong in situations like the one above, and that this has become a pattern in the way you operate in relationships: be kind to yourself and ask for psychological help in an individual or couple’s setting. It would not only help you, but also your relationship.
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It is surprising and saddening hearing kind-hearted and levelled clients be hard on themselves for behaviours that are not socially desirable, i.e.: having an extra drink at a party and getting a little drunk, having casual sex, having an argument with a loved one, calling in sick at work on a bad day, etc. These are acts that are usually condemned in our society, where everything needs to look perfect and proper and no-one is allowed to make mistakes or have a slip-up. Well, at least this is what Facebook, social media and TV are telling us. But would it really be so unforgivable if we let ourselves go every now and then?
In my therapy room I have come across clients who reprimand themselves for such ‘bad’ behaviours. They end up labelling themselves as ‘bad person’ and try to remedy this by doing the ‘right thing’ and pleasing people. What always strikes me is that there is objectively nothing so wrong with the behaviours clients describe. I am not suggesting they lie or are being too dramatic, as I appreciate and respect that their emotional pain is genuine and real. However, it soon becomes clear to me that they tend to hold very high expectations about themselves. As it always happens when we set unreachable objectives, we miserably fall short of them and this drags us into a vicious cycle of perfectionism: I want to be perfect > I set high standards > I fail to meet these standards > I feel demoralised and a failure > I maintain the high standards… and so on. It is evident that this type of cycle is not functional nor helpful, and it inevitably makes us anxious (‘will I ever meet my standards’?) and/or depressed (‘I will never meet my standards’).
So how do I attempt to help clients presenting with these issues? First of all, I offer a non-judgmental space where they can share their stories with no reservations. Then I help them unpick the supposedly bad behaviours and check whether they are realistically so bad (they might be, but it is vital we explore!) If we establish that the client holds unrealistic beliefs about how they should be or act, then together we explore where these beliefs come from. It should not come as surprise that often these beliefs stem from our childhood or early life experiences. Maybe we had demanding parents, or parents who would not notice us unless we were brilliant or impeccable, or bullying friends, and so on. It is not about investigating who is culpable of what, it is more about embarking on a journey of self-discovery in order to gain insight into why we do what we do. Gaining insight is already a huge achievement that – if met with an open mind – can allow us to rewrite our stories and set new and more realistically rules for ourselves.
We can make mistakes, we can mess things up, we can let people down… But does all this make us unworthy, unlovable or deplorable?
To put it in more prosaic terms: how about you cut yourself a little slack!
Emotional dysregulation is just a phrase to describe a difficulty in managing our emotions, which may interfere with our daily functioning at work and in our private life.
When we are distressed or going through interpersonal turmoil, our threshold for stress in life can reach very low levels. This means that we may have strong emotional reactions when we encounter a difficulty, or when things do not go the way we would like them to. We may become irritable towards our significant others, or our mood may shift abruptly from happy to desperate in a matter of few hours or even minutes.
This can be quite an unsettling state of mind. It is as if what we could handle until recently suddenly becomes a hardship. Problems that we use to tackle without any effort can become insurmountable. These could be an argument with our partner or family, a deadline, burning a meal, or simply a crowded bus!
All of a sudden, all our resilience goes out of the window and we are left with a strong sense of inadequacy. To make things even more unbearable, people around us may be baffled by our reactions and pass comments that can hurt us even further. Typical comments that we can hear from others are: ‘Pull yourself together!’, or ‘What’s wrong with you?’ This happens in times when we actually need some compassion from others, rather than criticism.
There are at least two ways to look at this:
- Why do people around you react in this unhelpful way?
As I said before, they may feel confused by your sudden change of mood. They feel unsettled and end up mirroring your strong emotions. They may feel attacked by your irritability and become defensive. After all, how would you react if someone close to you snapped at you out of the blue?
- Why do your emotions feel so out of control? The answer, as it often happens when it comes to psychology, is not straightforward. It also depends on how acute the problem is.
If you have been experiencing these problems for as long as you remember, chances are that there is something deeper that you need to address. Perhaps as you grew up, your parents or whoever brought you up, were not a good model for you in regulating emotions. This is not necessarily their fault, as they might have experienced the same lack of guidance in their childhood, and this could go back for several generations up your family tree. If you feel that your emotions are uncontrollable and could put you, people around you, and the quality of your relationships in jeopardy, my recommendation is to seek help from a professional who can offer you the right support and guidance. However, you may find the tips below useful.
If you have developed these problems only recently, maybe you ‘only’ need to take a breather and look after yourself. You may simply need to dial down the amount of work you need to attend to. This is, of course, easier said than done! Work can be stressful in this fast-paced society. So how about creating lists of priorities/deadlines?
Are you a perfectionist and want to get everything done on time? This is a tough one. My strong advice is to decide what’s more important: work – or your health, life quality, and relationship with others?
Another advice is to surround yourself with people that can understand you and have a compassionate nature. They will be able to ground you and help you slow down.
Last, but not least, be compassionate towards yourself. I suspect that you would not start shouting at your friends if they were struggling with their emotions. If you did so, they would possibly get worse and isolate themselves.
So why are you being hard on yourself? Why are you letting your internal voice berate you constantly?
Cultivate self-compassion on a daily basis and this will allow you to accept your emotions. Once you accept your emotions as they are – just emotions, not YOU – then you will be able to identify what tipped you off the edge and work on preventing this from happening again.