Imagine you're having coffee with your spouse or significant other. They seem a bit quiet, and you ask if everything is all right. They say that everything is fine. Do you believe them?
Or, do you think, "He/ she is unhappy with me."
It is very common and normal to try and guess what other people are thinking. Psychologists call it mind reading. However, when most of these guesses are negative -- when you assume that others are often thinking negatively of you -- it can affect your mental well-being.
My colleagues and I evaluated how frequently university students engage in mind reading and found that in social/interpersonal situations (i.e., with friends, family and romantic partners), it is a fairly common thought process (1).
The ability to understand what other people are thinking is a helpful tool. It is part of your social skill repertoire. Most of us have met people who just don't seem able to accurately read what others think, and the consequences of this social skills deficit can be severe (e.g. being disliked or excluded).
However, the determining factor in whether mind reading is healthy and adaptive or unhealthy and dysfunctional is accuracy. There are basically two types of accuracy errors that cause problems.
The first is being unable to accurately recognize when others are upset or unhappy with you. This can lead to being considered unlikeable and socially isolated. For example, if you are terrible at telling jokes and are sometimes even offensive, yet cannot recognize this reaction in others, then you are probably going to pay the social cost (e.g. not being invited to parties).
The second type of inaccuracy is assuming that another person is thinking negatively about you, when in fact they are not. This type of mind reading error is very common among people with depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. In fact, my colleagues and I found a relationship between mind reading and depression and anxiety symptoms among university students.
This makes complete sense -- why wouldn't you feel sad or anxious if you honestly believed that other people were often thinking negative thoughts about you?
Mind reading causes problems across all kinds of relationships. From colleagues at work to your spouse, when you spend significant parts of you daily interactions dealing with these negative thoughts, it can affect not only your emotions (e.g. depression and anxiety), but also your behaviour (e.g. wanting to avoid interactions or constant reassurance-seeking).
The key to fixing a problem with mind reading is improving your ability to be accurate. This means evaluating social information more effectively and in an unbiased fashion.
This is where professional therapy can be helpful. A good psychologist (particularly those specializing in CBT) should be able to help with accuracy (and not just offer positive feedback). If there is a social skills problem, it should be identified and fixed. Similarly, if the problem is seeing negative evaluation when there isn't any, there should be a change in the way you analyse people, social situations and yourself.
1. Covin et al. (2011). Measuring cognitive errors: Initial developmental of the Cognitive Distortions Scale (CDS). International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 4, 298-322.