Stress And Mind-Reading: Why We Make Assumptions About Others’ Behavior


Anka’s heart races as she enters the boardroom, ready to present her crucial pitch. She’s been up practicing all week, and now it’s crunch time. Time to impress her colleagues and boss!

As she starts presenting, however, she spies her boss scrolling through his phone. He seems entirely disinterested, and Anka spins into a panic: “He’s not interested in my pitch. I bet he thinks it’s terrible!”

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In this scenario, many things could have been going on with Anka’s boss. Maybe he was distracted by an emergency, or perhaps he was listening, not realizing that he seemed disengaged. Here, Anka only assumed what her boss was thinking and his attitude to her work. Stress and anxiety caused her to jump to conclusions—specifically, she was convinced she could read his mind.

Mind-reading: What It Is And Causes 

We can never know what others are really thinking, as useful as that ability would be. Regardless of how much effort we invest into guesswork or scenario-building, it’s impossible!

Worry, fear, and panic often make us feel like we know what others are thinking or feeling, even when we have no facts to back up those assumptions. Stress influences how we perceive and interpret others’ actions and communication, which is where the “clairvoyant” feeling comes from!

As with many of our cognitive reactions to pressure, these perceptions and beliefs are often far from accurate. Instead, open communication and clarity-seeking can help us avoid harmful assumptions and the damage they cause, such as miscommunications, conflict, and further stress. 

So why do we do it? 

We are far more susceptible to cognitive distortions when we are anxious or under a lot of strain. You might already know that being stressed out can make us jump to conclusions, draw incorrect assumptions, or engage in black-and-white thinking: mind-reading falls under this same umbrella.

Downsides of Mind-Reading

Mind-reading can seem like a convenient mental shortcut, but it has several drawbacks:

  • Misunderstandings: Acting on our beliefs about others’ thoughts or feelings can cause misunderstandings and miscommunications, as incorrect assumptions may drive us.
  • Bias: Our conclusions may also be shaped by our own biases and prejudices, leading to unnecessarily negative assumptions about others.
  • Lack of empathy: When we assume that we know others’ thoughts or feelings, we often don’t attempt to listen to and understand them. This makes it much harder to truly adopt their perspective.
  • Lack of trust: We are less inclined to trust others when there is no open and honest communication between us, 
  • Negative self-talk: Making negative assumptions about others’ actions, beliefs, or motivations isn’t just potentially bad for our mood; it can also hurt our self-esteem.
  • Heightened stress and anxiety: The more concerned we are about others’ thoughts and feelings, the less we focus on our own. Managing stress becomes a lower priority, causing even more worry and anxiety. 

Like all of the reactions I’ve covered in my Coachkaarten, “reading peoples’ minds” can suggest it’s time to address your stress levels. And like being in denial or getting easily offended, the right approach will help you manage it.

3 Tips To Avoid Mind-Reading

Here are three ways to turn things around when this cognitive distortion starts influencing your interactions and wellbeing.

1. Practice Affirmations 

As we’ve seen, mind-reading is an automatic thought process. Spotting this pattern allows you to challenge your assumptions and their underpinning beliefs. Affirmations are a great way to do that, as they break these negative patterns and reinforce positive beliefs.

It’s best to practice specific affirmations: try to create one that challenges mind-reading itself: “I cannot read other people’s minds, and I will not assume I know their thoughts.” 

You can practice it through repetition at strategic times—both in the moment when you catch yourself mind-reading and in the morning or evening when you reflect. 

Here are few example affirmations to inspire your own:

  • “I cannot know what others think or feel without talking to them first.”
  • “I believe in my positive qualities and strengths, and I will not allow my assumptions about others’ actions and beliefs to change that,”
  • “I am the boss of my own thoughts and emotions, and I choose not to be scared of what others might be thinking.”

A note: affirmations alone may not be enough to end negative thinking patterns entirely. However, coming up with positive, empowering, and relevant statements can effectively reduce mind-reading and its impacts.

2. “What Would [This Person] Say?”

Do you know someone who is super optimistic and who rarely assumes the worst?

Think about how they might interpret someone else’s actions or words the next time you start to mind-read. If you were in Anka’s position, how might Rob make sense of your boss’ scrolling?

This helps you generate more positive (and perhaps more realistic) explanations. Maybe Rob would think your boss was posting pictures of your amazing presentation on the corporate Instagram. Let that influence your presentation instead!

3. Replace Negative Thoughts With Positive Ones

Cognitive Restructuring is a well-established Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) technique that involves challenging unhelpful thoughts with more adaptive ones. 

The next time a negative thought about someone else’s feelings or thoughts pops into your mind, challenge it with facts. Is there any proof for that conclusion? 

Then replace it with a more rational or positive thought—this can open you up to better outcomes. If you assume that your colleague finds your requests bothersome, for instance, the process might look like this:

  • What evidence supports this conclusion? Are there facts or proof to back it up?

If it’s purely speculation, replace it with a more positive thought, such as: “I can’t tell what they think, but I won’t let that impact my behavior.”

Nicolien Dellensen

Nicolien Dellensen, Senior Consultant and behavioral specialist and creator and owner of the ’Sphere of Influence 360º’ a comprehensive concept and (360) online tool about interactive dynamics.

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