As an amateur mind reader, I spent most my life telepathically deciding how those closest to me were thinking.
I put Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Mentalist,” and even the guy from “Psych” to shame.
Actually, I’m not psychic. I just thought I was.
For decades, I considered myself broken, not worthy of love. As a result, I tried to choreograph my relationships. The dance steps I relied upon to avoid authenticity were successful in preventing my true self from being revealed, along with my true needs and desires. If you struggle to build more authentic connections, you may find my experiences helpful—at least as a cautionary tale.
My marriage of 28 years ended last April. Our youngest daughter was a sophomore in college, her older sisters living and working on opposite coasts. With no distractions left, my wife and I faced the reality: we were two strangers, living together.
I moved out, amid pain, anger, recriminations, frustration, and eventually, resignation. There had been no catastrophic event. No breaking of vows, no toxic hostility. I hadn’t broken any of the rules and was in shock. Though there was a pretty serious schism between me and my ex, I trusted we would figure it out.
My new chapter began a year ago, last April, on an emotional roller coaster. There has been mourning. There has been excitement, fear, and exhilaration. More mourning, then introspection, and progress. This was followed by even more introspection. Some slip-sliding and, ultimately, more progress. Through it all, I rediscovered myself. My voice. The parts of me I put into storage—my contribution to the compromises both my ex and I made over the course of a successful, long-term relationship. I am gratified to say that it has shocked me how much I’ve enjoyed getting to know myself again.
Much of my journey, even before my marriage ended, but more so since, has been overcoming an emotional handicap I didn’t even know I had. I’ve been teaching myself to recognize my emotions in “real-time.” Without understanding how I felt, my reactions to my loved ones were random. I might react in a way reflecting how I felt. Or I might react the opposite of how I actually felt. Not a great foundation for authentic relationships.
Learning to acknowledge feelings in real-time is slow going, but I see progress. I assume that like other skills, processing emotions in the moment comes naturally to some. Others learn through observation, often as children. In my case, if the skill came naturally, at some point I suppressed it. In addition, I’m quite sure I did not have role models in my family—in essence, a generational vicious circle of inauthenticity repeating itself.
With a big nod to Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, finding compassion for myself enabled me to recognize I’m not irreparably broken. That realization opens all sorts of doors, like insight into the habits I relied upon to hide my true self—mind reading for instance. When talking to my wife, my daughters, whomever, rather than focusing on my feelings, and then responding, I would read the other person’s mind, deciding what they wanted to hear, hopefully avoiding confrontation. After reading someone’s mind, I’d respond, not knowing how I actually felt. And then the fun would begin.
When the conversations ended, I often felt resentful and that my (unspoken) feelings were not appreciated. When I fought with my ex, I often apologized, despite believing I had nothing to apologize for, desperate to hear an apology in return, which never happened. If I wasn’t resentful, I was confused. On the surface, everything appeared “fine.” But it wasn’t. There was so much unspoken in these moments, no one talking about how they actually felt.
Unlearning mind reading is tough business. Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that I’ve always been attuned to reading non-verbals: body language, facial expressions, indicators of what people say without words. Mind reading is a natural extension. Separating the two is challenging. I remind myself it is okay to nonverbally hear what’s being said, but projecting what one wants to hear in response is not.
In addition, I am more conscious when I “prehearse,” that is, rehearse emotional encounters in advance. Prehearsing is a gateway drug to mind reading. Once I begin rehearsing, I quickly take it to the next level, mind reading slash guessing likely reactions. So no more prehearsing.
It is gratifying seeing dividends when I avoid these bad habits. I recently dined with my 30-year-old nephew. He was in town, the meal planned far in advance. I carry shame about my relationship with him, yet, I didn’t prehearse asking for forgiveness or some other form of approval. Instead, I talked about my feelings. I was honest. My nephew was honest as well, and by the end of the meal I’ve never felt closer to him. I wrote about it here.
I try to never tell people what they should do on their journeys. I try to share what’s going on in my life and hope it resonates. In my life, my singular emotional goal is bringing authenticity to my relationships. I am confident giving up mind reading and prehearsing are critical to the process.
Thanks for listening. Stay in touch. Connect.
Author: Jon Freedman
Image: “The Mentalist” still
Editor: Travis May