Have you ever found yourself editing a story you’re telling a loved one because you don’t want to upset them or be judged by them? Many of us imagine we know how people close to us will feel or react to the things we tell them. We want to spare them or ourselves so sometimes we omit some of the pertinent details. 

The flip-side of this is telling people what we think they want or need to hear or what we think will make them feel good. Sounds like kind of a nice thing to do, right? But as much as stories benefit from editing, self-editing this way can come from a well intended place and have unintended consequences. Because when we think we know what another person will think or feel or want without hearing it from them, we’re mind reading. And, no matter how closely we believe we’re connected to one another, we’re probably not as good at mind reading as we think we are. Even I’m not entirely sure what you would find if you could read my mind.

Mind Reading is neither Empathy nor Empathetic

Be careful not to confuse mind reading with empathy. Mind reading is me-centered and empathy is other-focused. Not the same thing at all. Trying to spare someone or trying to boost them can seem so much kinder than it is – both to the deliverer and the recipient. But think about it for a minute. It’s akin to me thinking I know what’s best for you. You’re the expert on you. I’m not.

I can’t possibly know what’s actually in your mind (if you don’t tell me). Holding back to protect myself suggests I’m not sure if I fully trust you (or that I don’t). If that’s the case, why am I even telling you this story in the first place? By holding back to protect you, I’m treating you as someone who needs my protection. It’s not my job to protect you from discomfort. I’m not doing you any favors by eliminating an opportunity for you to learn how to tolerate it. I’m also missing out on an opportunity to tolerate my own discomfort. 

Many of us have trouble tolerating distress and discomfort and we can use more practice. But it’s so much more comfortable to tell only that part of the story we think can be tolerated or handled. It’s so much easier (on everyone, arguably) to maintain control. It takes courage to relinquish control and choose discomfort. Are controlled connections based on mind reading and faux comfort the kind we really want and need? We can’t control what other people feel, think, or say but if we want authentic interaction, we should probably let them figure it out for themselves. Real life is full of discomfort and we’re only being fully ourselves when we give it space. Real conversations are not courtroom theatrics where a litigator will only ask the questions to which they already know the answers.

By holding back, I’m obviously also preventing you from expressing or even fully feeling whatever it is you would think or feel if you had the whole story. And I’m denying us both the opportunity to connect at a deeper level.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t ever filter ourselves. Nobody needs to give voice to every thought that occurs to them. Please don’t! Connection and intimacy require mindful awareness. They do not require cruelty. Have you ever been the recipient of an insult where the speaker says “I’m just being honest”? That’s a very different situation. I also do not suggest that you share all your details indiscriminately with anyone who will listen.

The bottom line is that withholding information is fine as long as we’re honest with ourselves. It’s worth being honest about what we’re withholding, why and what kind of connection we really want with our people. Meaningful connection requires courage and, if you follow Brené Brown as I do, you know that there is no courage and no intimacy without vulnerability. Be vulnerable. Choose courage over comfort. Leave mind reading to magicians.

Something to think about: “Vulnerability is not about winning. It’s not about losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.” – Brené  Brown.

Something to try: Choose courage over comfort. Pay close attention during your next conversation with a loved one. Are you making any assumptions about what the other person is thinking? If so, take a breath, silently acknowledge the assumption to yourself and try to speak honestly, giving them the space to think or react in an equally authentic way.

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