Read an Excerpt
When He Says "Tomato," You Hear "I Hate You"
You Hear "I Hate You"
James and Anna are on a dinner date. The restaurant is cozy, the food delicious, and the conversation effortless. Everything is going very well, until James looks at his watch.
ANNA (warily): Going somewhere?
JAMES (slightly bemused): No, just checking the time.
ANNA: If you need to go...
JAMES: No, I really just wanted to see the time.
ANNA: Let's get the check. I need to be up early tomorrow.
JAMES: Are you sure? The caramel ice cream they serve here is out of this world.
Anna shakes her head. Exasperated, James pays the bill, and they drive home in uncomfortable silence, neither expecting to hear from the other again.
Who hasn't experienced something similar? Everything is going great and then in a flash the mood sinks. You can't quite put your finger on why, but you know what he is saying is not what you want to hear. And that's the thing about dating. Even though it's a great way to spend a Friday night, it also reveals the sometimes enormous gap between what is said by a man and what is heard by a woman and vice versa.
Yet, with a few simple tools, it's easy to crack the code and understand what the opposite sex really means. There are of course key differences in the way that men and women communicate, but both women and men are guilty of Common Thinking Errors (CTEs). These are irrational or erroneous beliefs that we hold about ourselves, another person, or a particular situation. Like when we make wrong assumptions about what other people are thinking and feeling, based on our past experiences. Forexample, your ex-boyfriend used to make fun of the size of your ankles, so when your new boyfriend praises you in jeans you might hear "You look great in jeans because they cover up those hideous ankles."
The point is that our thoughts are integral to the way that we relate to a situation emotionally. First we think, and then we have an emotional reaction based on that thought. Returning to the earlier example, when Anna saw James looking at his watch, she assumed he wanted to leave. Makes sense in her mind, since that was the way she got out of boring situations at parties: Look at your watch, say you're tired, and then excuse yourself. It never occurred to her that just because this was the way she did things it didn't necessarily mean that it was the way that her date did them. We're all guilty of this bias because making sense of the world means learning how to categorize like things. As babies we figure out that four-legged animals that go woof are all dogs. As women we figure out that two-legged mammals that wolf whistle as you walk by are all...you get the picture. We group things because it allows us to understand them more easily.
This strategy of remembering the past to help make decisions about the future does make sense in a lot of ways. Imagine eating a pretty red berry from the forest that promptly made you sick. It's important that you remember this in order to avoid being sick from red berries in the future. Now imagine a young, blond corporate lawyer with a southern drawl who broke your heart. Consciously or not you will begin to categorize features like "lawyer," "blond," and "southern drawl" to potentially mean things about other people and the way they will treat you. This type of irrational thinking extends not only to features of previous boyfriends but to messages that we received from others growing up. From your mom to the class bully, each and every one of your interactions will have to a lesser or greater degree affected the way you react toward the world around you. They're the origins and unwitting triggers of divisive Common Thinking Errors. Understanding and being able to contend with these CTEs is vital if you are going to be able to really hear and accurately interpret the words of others.
The first step in being able to tackle CTEs is being able to recognize them. Let's examine the six most common mistakes and remember that these errors are at the core of everything we discuss in the upcoming chapters:
1. All-or-nothing thinking. You think in complete extremes. Either he tells me he loves me or our relationship is doomed or If he hasn't asked me on a second date by Tuesday, I'm never answering his calls again. Now this is all very well and good, but the man in question doesn't have a copy of your rule book, so he has no idea that this is what you want. Who decided that this was the best criterion by which to judge a relationship? Where did your "rules" come from? He can't mind-read any more than you can, and thinking in extremes just creates ridiculously high expectations that no one can match. And usually only one person gets hurt by the outcome: you.
2. Maximizing the negatives. You only take notice of the downside of the situation. So what if he's the love of your life and he's reliable, handsome, and kind? He was standoffish with your mother last week and didn't want to go to your great-aunt's birthday party, so he must hate everyone in your life, and eventually he'll start to hate you too. The point is, if you are biased to see things in a negative way then you are much more likely to focus on the one negative point while ignoring everything else that would give you a more balanced view of the situation.
3. Making everything about you. You feel responsible for things that have nothing to do with you. He's in a foul mood, it must be my fault. Clearly he's lost interest, and he's trying to push me away so that I'll back off and eventually finish it. Maybe he's in a foul mood because a coworker has messed up and now he'll have to spend the entire weekend sorting it out, when he'd rather be with you. Or perhaps he's tired and just feeling a bit under the weather. Whatever it is, it's important that you recognize that his world, his thoughts, and even his feelings may not always revolve around you. And even though it may upset you to see him down, many times the best thing that you can do is just give him the space to speak to you when he is ready and manage your own anxiety by remembering that his life is filled with a million and one things that have the potential to make him happy or sad. You are one of those things but by no means the only one.
4. Jumping to conclusions. You reach inaccurate conclusions based on insufficient or inadequate evidence. He wants us to join a gym, which means he isn't attracted to me anymore. He thinks I've put on weight and let myself go. It's only a matter of time before he leaves. Men tend to be much more straightforward than women. If he thought that, he would probably tell you. He wants to join a gym because, well, he does. He probably thinks it would be a good, fun way of keeping fit and a way for the two of you to spend more time together. If you immediately jump to conclusions, you never give yourself the chance to make sense of what is really going on. Also if you are going to sit around playing detective, it will eventually get tiresome for your mate. No one wants to be with someone who is constantly trying to unearth his hidden motives.
