Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Mind Reading and Resentment

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Seeing the Worst in People

Many of us carry around a lot of resentment and hostility towards intimates in our lives and it’s not just due to the tangible behaviors they enact that we believe to be unjust. In fact probably more important than the behaviors themselves are the thoughts and motivations we believe are behind these behaviors. We begin to draw up a psychological picture and the picture is grim. We see these people as cold, callous, uncaring, cruel, jealous, spiteful, evil, etc. We see the very worst in them and then take it for granted that their behaviors stem from those bad thoughts and qualities. We use imagined internal motivations as justification for our resentment and hostility.

What we’re falling victim to in these cases is the faulty thinking pattern called mind reading, which is where we’re sure of the thoughts and motivations of those around us despite little or no evidence to prove it.

Discovering the Real Motivation for Destructive Behavior

The strategy most of us employ in order to lower that sense of resentment and hostility is to forgive the person we feel has wronged us for the concrete behavior. But a better way, one that leads to mutual understanding, is to actively challenge our own mind reading and at least consider the possibility that the behavior we’re upset about sprung from less destructive thoughts and motivations than we are imagining. That behavior could be the result of deep suffering, or wrong perceptions, or the feeling of having been wronged, or any number of other possibilities.

The fact is we don’t know, we just think we know. While the behavior was destructive it may have sprung from a desire to be productive. We won’t know unless we ask the right questions. And at any rate very few people, if any, believe themselves to be the villains in their life dramas. Powerful rationalizations are put into place to protect the psyche from that responsibility, so that most go about their daily lives feeling more or less justified for the words and actions that have had a negative effect on others. When we can at least make room for other possibilities rather than automatically landing on highly destructive imagined thoughts and behaviors, our resentment and hostility start to make way for compassion and understanding. And that helps us, even if nothing else changes about the situation, because it’s a real burden to carry around resentment and hostility, this burden negatively colors our lives and relationships even when the people we’re directing our resentment and hostility towards are nowhere in sight.