An essential part of being human (and in fact of being a primate) is what psychologists call “theory of mind,” which is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intentions, desires, plans, knowledge, thoughts, and so on—to others. When you have to give bad news to someone, for example, you know that they may become upset, and you take this into account in the way you talk to them. If you’re explaining something to another person you may anticipate certain questions they might ask. This is you employing a theory of mind.
This is such a basic part of our lives that we don’t give it a second thought, but that in itself can become a problem, first because sometimes our assumptions about what other people are thinking are wrong, and second because our faulty assumptions can end up causing us to suffer.
For example, my hair has been thinning for years, and for a while I assumed that people would judge me for having hair loss. I imagined them finding my receding hair ugly or ridiculous. And yet, when I started to question that assumption, I realized that when I met men who were much balder than I am I didn’t give it a second thought. In fact, often I would think of them as looking perfectly normal. In many cases a totally bald head would be striking, good-looking, impressive, and cool! So I was able to correct my initial, faulty, theory of mind, and replace it with one that’s more accurate.
This kind of fear regarding our appearance is very common. We obsess about the size and shape of our noses, our chins, our ears, about the texture of our skin, our weight, and so on. Most of the assumptions we make are negative: we assume that others are judging us.
Now there certainly is a lot of judgement in the world, and some people are very prone to judging others, but we tend to assume that people in general are much more harsh and judgmental than they really are. This causes us to suffer.
Now as I’ve said, having a theory of mind is an important skill. It’s one that develops as we mature. The problem comes in when we don’t check to see if our assumptions are correct: when we make an assumption (especially a negative one) about what someone’s thinking and then remain convinced we are correct without checking to see if that’s the case.
Psychologists use the term “mind-reading” to describe our tendency to make unquestioned assumptions of what others are thinking.
Often we go around, apparently convinced that we have an infallible knowledge of what others think, feel, and believe, as if we think we have mind-reading abilities. I can think of times I haven’t asked someone for help because I’ve assumed they’d say no. Mind-reading! I’ve sometimes assumed that people who behave in a friendly way to me secretly don’t like me. Mind-reading! I’ve jumped to the conclusion, with no evidence, that certain people find me boring. Mind-reading!
Mind-reading exacerbates our tendency to freak out because we’re intensely social creatures who feel safe and happy when we’re accepted by others. When we’re rejected or judged — or when we assume we’re being rejected or judged — then we suffer anxiety and depression. So it’s good if we learn to recognize our own mind-reading and question the assumptions we’ve been making about what others think.
The antidote to mind-reading is what the Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn called “don’t-know mind.” Seung Sahn encouraged us to drop opinions and assumptions, and to accept not-knowing. This is a very deep practice that can take us all the way to spiritual awakening, but one very basic application of this principle is simply to recognize when we’re jumping to conclusions.
So keep watching your thoughts. Notice when you’re attributing thoughts and judgements to others. Realize that this is not knowledge, but simply your own fear that you’re projecting onto others.
Ask yourself: “Can I be absolutely certain I know what this person is thinking?”
Now you’re in “don’t-know mind.” And from there, you can either just drop your assumptions of what others are thinking or check in with them to find out what’s really going on.
Drop the mind-reading, and you’ll find you’re less prone to freaking out.