5. Seeing everything as a catastrophe. You focus on the worst-case scenario and exaggerate the likely consequences. I've burned the romantic meal I planned for tonight. Everything's ruined and the evening will be a disaster. I don't like the dress I've bought either and he probably doesn't want to come here anyway. Slow down! Stop the spiral of doom in its tracks. Look at the facts. All that's happened is the chicken might be extra crispy. But the dessert looks fabulous, your hair is just the way you like it, and he is coming to see you, not the food. It all boils down to perspective. The more anxious you feel, the less perspective you are able to get on a situation. Take a minute to step back and really challenge those negative thoughts.
6. Generalizing the negatives. You exaggerate the memory of an unpleasant experience, which then affects other parts of your present life, even if they are entirely unrelated. A throwaway comment from your ex-boyfriend about how he's not really into blondes turns into My hair looks bad, and if he thinks so, so will every other guy, and I'll end up dying a lonely old woman who never finds love! Now, you know this isn't logical or reasonable thinking. Apart from anything else, "not being into blondes" is shallow, which is your ex's loss. There are millions of men out there with incredibly diverse tastes in women. Stop making huge generalizations about small, meaningless comments. He probably can't even remember saying it!
Can you see how these thinking errors start to affect your behavior and, in turn, the way you live your life? One woman might sleep with every guy who takes her out for a drink because she's established a false belief that sex is the only way to make a guy fall in love with her. Another woman might starve herself for a week before every date, because one guy told her she had "womanly curves." And, in an extreme example, someone may completely avoid dating altogether and close off the option of meeting anyone because she doesn't believe she deserves to find love. Each sounds ridiculous written down, but we're all guilty of this behavior in one form or another. With a few tweaks in the way we listen and interpret what we hear, we can radically change our lives for the better.
Common Thinking Errors don't appear overnight. They develop over years and stay with us, often unchallenged. And once ingrained, they become automatic. You don't even realize the havoc you are causing to your happiness. If you are going to have any chance of dissolving self-defeating CTEs, you must learn to reprogram those automatic negative thoughts with a more constructive strategy:
Identify it. Thoughts give rise to emotions. What am I feeling? Why am I feeling this way? What am I thinking about that is making me feel this way? What am I saying to myself?
Dispute it. Is there an alternative way of seeing things? Am I unfairly biased? What evidence is there for the conclusion I reached?
Tweak it. What would be an alternative way to make sense of things? Can I make my automatic negative thought more balanced? How much do I believe this alternative?
Replace it. Do I feel better now that I am looking at things from a different perspective? Is this other way of looking at things at least a little realistic?
Let it go. Am I ready to have some faith in challenging my established way of thinking? Will I let more rational and positive thoughts help me let go of my negative feelings?
With this strategy, let's return one final time to the opening scenario with James and Anna. Everything was going so well over dinner until James looked at his watch. Let's try it again, but this time with Anna recognizing and challenging her CTEs and responding in a way that allows both her and James to really hear what the other is saying:
James looks at his watch.
ANNA: (Is that a sign he wants to leave? Except we seem to be having a great time, so why would he want to leave? Maybe he is wondering what time it is.) What time is it?
JAMES: Nearly midnight. I can't believe how time has flown. I'm having a great time.
ANNA: (It's later than he thought, so maybe he does want to go. But he did say he's having a great time, as am I.) Me, too. It's too bad we don't have another couple of hours.
JAMES: Well, there's always coffee. And this place has the best caramel ice cream you have ever tasted. We could also go out again next Friday night, if you're free.
ANNA: I'd love to. There's a film opening I really want to see.
JAMES: Great. It's a date.
It's amazing how differently things can turn out with a positive outlook. Instead of jumping to the negative conclusion that James was bored, she remained neutral. She identified that her feelings stemmed from the assumption that he wanted to leave because he looked at his watch. She disputed this assumption (we seem to be having a great time, so why would he want to leave?). She tweaked her line of thinking and replaced it with the idea that he was having a good time. She could then let go of her critical thinking error (he looked at his watch, he's bored, he wants to leave) and focus on what was really happening (he checked his watch and couldn't believe how time had flown!).
This allowed the evening to continue its course and gave James the opportunity to let Anna know how much he enjoyed being with her, without being too vulnerable. Anna had the encouragement from James to build on the idea that they wanted to see each other again, and hello, they've decided to pursue the relationship. And it all stemmed from Anna not imposing preconceived notions upon the simple act of checking the time.
New romantic relationships are remarkably fragile. Like any relationship, they take time to solidify and become dependable. Yes, right from the beginning of a relationship you can count on some awkward conversations, a lot of uncertainty, and a fair share of embarrassment experienced in equal amounts by everyone involved. The trick is to acknowledge that sometimes what we hear has a lot more to do with the way we listen rather than what is being said. We need to abolish the barrier that separates what we are experiencing from how we interpret that experience. It makes all the difference.
In the next chapter we'll examine how our perspective on the world influences our flirting techniques when we first meet someone we're attracted to -- and how to make sure he gets the right message.
TIPS TO REMEMBER
CTEs are inevitable, but you can change them.
Get some perspective before getting upset.
Pause before assuming you know what he is saying. Does he really mean that, or are you just interpreting his words based on past experiences?
CTEs abound. Be aware of your thinking errors. They happen without you even realizing it.
Copyright © 2009 by Linda Papadopoulos