In today's interconnected world, our relationships with others play a crucial role in our overall happiness. In fact, research supports that social connections are the true bedrock of our well-being.[i] Whether it's our interactions with family, friends, coworkers, or even strangers, the quality of our relationships can profoundly impact our daily lives.
Relationships are not just about how others treat us or the words they say; they are a two-way street. It's equally important to recognize the power of our own reactions, communication style, and interpretations in shaping our relationships.
Throughout my experience as a therapist, I've had the privilege of working with a diverse range of individuals. One common factor that has emerged is the significant influence of relationships on their ability to recover and find contentment. It’s become evident that our perceptions and mindsets play a pivotal role in either enhancing or undermining our relationships.
Let’s explore three mindsets, or thinking traps, that can have a detrimental impact on our relationships. By understanding and addressing these mindsets, we can foster stronger connections and navigate our relationships with greater empathy, understanding, and open-mindedness.
Mindsets, their effects, and their remedies:
1. The “I Know What You’re Thinking” Mindset:
This is the belief that you can predict what others might be thinking or how they might respond or react at a given moment, without evidence (also known as mindreading).
This is a very easy thinking trap to fall into, especially with those who are closest to us. We might get better at predicting how someone will respond based on past experiences, but can we truly know what the other is thinking? Sometimes we not only assume how they will respond, but also will predict the worse possible outcome.
- Imagine a spouse giving you a certain look and you assume they're angry or disappointed with you. As a result, you respond defensively, leading to an argument. (However, later you realize that the look had nothing to do with your actions, but rather their own worries or concerns)
- You believe that everyone in a group is laughing because of something you said or did, assuming negative judgment from others. (In reality, they might be laughing at a completely unrelated joke or finding joy in a different situation)
- Not choosing a particular topic for an assignment because you already believe it will not be accepted by your teacher
- Making a mistake during a presentation and assuming everyone thinks you’re inadequate
- Not asking a friend for a favor because you think they will say no
Effect on relationships:
According to the late psychiatrist and cognitive behavioral therapy founder Aaron Beck, "Cognitive distortions, such as mindreading and assuming others' thoughts and intentions, can lead to misunderstandings and interpersonal conflict, hindering the development of deep and meaningful connections." [ii] Mindreading not only can lead to confusion but may also keep you from having insightful conversations. It can keep you from giving or receiving what is needed and it keeps you from obtaining a deeper knowledge and acceptance of those you love.
If this sounds like you, here are 5 ways to overcome this mindset:
- Seek clarification: Instead of assuming what others are thinking or feeling, make an effort to ask for clarification. If you find yourself making assumptions about someone's thoughts or reactions, take a step back and ask open-ended questions to gain a better understanding of their perspective.
- Challenge assumptions: Recognize that your mindreading tendencies are based on assumptions, not facts. Remind yourself that you cannot truly know what others are thinking without direct communication. Challenge the validity of your assumptions and consider alternative explanations for their behavior.
- Improve communication skills: Practice active listening and ask for feedback to ensure that you understand others accurately. Encourage open and honest dialogue, allowing individuals to express their thoughts and feelings without making assumptions.
- Check your interpretations: Be aware of any biases or filters through which you interpret others' behavior. Notice if you're attributing negative intentions or assuming the worst without evidence. Challenge your interpretations and strive for a more balanced and objective view of the situation.
- Practice self-reflection: Reflect on your own cognitive patterns and emotional triggers. Explore any underlying insecurities or fears that may contribute to your tendency to mindread. By gaining self-awareness, you can better manage your reactions and make more accurate assessments of others' thoughts and feelings.
2. The False Consensus Effect:
The false-consensus effect was first defined in 1977 by Ross, Greene, and House. They showed that, unlike scientists, “layperson psychologists” (that is, all of us who are put into the position to guess how others would behave) tend to overestimate how many people share their choices, values, and judgments, and perceive alternate responses as rare, deviant, and more revealing of the responders.[iii]
In other words, the false consensus effect is a cognitive bias that leads us to believe that our own opinions, behaviors, and preferences are more common than they actually are. This bias can influence our perceptions of how others will respond or behave in certain situations, and only people who are very different from us would make different choices.
Example: You and your spouse have a disagreement about whether or not to go on a vacation. You strongly believe that going on a vacation is the best decision, and you assume that most people would agree with you. Due to the false-consensus effect, you think that your spouse should naturally share your perspective and that it's obvious to others as well. (However, when you discuss the topic with friends or family, you discover that many of them have different opinions and preferences. This realization challenges your initial assumption that your viewpoint is widely shared, highlighting the impact of the false-consensus effect in distorting your perception of others' perspectives).
Effect on relationships:
Some of the greatest effects of the false consensus effect on relationships are increased misunderstandings and miscommunication, a lack of empathy and acceptance, and difficulty resolving conflict. It can hinder effective communication, prevent genuine understanding of others' perspectives, and impede the ability to find common ground during disagreements.
