‘Mindreading’, other people and a cat


Sleeping Cats
Girlcat and brother, blissfully asleep. (I’m not singing.)


I sing sometimes.

Well, alright, singing is actually one of the most important things in my life. When things are flowing, it can be a perfect mix of the physical and the emotional. (Perhaps because when you’re breathing that deeply, you literally get a rush of oxygen to the brain.)

However, I don’t sing particularly well, which has its problems.

Like lots of people, I learned somewhere along the line that there wasn’t really any point in doing things like singing or dancing or acting unless you could do them really well. Those of us who weren’t pretty good from the start began to watch other people’s faces for mockery, contempt, embarrassment… and we generally found it. Maybe it was genuinely there, maybe it was a reflection of our own fears. Either way it was tough to continue putting ourselves out there. Lots of us stopped singing, dancing, acting – which is odd, because these things seem to be fundamental human behaviours. (Though being willing to go on the X Factor must require something extra!)

A few years ago, after a 30 year break, I started singing again – that is, I started to have lessons. (I had done a fair amount of humming in the interim.) I think I was pretty much inaudible to start with, and I was very happy to hide behind the piano accompaniment.

I have gradually got noisier and more opinionated. (Well, I suppose I was always opinionated, I just didn’t say what my opinions were). When the piano stops sometimes and you have to go on singing, all by yourself, I now don’t feel quite so intimidated, and I am a bit more willing to let people see that the music means something to me.

However, I am stillĀ  vulnerable to other people’s opinions – or rather what I think they are.

Even the cat’s.

Our female cat, excitingly named Girlcat, showed great musical promise as a kitten, promenading up and down the piano, apparently enjoying the sounds she made. However, like many young prodigies, she gave up, and at the age of 14, hasn’t played for years.

She retains her keen ear, however, and leaves the room as soon as I start practising. She is polite about it, though, stopping after jumping off the sofa to stretch and then leave slowly, as if it had nothing to do with me screeching.

Prolonged experiment makes me pretty certain that it really is my singing that annoys the cat. (Her brother is either unbothered or too lazy to move.) It took some time to check that out, though.

Which is why I’m always intrigued when a client ‘mindreads’ on the flimsiest of evidence. It happens when people can’t ask what’s really happening…

“They don’t like me/aren’t interested/hate me…” when an email goes unanswered for a day.

“She thinks I’m stupid!” “How do you know?” “You should have seen the look she gave me!”

“I must have upset them.” (They didn’t smile at me in the corridor.)

“My boss hates me.” (She hasn’t said anything nice for a while.)

Perhaps they’re right, and their boss does hate them, their application went straight on the reject pile, the person they fancied doesn’t fancy them back, the strange look they got was because they’d made some social error. And then again, maybe not.

We all ‘mindread’ – that is, make up stories about what’s in other people’s heads. Interestingly, though, many of us choose to make up the worst possible stories, the ones that we most wish not to be true.

Hmm. So we see some behaviour out there in the world, make up the story that will make us most miserable – and then choose to believe it. Sensible, huh?

When this comes up in a coaching session, I often force my client to make up 5 or 6 stories, as different from each other as possible.

This is truly difficult at first. It seems so obvious that their interpretation is the right and only one.

But as they start to think of other possibilities, it becomes easier. And because we tend to have already thought the worst, all the new versions feel nicer. You can see them brighten up.

Then I ask, “Which of these are you going to choose to believe now?” and watch them think about it.

I think there are several things going on here – the process loosens the hold of the nasty story you originally told yourself. Multiplying the possibilities gives you a sense of space in the face of never really knowing exactly what is going on in someone else. And having a choice at the end puts you in a position of power and strength in your own life.

As I say, this starts out as really hard work. But after a few goes, clients start generating multiple stories automatically. If you can’t know what the other person in the situation is really thinking or feeling, you might as well mindread something that pleases you!

Try it for yourself.