After some significant challenges (that is putting it mildly) over this past year, I was able to take a serious look at certain things that were clearly not working for me and courageously step into what felt like the fire (and sometimes still does) and try something different. One of those things revolves around communication and learning to live my life inside out.

I had a bit of an epiphany when a trusted confidante gave me a simple directive. What took me by surprise was not the directive, itself, but my completely unexpected response to that directive. The instruction I was given went something like this, “Kristen, I want you, very specifically, to ask for what you need when exactly you need it… like that very moment.” Now, as a psychologist who teaches people to advocate for themselves and to communicate in effective and healthy ways, I thought my response would have been a super cool, “Yeah, of course, I do that all the time. I mean I am an assertive person. I teach other people how to be assertive, for God’s sake.” That, however, was not my response. My response went more like this, “Holy shit, I can do that? That sounds F-ing amazing!!!” Whoa…what was that? I felt an immediate rush of relief, but why?

What I realized, after some serious soul searching, was that I had been given permission to do something I was clearly not giving myself permission to do. This forced me to look at what exactly I was actually doing (which clearly was not asking for what I needed when I needed it) and then figure out how this whole “asking thing” actually works.

Mindreading (trying to and/or expecting others to) is a very dangerous pastime. I think we are all so guilty of this that we don’t even realize how engrained and seemingly normal it becomes in nearly all of our relationships. The time we can waste attempting to read other peoples’ minds is absurd. To make matters worse, we are usually reading the mind of our imagined worst version of that person. We do this not because we are terrible people but because we are hardwired to protect ourselves. This is the heart of the problem, which we will get to in a bit. We also expect others to be able to read our minds just as well as we think we can read theirs. This, I suspect, is an even bigger problem amongst mental health professionals, who likely are better than your average “wannabe mind reader.” I have seriously had several teenage clients tell me I could work for the “freakin’ CIA.” However, whatever mindreading skills we may have developed as therapists, they should never, I have realized, be used in close relationships.

So, what is a better alternative to mindreading? In terms of trying to read other peoples’ minds, … we can, instead (imagine this), JUST ASK!!! Yes, seriously, we can simply ask. We might ask, for example, “ What were you thinking when…?” or “What did you mean by….?” This allows the other person to actually tell us and teach us something about themselves. It can lead to open and honest discussion that connects us and brings us closer. On the other hand, trying to read the mind of the worst version of the person in question will inevitably lead to frustration, shutting down, and disconnection.

In terms of expecting others to read our minds, this is where my confidante’s advice come in. We need to tell others what we need when we need it. Yes, we have permission to do this. Also, the clearer and more specific we can be, the better. We need to ask ourselves, very specifically, what we need from that person to feel connected rather than disconnected. Do we need a hug? Do we need that person to say something different to us or say it in a different way? Get clear and be specific!!!

If you have ever heard the Taylor Swift /Bon Iver duet, Exhile, there is a beautifully melancholic refrain where she is singing from the perspective of the brokenhearted female lover, and he is singing from the, similarly despairing, male perspective. They sing in quick succession of each other, just barely but clearly missing each other, which is reflected in the words they sing…

(B.I.) You never gave a warning sign… (T.S) I gave so many signs
(B.I.) I never learned to read your mind…(T.S.) Never learned to read my mind

If we can communicate openly and honestly, we don’t need to rely on warning signs or mindreading. In fact, these are the things that will result in us missing each other again and again, completing preventing true understanding and connection.

Why is communicating openly and honestly in this way so incredibly hard for us…so hard that it doesn’t even enter our consciousness as a possible option? Because it requires us to walk into the fire of vulnerability, and that is not easy for any of us, but it is absolutely necessary if we want to cultivate healthy communication and relationships. Brene Brown, my new favorite author (sorry, Malcolm Gladwell), is a hardcore researcher on vulnerability and shame. Her books and highly acclaimed TED talks have transformed the way I think about vulnerability and shame. She describes shame as a deep sense of unworthiness (the belief that…We are not enough), and she points to our willingness to bring our sense of shame out into the open (in appropriate ways) as the antidote to it. According to Brown, shining a light on our shame, rather than concealing or hiding it, is the best way to diminish it. However, allowing ourselves to be truly seen and our vulnerabilities exposed requires courage. That’s right, being vulnerable is COURAGEOUS and has the immense potential to bring us closer to others than we ever thought possible.

For me this process has been like turning myself inside out. Whenever my instinct is to shut down and protect myself, no matter how hard it is, I try to do the exact opposite. I openly and honestly express what is going on inside my head, ask questions if I have any, and ask for what I need… as specifically as I can. Regardless of the nature of the relationship, this process always moves me toward learning, growth, and connection.

So, I encourage you to try to catch yourself if you are doing any mindreading or becoming frustrated when others are unable to read your mind or heed the signs you think you are so clearly providing. Be brave and try something different. Regardless how vulnerable you may feel, step into the fire and try turning yourself inside out.