Dear Life Matters,
My girlfriend is forever thinking she can read my mind. I don’t believe it. What is your opinion on this?
She will tell me she knows what I’m thinking. She will be wrong and it is usually some insecurity of hers that she puts into my mind, not literally of course, but my point is that she is sure that she is right. She then gets upset and we end up in a fight because she is not right and I find this quite irritating! I love her to death, but when she starts this I feel like breaking up with her.
We tried a counselor who taught us the communication skill of saying “I feel,” instead of “you.”
Now she says, as an example, “I feel that you are upset with me.”
She thinks she is doing what the counselor advised, but I don’t see the difference? Can you enlighten me, please?
I can see why you might feel so irritated and I am sure you are frustrated as well. Let me assure you that most people would feel exactly as you do.
As to your first question, you are correct others cannot read our minds. I am a psychologist with 30 years of experience and I am not able to read people’s minds. You would think someone with my background could if anyone could.
Unfortunately there are a few too many people who think they know what others are thinking, even though it is not possible. Now, having said that, when we are close to someone and know him or her well, we do have a head start on guessing what might be happening.
But it is never a good idea to assume you are correct or to be so certain as your girlfriend sounds. As you have pointed out, assumptions with this degree of certainty might just as easily be projections. The term projection was borrowed from film and literally means that something inside of us is being projected onto another. An example might be that I feel angry or upset with you, but I either cannot tolerate the feeling or I deny it, so I then project it onto you and think that you are angry and upset with me. Yes, it is crazy making.
When couples come in to see me for marital or couples counseling, I invariably have to warn them that making attributions about the other is very bad for the relationship.
We really do need to learn to listen to each other, have empathy for our partners, even when we do not agree. Empathy is not agreement. Empathy is attuning and understanding.
If we really listen with an empathic ear, we can help each other with whatever insecurities each might have and hopefully begin to withdraw the projections.
Assuming we know what the other is thinking and acting on it is very unhealthy and leads to significant problems. We’ve all heard the saying, “When you assume, you make an ass out of ‘u’ and me.”
As for the communication skills you learned, well it doesn’t sound like you really learned them because what you should have come away with is the ability to talk about your own feelings and not make attributions by pointing the finger at the other. “I am feeling hurt” or “I am feeling scared” or “I am excited right now” are good examples. When someone says “I feel that you are (fill in the blank),” it is not their feelings that they are talking about. It is their analysis of you and they are making an attribution, which often contains a projection.
No one likes being told that they are thinking or feeling something that they are not. It is irritating and very frustrating. Because you love her, you need to discuss this with her in a serious matter, and not when you are fighting. Perhaps show her this article, if it won’t make her too angry. Whether you show her this or not, I think you need some more or different counseling.
Be firm about it, tell her how much she means to you and that you want to make sure your relationship will be healthy.
I hope this has helped. I will sign off with something fun, but profound to remember and that is, when you are pointing the finger at someone else, remember that three are pointing right back at you. Try it with your hand right now and you will see. It is a great metaphor.
Dr. JoAnne Barge is a licensed psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist with offices in Brentwood. Visit her at www.drbarge.com or e-mail your anonymous questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Got something on your mind? Let me help you with your life matters, because it does!