We are pleased to bring you this regular column by Dr. David Creel, a licensed psychologist, certified clinical exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. He is also credentialed as a certified diabetes educator and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017).
Do you have a weight loss question for Dr. Creel? Email him at [email protected]. He may answer your question in a future column.
Assuming we know what other people are thinking can get us into big trouble. This fallacy of thought can fuel racism, perpetuate neighborhood feuds, lead to social anxiety, result in road rage, and contribute to disintegrating marriages. When we try to read another person’s mind we’re often wrong—but we act on those beliefs anyway. If my wife lets me oversleep because she knows I’m extra tired, I might “read her mind” and decide she let me oversleep to prove a point about my inability to set an alarm. This could lead to an argument over nothing.
The hard part about mind reading is sometimes we get it right, which reminds us to keep doing it. We remember the times we assumed correctly and tend to forget the times we guessed wrong.
Mind reading can obstruct weight management by causing anxiety and concern over what others think about us. Thinking this way can result in self-imposed pressure to prove something to a boss, sibling, spouse, or co-worker. As a result, we may eat to help relieve the stress caused by these feelings — or we may lose focus on weight-related goals.
Mind reading can directly impact health behavior if we make assumptions about what others think about our size, what we eat, or our competence using exercise equipment at the gym.
At our initial session I had asked Tara if she’d be willing to keep a food journal so we could review it a week later. As we began our second session, I asked how things had gone the previous week. Tara was polite but a bit jittery as we sat three feet apart with a round table between us. Every minute or so she pulled at the front of her shirt to prevent it from conforming to the body she’d grown to hate. She had kept a food and activity journal using an app on her phone, but it remained tucked in her purse, which was on the floor near her feet. As I began to ask specific questions about eating and exercise, she again picked at her shirt.
“I know you’re going to think this is just an excuse but we had out-of-town guests this week and I didn’t follow the plan very well.”
As I tried to reassure her that my role was to help, not judge, I asked if I could take a look at her food journal. She leaned over, picked up her large purse, and began to rifle through it.
“You must think I’m really disorganized. I know my phone is in here,” she said. Finally, she pulled out the phone and a crumpled tissue fell on the table. “I’m sorry, that’s embarrassing.”
“It’s okay, really — if I had a purse I can only imagine what might fall out of it,” I said, hoping to help her feel at ease.
She quickly stuffed the tissue back in her purse and set the phone near her body at the edge of the table. She looked down at her phone, rubbing her thumb back and forth on the screen trying to clean it.
“Before you look at this, I just want you to know that I’m not lazy and I know I shouldn’t eat this way. I’m sure all of you guys eat well and exercise — but I’m just not there yet. You probably think I’m not going to do well because I’ve already messed up and it’s only the first week of the program.”
“Tara, I honestly haven’t made any assumptions about you and how you’re going to do in the program.” I paused, hoping she would look up from her phone. When she didn’t, I gently placed my hand flat on the table only inches from her. I leaned forward and tilted my head to the side in hopes of lifting her gaze toward me. She looked up. “I’m just glad you’re here and willing to allow me to work with you on some of the things you’re struggling with. I assure you, none of our diets are perfect and nobody exercises every day for months on end,” I said, before I pulled my hand back to my side of the table. “If you don’t want me to look at your food journal right now that’s okay. We can do that some other time.”
Tara took a deep breath and then agreed to let me see the records. She logged into her app and handed me her phone. She squirmed in her chair and quickly pulled her shirt away from her body.
Tara’s anxiety was clearly related to mind reading. She made assumptions about what I believed about her, and that would interfere with treatment until I, and the rest of the team, could establish trust. I’ve worked with many people who think like Tara — people who won’t go to a gym or walk outside because they know what others will think of their size; or clients who practice tremendous restraint with eating around others because of similar fears of what people will think if they see an overweight person eating something unhealthy. Of course this restraint can’t be maintained, and when the person is alone the wheels fall off.
The fact of the matter is: We don’t know what others are thinking. To be honest, at times I don’t even know what I’m thinking myself. Things tend to jostle around in my head like a pinball machine. If I can’t tell you exactly what I’m thinking, how can someone else know what’s going on inside my head?
One way to deal with mind reading is to simply let go of assumptions. By definition, an assumption means you don’t have proof to support your belief. You are guessing. Is it really worth getting worked up over a guess? Another approach is to broaden your speculations about what others are thinking by using a variety of may statements. When we expand our guess it’s important to include opposing perspectives. If your mind reading keeps you from the gym because you believe people think you don’t belong there, you might tell yourself: “The buffed up guy may be thinking I don’t know what I’m doing, or he may be thinking way to go, or he may be thinking about the size of his biceps and have no idea I’m even around.”