High Stakes Mind Reading
by Jennifer Diebel, MA, NCC
Ever gone out of your way to do something special for somebody - spent a ton of time on a gift, cleaned the house extensively, went to thirteen stores to find the brand you know they like - and have them totally not notice? You want to tell them all you did, but you’d feel like a schmuck having to spell it out for them - certainly not the thoughtful, selfless person you had hoped they would have thought you were.
Ever felt like if people really loved you, they would be able to figure out what you want and just do it? You could ask them, of course, but that would feel like a little death inside, the end of a dream that someone could really get you and love you the way you’ve longed for. Ever surprised someone with something you really thought they’d like, only to have them tell you soon afterwards that what they really wanted was something else? You tried to show them you knew them well and instead, they’re giving you the cocked-head look, going, “Don’t you know me at all?”
The Rules of the Game
If you’ve had at least a few experiences along these lines, chances are that you’re drawn to relational gambling, particularly the game of High Stakes Mind Reading. The rules to this two-player game are pretty simple. You and another person in at least semi-intimate relationship unconsciously agree to compete to guess what the other wants and needs. If you guess correctly without being told, you win “Approval” chips and your partner wins “Must Really Be Loved” chips.
If at least one of you gathers enough points, as a couple you WIN BIG, achieving “Rescuing Hero” and “Intuitively Known and Loved” status. There’s nothing like it! But if either of you have to ask the other what he or she wants or tell them what you want, you lose points. Eventually, you risk dropping to “Failure to Perform as Expected” and “Hopelessly Alone and Misunderstood” status.
The odds are about 50-50, but they go down during times of life transition like the arrival of kids or mid-life crises. Of course, there are ways of approaching relationship that have much more winning odds. For example, playing the win-win un-game of “Directly Asking for What You Want and Need” would guarantee that both of you would get what you want and need more often with less conflict.
The Recipe for Addiction
So why is this Mind Reading game so addicting? For starters, it reminds us of infancy. Infancy was the one period of our lives where we were incapable of stating what we needed, but the needs we felt were so few in number that mom or mom equivalent could do a good job of guessing what they were and taking care of them. In that state, if our needs weren’t getting met, we just needed to be louder and more annoying until our needs got met. That passive state of having our needs and wants met is pleasant, and there’s not much that can make us feel as deeply known and loved as someone just “knowing” us and meeting our needs.
Plus, having someone guess our needs protects us from the fear that deep down, they don’t love us because we are fundamentally unlovable. If we don’t have to specifically ask for what we need, we won’t ever be flatly refused in a way that would make us feel like we aren’t loved. For many, this fear of being refused and unloved is so significant that we’d rather not have our needs met than discover that the other person would refuse to meet them. Just hoping that the other will magically read our minds feels a lot safer.
Thirdly, when we are the guesser and we guess correctly, the other person’s enthusiastic response can make us feel so powerful, wise, and loving that for a moment, we feel heroic. Because we anticipated the need before they asked, we didn’t have to listen to the need we didn’t really want to meet, and then have to meet it because of a committment to the other person. Seeing a need, deciding of our own free will to meet it, and then getting praised for it is much more fun than lovingly responding to a request we’re not fond of.
When Guessing Doesn’t Pay
When it works, Mind Reading is so rewarding that we're drawn to it. The only reason to quit is that, as with any kind of gambling, sooner or later it doesn’t pay. Adult needs are a lot more complicated than infant needs. Our loved ones aren’t going to guess our needs correctly a lot of the time. That means if we’re scared to ask for what we need, our needs are likely to go unmet.
Over time, we’ll likely start fussing and throwing tantrums rather than stating our needs because, hey, that’s how it worked with mom! Why shouldn’t significant others respond in the same way? Meanwhile, our loved ones are doing the same to us and we are living together in passive-aggressive tantrum city.
Mind Readers Anonymous: A Five-Step Need-Meeting Program
What would it look like to play a lower-stakes, better odds game with a lot more payoff? It would probably start with the five-step program of Mind Readers Anonymous:
Step One: Admit that there is no way we can read our loved ones’ minds all the time, but that we love them enough to do our best to rise to the occasion if they will state their needs and wants to us.
Step Two: Admit that the fact that another person cannot figure out what we are thinking does not mean that they don’t love us. If, over time, they continue to do what they can to meet the needs we tell them about (with reasonable tolerance for fluctuations in moods, seasons of life, etc.) that means they love us. Period. None of this ESP stuff.
Step Three: Get more familiar with what it is that you and your partner need and want. Start by making a specific, measurable list of the things you need on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis to feel loved, plus a list of surprises you’d like your partner to do for you sporadically. Share your lists with your loved ones as loving requests for closer relationship, not angry, change-now-or-else demands.
Step Four: Agree to do what you can to meet the needs your loved ones shared, with sporadic surprises exactly as they asked you. Over time, this reinforces direct requests and assures you that you are indeed loved and that your needs will not be ignored.
Step Five: As you and your loved ones transition into this new way of loving and receiving love, resist the temptation return to Mind Reading “heroics” or to prod your partner back into guessing your needs by throwing passive tantrums instead of restating your needs to them. Instead, keep telling yourself and your loved ones that love works best when everyone takes responsibility for making their needs clearly known and for doing their best to meet others needs or to assure loved ones that they are loved.
This can be hard, hard work. It may require a lot of change. But, if you can swing it, it’s not like gambling. It really pays off.