229. Mind-Reading

I once overheard two children arguing. They had just seen a cat, and one of them had lost a cat a few months earlier. She insisted that the one they’d just seen was her cat. I knew it wasn’t, and so did the other child. The argument was becoming quite intense, and I intervened. I said, “You really miss your cat, don’t you?”
That stopped the argument instantly. The child got teary-eyed, and said, “How did you know?” She honestly didn’t have a clue how I could know she missed her cat. She hadn’t told me, and how else could I have found out? Her tone of voice either accused me of sneaking into her thoughts and spying on her, or thanked me for articulating her feeling. Or both. I don’t know; I’m not a mind-reader.
I think we all want a certain amount of privacy and a certain amount of intimacy. Sometimes there’s a conflict between the two, as I think there was in the case of the lost cat. The child may have been a little annoyed that someone had approached her world, but possibly somewhat pleased, too. She was confused. The image of the cat that had just run by may have been swirling around with the image of her own cat, and the image of this person who seemed to be able to read her mind. If I knew what she was feeling, maybe I also knew where her cat was.
The conflict doesn’t end when childhood ends. We all live partly in our own thoughts, and the place where we house those thoughts can be a haven or a prison. When it’s a haven, we either want to be alone there, or invite only the people we trust. And when it’s a prison, we hope that someone will show up to set us free, or we try to find some way to get out on our own.
It’s important to respect the privacy of that world, but it’s also important to let children know they don’t always have to be alone when their thoughts and feelings are hard to handle. There’s no easy formula for figuring out when to do which, but I’ve found a pretty reliable technique: ask. If children or adults want to be left alone, they often know that. I know they also often don’t, but asking conveys respect in a way that can help.
A child or adult can be stuck in a private Hell, and skillful mind-reading, based on listening, thinking, and knowing can enable us to help find a way out. But the wrong approach can make things worse, tightening the bars on the prison, or invading the haven. Sometimes a skilled professional can help; psychology sometimes seems like professional mind-reading.
I’m not saying that you should send your child to a psychotherapist. That should not seem like a drastic thing to do, but often a child or adult just needs someone who listens well enough to hear. And sometimes, for healthy reasons, we just want to be left alone.

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