Some People Don’t Understand It’s Possible for Others to Think Differently Than They Do

a drawing of two heads facing one another. The one on the left has a gray brain. The one on the right has a rainbow brain
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

Not everyone thinks the way you think, knows the things you know, believes the things you believe, nor acts the way you would act.

Remember this and you will go a long way in getting along with people.

-Arthur Forman

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My ex-husband had a really hard time understanding this, that it was possible for other people to view the world differently than he did.

He could accept that people formed and expressed different opinions than he did. Because after all, that was kind of hard for him to ignore. Especially ones he found painfully misguided or just plain wrong.

But he always assumed that when they formed those opinions that they went through essentially the same process that he did. Only they had some kind of other ulterior motive that was causing them to come to a different conclusion. Or at the very least, to express that different conclusion aloud.

To his thinking, usually his differences with people revolved around their not being different from him but instead possessing some kind of innate character flaw like cowardice or the predisposition to lie to themselves.

His understanding of how other people worked didn’t leave much room for variation. It didn’t allow for people to have radically different inner processes for emotional regulation and problem-solving.

To have different inner lives.

And for these internal differences to also manifest externally in an honest way.

No, in his mental model, people who disagreed with him were either lying to him, themselves, or both.

Predictably this caused of a lot of misunderstandings between us. Pretty much constantly. He’d been bullied as a child, so trust came hard to him and was also easily broken. And it was so easy to “break his trust” just by being me. Without even lying or misleading him.

Any time I did something he deemed odd, I found myself under his scrutiny. Whenever there were differences between the two of us. Like how he’d become angry and cry out when I’d accidentally lie down on his long hair, where I barely registered it when he did the same to me.

Or the time he’d discovered my feet were a mess after we’d been dancing together for a while. He was stepping on my toes, but I was having too much fun to notice, and he became incredibly upset, not able to understand that I wasn’t passive-aggressively keeping it from him to use as ammunition later somehow (the only way he could make sense of the situation) but legitimately didn’t notice.

He was so angry then, arguing with motives I didn’t have. And I wasn’t sure how to resolve an argument like that, one that he wasn’t having with me.  One where he was shadowboxing his own feelings projected onto me.

A person with a decent theory of mind would have understood it’s not that unusual for people to vary in terms of pain tolerance.  But my ex-husband was completely baffled by this. He instead chose to believe that I was lying to him about the level of my pain (or lack thereof) in order to compete with him somehow. Prove some kind of point. Emasculate him.

I’m sure it was really something for him to watch after we opened up our marriage and I found my way onto the kink scene. I don’t know how he explained it to himself.

In any event, I seemed to be constantly mystifying him. Not just in terms of pain tolerance but in a myriad of other ways.

Theory of Mind

Theory of mind is a person’s ability to understand and interpret emotional and mental states of both themselves and others — and importantly, the ability to distinguish between their own mental states and those of other people’s.

A person with a poor theory of mind doesn’t grasp that other people have rich inner lives that are very different from theirs.

Deficits in theory of mind have been linked with a number of conditions (for example, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, psychosis, etc.), but poor theory of mind can also be found in individuals without these diagnoses. Folks who are otherwise quite socially adept and organized in their thinking can nonetheless tend towards a very insular perspective of how other people’s minds operate.

The Inner Life of the Person You Love Might Be Radically Different Than Yours

Like anything, there are degrees. And it can be easy, especially in emotionally heated moments, to lose track of the fact that your thoughts and emotions aren’t shared by everyone else. You might think something is obvious or objectively true, but that isn’t necessarily how the person next to you feels. And assuming that this is the case can many times lead you astray.

It really starts by leaving the space for someone else’s inner life to be radically different than yours. Even someone you adore.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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