- Increase awareness: What kind of influence does it have on your thinking? Recognize that your own beliefs, values, and behaviors may not be universally shared. By acknowledging this cognitive bias, you can actively challenge assumptions and be more open to other perspectives.
- Seek diverse perspectives: Listen to others' viewpoints and engage in meaningful conversations with people who have different backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences. This exposure to varied opinions can broaden your understanding and help you realize that not everyone shares your perspectives.
- Practice empathy: Cultivate empathy by trying to understand others’ thoughts, feelings, and motivations. This can help you overcome the assumption that everyone thinks and behaves as you do. Practice active listening, ask open-ended questions, and genuinely seek to understand others' viewpoints to foster empathy and break down the false consensus effect.
- Practice respect and kindness: Just because other people’s opinions, values, preferences, beliefs and habits are different than yours, it does not mean that they are defective or that something is lacking in them.
3. The Rule-Maker Mindset (Shoulds and Musts):
This happens when you impose undue or unrealistic expectations and rules on yourself, others or the circumstances you find yourself in. Sometimes it might come as a protection mechanism, or to give you a sense of control, or even as a positive show of excellence–(perfectionists, beware!)–however the costs might far outweigh the benefits.
- When you think “I should always please everyone and be liked by others in order to be or feel accepted.”
- “I shouldn’t need other’s help.”
- “Others should agree with me about what needs to be done today, and things need to be done exactly how I say they should.”
Effect on relationships:
Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavior therapy, puts it like this: "The rule-maker mindset, characterized by rigid and unrealistic expectations, can strain relationships by creating an atmosphere of constant pressure, lack of trust, and hindered collaboration."[iv] “Should Statements” can potentially turn people off from wanting to communicate or interact with you. They can cause others to feel hesitancy in expressing their honest thoughts and feel like they are walking on eggshells around you. This, in turn, could leave you isolated, anxious, and depressed. The rule-maker mindset also may stifle your opportunities for learning, growth and creativity, as “shoulds and musts” imply rigidity. Take note that it is not necessarily bad or wrong to have rules and structure. The difference here is the “unrealistic” nature of them, which creates unnecessary disappointments and frustrations.
- Challenge your rules by asking yourself these questions:
- Is this rule truly a moral value or need, or is it simply a preference?
- Does this rule trample on someone else’s needs and/or affect their free choice?
- Do I become extremely frustrated, angry or discouraged when my standards are not achieved?
- Will it matter in a day, a week, or months from now?
- Learn to compromise: Recognize that not everything has to be done exactly as you believe it should be. Practice flexibility and openness to alternative approaches and perspectives. Understand that collaboration and compromise are essential for healthy relationships. Seek common ground and find mutually beneficial solutions that accommodate the needs and preferences of all involved.
- Embrace imperfection: Challenge the belief that everything must be perfect or done flawlessly. Understand that mistakes and setbacks are a natural part of life. Embrace the concept of growth and learning from failures. Allow yourself and others the freedom to make mistakes and grow from them. Cultivate self-compassion and extend it to those around you.
- Focus on realistic expectations: Evaluate your expectations and determine if they are realistic and attainable. Set goals that are challenging yet achievable. Consider the limitations and circumstances of yourself and others. Adjust your expectations to align with the reality of the situation. This will help alleviate unnecessary pressure and foster a more positive and accepting environment.
- Practice self-reflection: Take time to reflect on the underlying reasons for your rigid rules and expectations. Explore any fears, insecurities, or past experiences that may be driving these beliefs. Engage in self-examination and seek support from a therapist or counselor if needed. Developing self-awareness can help you identify and challenge irrational or unrealistic thinking patterns.
As we conclude this exploration of mindsets, it is crucial to recognize the significant impact that relationships have on our happiness and life satisfaction. By embracing healthier mindsets and fostering deeper connections, we can unleash the transformative power of relationships and create a life rich in meaning and contentment.
In the end, it’s within our grasp to shape our relationships by choosing empathy over assumption, open-mindedness over false consensus, and flexibility over rigid expectations. Remember, we all have the power to choose how we react, communicate, and interpret the messages we receive in our relationships. Through introspection and intentional effort, we can create a ripple effect of positive change, fostering deeper connections, meaningful conversations, and greater acceptance of those we care about.
Let us embark on this journey of self-awareness and intentional growth, nurturing the bonds that truly enrich our lives and uplift our souls!
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[i] Badri, M. A., Alkhaili, M., et al. (2022). Exploring the Reciprocal Relationships between Happiness and Life Satisfaction of Working Adults-Evidence from Abu Dhabi. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(6), 3575.
[ii] Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. International Universities Press.
[iii] Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The "False Consensus Effect": An Egocentric Bias in Social Perception and Attribution Processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13(3), 279-301.
[iv] Ellis, A., & Dryden, W. (2007). The practice of rational emotive behavior therapy. Springer Publishing Company.