Relationships work because we have some sense, some model, of how the people we are in relationship think and feel.
Researchers call this Theory of Mind (ToM). It is a theory because we can never know exactly what someone else is thinking or feeling — heck, even they aren’t always sure of that — but it is a working hypothesis that we improve with time and experience. We use it to make assumptions and then correct those assumptions as we get feedback, learn how to better model the mind of the other person.
Humans aren’t born with Theory of Mind, rather we learn to create this theory as we grow, develop, mature. We get the basics, it seems, then we have to work at it.
For some people, especially people on the Autism Spectrum, Theory of Mind comes with more difficulty. They have trouble understanding their own thoughts and feelings, have trouble understanding others.
I had parents with weak ToM, and they had no help to give their kids in building ToM. I lived in egocentric chaos.
It was clear to me that life would be better if I had a model I could use to understand how others around me would respond, especially because their response was often either angry & upset or sweet & clueless.
From an early age, I used my brain — the one that had me reading Time magazine at age 4 — to build my own, detailed Theory of Mind. From that day to now, my goal to find a complete ToM has been intense and compulsive, as anyone who has ever read one of these deeply rational, introspective and analytical blog posts can attest.
It has been pointed out to me over the decades, though, that I seem to spend too much time trying to figure out what other people think and then using that theory of mind to modulate myself down to not challenge them.
“Why do you care so much about what other people think?” has been the comment, which I find kind of weird. I really don’t care what other people think — I was the one who withstood having my fifth grade class vote unanimously that I was wrong when Miss Hanen wanted to silence me — but I do care that I don’t set people off. Having my mother explode, you see, was the core emotional experience of my life.
I knew I couldn’t placate her, so I didn’t try, which is why I became the target patient in the family, the one who got dumped on as being the cause of all problems, but I could manage her, which I did until she died, a year and a half ago. I learned to manipulate, at least until my mid 30s when Christine taught me that was a dead end, a bad thing.
My experience of the world has been, therefore, much more theoretical than practical. Understanding the theory, especially the Theory of Mind, was much more central to me than just getting out into the world and trusting that I just had to follow my heart and the right people would find me.
I overdosed on Theory of Mind. I had to have enough for my whole damn family, so, at least on this topic, I showed my own virtuosity by overachieving in this area I understood was crucial from a very, very young age.
It would, I know now, have been better if I used my mind and my energy for other accomplishments, but when you are living in a minefield, learning how to dance seems like the only priority, or at least the only one you have enough energy for.
There is no recovery program for Theory of Mind junkies, those of us who just fell down the rabbit hole of trying to suss out what everyone else is thinking rather than just creating our own stories.
Theory of Mind is not a bad thing. Like so many other skills, in proper proportion and balance, healthy relationships and shared understanding comes out of robust and developed Theory of Mind.
Overdosing on ToM, though, leaves you cautious, reactionary, reserved and isolated from your own beating heart. It is the cost of those adultified early, those who had to put aside their own blossoming childhood to attend to and protect themselves from people who were too lost in their own anger and pain, those who demanded that everything be about them.
My ToM is at the core of my survival skills, developed to keep me safe and grounded. Like any gift, though, it is also my curse. at the moment leaving me theory bound and isolated.
I had to have enough Theory of Mind for my whole family, and then, as a transperson, for my whole world.
At this point, that feels like quite an over dose.