Why Mind Reading is Problematic


Lots of people carry around a lot of resentment and hostility towards others in our lives and it’s not just due to the tangible behaviors they enact that we believe to be wrong. In fact probably more important than the behaviors themselves are the thoughts and motivations we believe are behind these behaviors. We begin to draw up a psychological picture and the picture is grim. We see these people as cold, callous, uncaring, cruel, jealous, spiteful, evil, etc. We see the very worst in them and then take it for granted that their behaviors stem from those bad thoughts and qualities. We use imagined internal motivations as justification for our resentment and hostility towards them. We justify our own bad behavior based on what can be PURE fiction, a story we made up in our head.

Even the most socially adept individuals routinely misread other people’s emotions because of their own biases, insecurities, personal histories, cultural tendencies, attachment style, or situational factors. Often we have a need to see people a certain way to make ourselves feel better; with our view of the other person being a projection.

What we’re falling victim to when we assume we know why people do what they do is the cognitive distortion of mind reading, which is where we ascribe intentions to people’s actions despite little or no evidence to prove it.

A common thing people do is judge themselves by their intentions and others by their actions. Thus they give themselves the benefit of the doubt, but do not bestow this on other people in their lives.

Mind reading is assuming what someone else is thinking without having much to go on. If we rely too much on mind reading, we can make mistakes about what others think of us, which can really wreak havoc with our mood. It can destroy our relationships. Mind reading often leads to depression and anxiety, especially social anxiety. Consequently, it can be helpful to learn to recognize and respond to common faulty thinking patterns such as mind reading.


The strategy most of us employ in order to lower that sense of resentment and hostility is to forgive the person we feel has wronged us for the concrete behavior. But a better way, one that leads to mutual understanding, is to actively challenge our own mind reading and at least consider the possibility that the behavior we’re upset about sprung from less destructive thoughts and motivations than we are imagining. That behavior could be the result of deep suffering, mental health issues, wrong perceptions, or the feeling of having been wronged, or any number of other possibilities.

The fact is we don’t know, we just think we know. While the behavior was destructive it may have sprung from a desire to be productive. We won’t know unless we ask the right questions. And at any rate very few people, if any, believe themselves to be the villains in their life dramas. Powerful justifications are put into place to protect the psyche from that responsibility, so that most go about their daily lives feeling more or less justified for the words and actions that have had a negative effect on others. When we can at least make room for other possibilities rather than automatically landing on highly destructive imagined thoughts and behaviors, our resentment and hostility start to make way for empathy and understanding. And that helps us, even if nothing else changes about the situation, because it’s a real burden to carry around resentment and hostility, this burden negatively colors our lives and relationships even when the people we’re directing our resentment and hostility towards are nowhere in sight.

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