You are your behaviors, not your intentions.
Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh. Perhaps it’d be more accurate to say: to other people, you are your behaviors, not your intentions.
It’s an inconvenient fact, I’ll grant you, made unavoidable by the fact that we human beings are ill-equipped to read minds.
Now, I realize this comes as a shock to a subset of my readers, who seem thoroughly convinced that they can, in fact, read minds.
For that matter, if often seems to be the case that people assume they know whats going on inside other peoples’ heads. They form judgments about what motivates other people; they leap to conclusions about what other people want or need; sometimes they’re so confident in their abilities that they actually label themselves “psychic” or “telekinetic.”
(Because labels make things more official and convincing, see.)
A lot of us put a lot of stock in our non-existent ability to read others’ minds.
This leads, of course, to a lot of us feeling misunderstood and invisible when other people shockingly fail to accurately discern our intentions, motivations, or needs.
I’ll ruin the suspense: you can’t read other peoples’ minds. Even if it really, really, really feels like you can. Even if you feel SO SURE you know what they’re thinking: you don’t.
What you can do, however, is observe other peoples’ behaviors, and form hypotheses about what’s going on in their heads.
Taking educated guesses as to what other people are thinking, feeling, and needing— that’s a good thing, an adaptive thing. That’s a thing that requires sensitivity to others’ reactions and cues, it requires us to pay attention to other peoples’ contexts and histories, it requires us to hone our ability to observe and ask “what if.”
Observation and the generation of hypotheses are at the core of this wacky thing we call the “scientific method.”
Thing is, though? We can’t allow ourselves to get too attached to our own hypotheses. Once we decide that a hypothesis is true, because we’ve decided its sufficiently supported by the data we have available, and we stop trying to test that hypothesis? Then we’re no longer scientists.
What differentiates science from superstition is the willingness to keep questioning, even those things we’re pretty sure are true.
The thing is, just like we can’t read other peoples’ minds? They can’t read yours, either.
Understand, they, just like you, think they can read your mind— but what they’re really doing is exactly what you’re doing: they’re observing your behavior and making inferences.
Those inferences may be accurate or wildly inaccurate, because—here’s another thing some people may have difficulty swallowing— sometimes, for whatever reason, our behaviors don’t match up with our intentions.
I KNOW. Blows your mind, right?
But, like it or not, in the absence of actual mind-reading ability, all any of us have to go on in understanding other peoples’ motivations, intentions, needs— that is to say, understanding other people? Is their behavior. What they say (communicating is a behavior), what they do, what they don’t do— that’s the entire body of data we have to work with.
It’s also the only data other people trying to understand you have to work with.
All of which is to say: if you don’t wish to be misunderstood, unfairly and inaccurately judged, held responsible for things you don’t actually think, need, want, or intend? Then it’s really important to take your own behavior seriously.
What does your behavior communicate to the world about who you are? What motivates you? What’s important or unimportant to you? What signals are you sending by what you say and do— or what you refrain from saying and doing?
We can’t read minds. So when we’re trying to understand other people, or other people are trying to understand us, we’re gonna get it wrong sometimes. It’s inevitable— it’s going to happen. We can’t keep misunderstandings from happening.
What we can do is do everything we can to make sure our behavior is aligned with who we really are and what we really want.
Which just so happens, not incidentally, to be the basis of genuine self-esteem.