Little does she know that I know that she knows that I know she’s two-timing me.

Do any of you remember the 1976 track from the Kursaal Flyers?

I have been thinking about “Theory of Mind”.  This is our ability to recognise the perspective of another person and to understanding that that may not share the same knowledge, thoughts and feelings as we do.  For example: if we see there are two boxes, A & B, and we see a boy and a girl hide some chocolate in box A; but then the boy leaves and while he is gone the girl switches the chocolate to box B . In this situation we expect, that upon his return, the boy will believe that the chocolate in still in Box A… i.e. his perspective is not the same as that of the girl or of ourselves (the observer). There is quick explanation of Theory of Mind here.

Now, being able to “read the thoughts of other”, appreciating that they may have a different understanding of a situation to ourselves, allows us to predict their actions – and similarly, we may look at someone’s actions and infer what their understanding or beliefs about a situation may be. If John leaves his home with an umbrella, we can infer that he believes that it may rain even though we have seen a sunny forecast and that there is no cloud in the sky.  So Theory of Mind does not (necessarily) deal with truth or reality… it deals with our ability to understand what feelings, thoughts or beliefs other people may be experiencing.

Tests show that children develop the ability demonstrate a grasp of Theory of Mind at about 4 years old – it is verbal reasoning; (but interestingly there have been tests that monitor emotional reactions to situations – like “surprise” – that suggest that younger children have some kind of Theory of Mind yet they will give the wrong verbal answer when asked to think about it).

Theory of Mind is beautifully explained by Professor Uta Frith of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London here .

Theory of Mind is important in the study of Autism. It is commonly thought that people on the autistic spectrum lack empathy – yet in many cases their empathetic abilities are intact but they do lack “Theory of Mind”.  This means that they are unable to understand, second by second, the viewpoints of others (i.e. their understanding, worries, objectives, aspirations etc) and so they are unable to respond appropriately to such concerns.  This makes “reciprocal conversation” very difficult; they cannot infer from peoples’ reactions what others may feel or know as a conversation goes on.  Further, it can mean that people with autism may not comply with social norms in conversations – failing to understand that some statements may cause offense or may be upsetting or shocking to the person they are talking to.  Further, most of us are prepared to tell “white lies” to put people at ease or to avoid being offence – “how was your meal?” – “Delicious!” – yet those without Theory of Mind will not do so.

So, for most of us our Theory of Mind – our ability to “mentalize” i.e. to “mindread” what others may be thinking – is completely natural and instinctive. Yet thinking about Theory of Mind made me wonder if, in the same way that some people have an impaired ability to mentalize, then some people might have a  “super” Theory of Mind ability – i.e. to be able to put together all kinds of clues from a person’s behaviours or statements and experiences so that they may automatically (without thought) become aware of exactly what feelings someone may have, what actions someone may take or even the questions that are about to ask… in the short term and even in the longer term.

Before closing I would add that if this post has attracted those with an interest in autism then there is significant research that mindfulness practice can be a real benefit to those with autism and for those caring for people with autism – both to reduce anxieties and to improve social interaction through focus and an enhanced ability to pause rather than reacting instinctively. For example:   or

Burnout in Big Consulting and Accounting Organisations

A recent piece in the FT highlighted the increase in burnout amongst junior staff in professional services companies: “Junior lawyers and consultants are warning they are suffering burnout after working longer hours in isolation during the pandemic, sparking fears of an exodus from the biggest global law and advisory firms.  Soaring demand for legal and corporate advice during the Covid-19 crisis and a global shift to remote working have resulted in a growing mental health problem among younger professional workers, according to senior partners.” (Here)

We are talking about the big audit firms, management consultancies, corporate lawyers and investments banks – where there is often a culture of working to deadlines – whatever it takes.  The FT mentions that recently, a group of first-year analysts at Goldman Sachs told management they had been working an average of 95 hours per week and suffering from insomnia and anxiety. More widely, this trend is causing fears of an exodus from the biggest global law and advisory firms.

The key signs of “approaching burnout” are insomnia and anxiety along with irritability, emotional swings and restlessness.  Yet many junior workers in these organisations may feel unable to say that cannot meet deadlines – and it is worth noting that internally, such organisations are often very competitive: if you get the promotion, then I don’t.

Let’s be curious and stand back.

The World Health Organisation identifies “burnout” specifically as a “workplace issue”:  officially described as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”:

“It is characterised by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Key symptoms of burnout include fatigue; increased anxietyLack of motivation; lack of self-care and the emergence of severe health issues: typically, symptoms may start with back pain, migraines and eye-strain or feeling like you’re drowning in your workload and have led to strokes and even heart attacks for some business professionals who refused to seek help.

It is no surprise that studies on burnout often identify a lack of autonomy as being a feature of environments with a lot of burnout.

Worse – burnout can creep up on you. I expect we all have friends and family who have suddenly suffered from “adrenal breakdown” or from the symptoms listed above – and the onset of such symptoms can often come as a shock… and be bewildering for the sufferer.  Yet a previous post shows (here) that many people significantly over estimate their current level of resilience and so a “burnout episode” can strike from out of the blue.  Worse, I have watched friends in high performing jobs start to suffer from such symptoms and then compound the situation by adding anxiety as they start to experience self-doubt and wonder how that can continue to earn at their current rate given how they feel… what will be the impact on their lifestyle and loved ones?  For many, it may be the first time that that have to admit to themselves, let alone anyone else, that they are not invincible.

The Rezl Toolbox has a tutorial and a mediation to help people to deal with stress in a mindful way:

“I am able to pause, to take stock and to set aside intractable issues   …such as thoughts of unresolvable situations or of anxieties about the future – as these are not helping me right now! I can set aside low priority issues for now. I can show myself self-compassion and understanding.   I can say that this is my experience right now – yet it won’t always be so”.

“I am self-confident… so that I can seek the views and support of others.”   This is so important. Better to be open and to seek support; and for expectations to be reset… giving a feeling of relief.

“I can prioritise the things that require my focus – which may include getting help or resetting expectations…. so that I have the time to resolve the current situation; so that I have a clear way forward and so that I can focus on each task ahead.  All these actions are available to me.   Some involve sharing.  In most cases, the instinct to keep things “bottled up” or hidden just makes things worse and ensures that the situation may be repeated over and over. “

Please get in contact if you would like to try it.