I grew up in a strict authoritarian household where I had very little freedom. It was a house in which you had to ask permission to have a glass of water — because after all, someone had to wash it later.
A promise to be the person who washed the glass wasn’t good enough.
No, there were rules. Everywhere. And following them was mandatory. As was asking for permission for the smallest things.
On top of this lack of autonomy and freedom was another troubling reality: The rules shifted with my mother’s moods. As did the right thing to say, the right thing to do.
There were consequences for guessing wrong. So you always had to ask before doing basically anything.
Further complicating this was the reality that my mother rarely said what she actually meant. She engaged in a lot of relationship testing, frequently inserting hidden challenges into interactions with other people designed to test how much they cared for her. This included her children.
So I grew up carefully monitoring this powerful, mercurial person for two big reasons:
- She was my mother, and because of that, I craved her love, affection, and acceptance.
- She could be dangerous if you upset her.
The Emergence of the Damn “A” Word
It wasn’t until decades after the fact, studying psychology on the road to becoming a researcher and talking about my early life with friends and lovers, that I realized that my upbringing wasn’t normal.
I’d frequently find that I’d share what I thought was a rather humorous vignette from childhood only to look up and see that my listener’s face had a horrified expression on it.
The first time I ever really connected the big ole A word — abuse — to my situation was when a therapist I was seeing for other reasons said it.
“Well, that’s pretty common for people who have had abusive childhoods, that behavior,” she said in one such pause after I’d been off on a tangent about stuff I was struggling with.
“Are you saying I had an abusive childhood?” I asked, stunned.
She looked back at me with a look I interpreted as disbelief.
But at the time, the idea that my childhood could have been abusive was so foreign to me. It was strict, and my mother and I surely warred, but perhaps I had been a difficult child. Perhaps it had been primarily my fault that we hadn’t gotten along.
It was only when she flipped the script around and asked me of my current expectations of the behavior and maturity of children now that I myself was an adult that I began to understand her point.
Responding to Unspoken Expectations
Anyway, thinking of my history in a different way and working on some of the behaviors that came from it that haven’t served me well has provided a number of interesting insights.
One thing I discovered is that I definitely developed a habit of expecting communication to be full of tricks and traps. Sometimes this tendency was actually strongly rewarded by other people. I find I’m pretty good at sussing out unspoken motivations. So when someone is being passive-aggressive or fishing for compliments, I typically pick up on it, even if it’s quite subtle.
In the past, I’d cater to those unspoken expectations. You didn’t even have to say “jump” for me to ask how high. I would just react to the implication, start jumping, and adjust the height of my jump based on your facial expressions.
Sounds pretty good, right? I was never alone. People liked being around me. Trouble was everyone liked being around me, including people who wouldn’t normally like me. Even selfish, despicable people who didn’t really care about me found something to like in me.
And because of a tendency to cater to unspoken expectations, I was frequently caught in difficult interpersonal mind-reading games that could be quite exhausting and demoralizing, in the event that someone decided to try to double bind me in the process.
I Found This Tendency to Expect Unspoken Expectations Unhelpful in Every Context
It’s interesting. This tendency to expect the person I was speaking to wasn’t telling me the whole story caused problems everywhere, not just in my romantic relationships.
For example, it made completing classroom assignments far more dicey than the process should have been.
Although I was a good student, I would often lose points for not following assignment instructions. I frequently would read over what the teacher or professor asked me to do and expect that they wanted something different than/additional to what they asked for.
I figured that was what I was being graded on — my ability to pick up on the “true” assignment.
I usually still received fairly good grades, as what I turned in was quite good. But since I wasn’t following directions and it was typically a different format or scope, I often had points docked.
It seems funny now, but I can see looking back that I didn’t understand why a teacher would ask for what they wanted in a straightforward way and be happy if I did just that. That seemed too easy to get a good grade for. Just doing what you were asked.
Surely, there was a hidden challenge behind it.
I can remember clearly going back to school to become a researcher and just following instructions on the syllabus, although following them well and thoroughly, and earning high marks for it.
Everything clicked into place, and I realized why school had been harder for me before. What had been hidden previously was now clear because I’d just been working through some of those issues and behaviors in therapy the year before, the sessions in which my therapist informed me that I’d had an abusive childhood.
I had been conditioned to view communication as full of tricks and traps. And that was happening to me everywhere. At school, at work, with my friends — and yes, in romantic relationships.
The Mind-Reading Diet
Once I had this realization, I had little other choice but to try to escape this paradigm.
I went cold turkey on mind-reading. Not only did I wean off proactively searching for indirect communication, I also weaned off responding to these kinds of communications when someone employed them, in all areas of my life.
I called this the mind-reading diet: Essentially I began to experiment with taking people at their word, not guessing the meaning behind what they’re saying, not feeding into passive-aggression, not giving fished for compliments, not anticipating unstated needs.
I’m still on that diet. Like any diet, some days I do better than others — but I’m happy to report that overall it has been a very positive change.
Have I lost some people from my life because of it? Yes, I have. I’ve lost friends, even been dumped, because of this choice.
But am I worse for it? No. Life post mind-reading diet is clearly much, much better. I’m largely surrounded in my close social circle by people who don’t play exhausting emotional games.
It’s easy to forget that there are certain times when losing a person can actually be a form of gain.
For example, the one relationship where I was dumped was with an individual who had turned proto-abusive, and I really do feel I dodged a bullet. A very pretty bullet but a bullet nonetheless. So in that case (and in many others), losing that person was a gain, even if it was painful coming to terms with the reality that they weren’t who I thought they were at the outset.
In fact, I’ve found it’s really hard for most people who would do me great harm to get their hooks in me now that I’m privileging direct communication over relationship testing, passive-aggression, and the fished-for response.
And as a result of the mind-reading diet, I really do feel lighter.