Therapists like to say things like “you can’t read someone else’s mind” when dealing with their patients. But that’s not entirely true. We can guess – and sometimes guess pretty well.
The conceptualization of the other – holding a model in your head of everyone else you interact with – is something practically all humans do. Given limited data, we extrapolate what is really going on inside the other.
Often, the main source of that data is ourself. The concept of “A thief believes everyone steals” is an indication of a poorly developed ability to imagine someone not like themselves. Likewise, a boy who presumes that silence – or the lack of a phone call – means that someone doesn’t like you indicates something about the view of themselves. (Sorry about that – and you know who you are, even if you’re not reading this blog.)
Still, this model holds within it the possibility that one can build a pretty accurate model of other people. It’s just pretty rare.
My son recently decided he wasn’t going to do schoolwork. To him, this was simply a matter of personal consequences. My wife, however, took it personally – as an attack on her. This startled and surprised my son. That simply wasn’t something he would have thought of, and his “Mom-model” was basically a second instance of himself with a different “skin” on it. (Okay, ew, but you know what kind of skin I mean. Right?)
This kind of behavior – a non-reflective assumption that other people are mostly like oneself – is the norm. This can be dangerous: when presented with someone outside that norm, then it’s very easy and tempting to label them as other than human. As completely other, as varalese.
What we need is an ability (and training) to understand and empathize with others. This doesn’t mean agree with them – my son still better do his schoolwork – but to at least understand the mind that is behind the words. With that understanding, we can try to work together.
Without that understanding, there can only be pointless pyrrhic “for us or against us” conflict… and we know how well that goes.